Image: Amy Scott

In many ways Kellin McGowan is an average teenager. He listens to Kendrick Lamar, loves Twitter, and binge-watched The Office over the summer. But in other ways, he’s so not. He’s a guy who casually drops New York Times immigration reports into the conversation. Also: after acing 17 honors courses at St. Thomas, spending two years on the speech and debate team, and graduating in May with a 4.57 GPA, he became the school’s first African American valedictorian in its 100-plus-year historyHoustonia caught up with McGowan before he headed off to the University of Chicago, where he plans to major in political science and economics, and asked him for tips and guidance that private school students (and their parents) might find useful.

What was the most challenging part of private high school?

Managing my time. I struggled with that freshman and sophomore years. I had to strategize when I would do my homework—I might do some of it during my study hall or during lunch. I basically always had to make sure I was doing something, so that I would have time for my extracurriculars. 

What would you recommend: focusing on one extracurricular, or doing it all?

Being involved in a variety of activities is important. You can better understand your own interests. I did speech and debate. I was in the National Honor Society and on student council. I was in a club called Eagle Ambassadors, and we would give tours of the school. I was part of our calculus club. ... Student life is just as important as academics. If you’re not fully integrated, your four years will be a lot more difficult. 

When did you start thinking about college?

I didn’t truly start thinking about college until junior year. My mom was the one who forced me to start. I had gone to a couple of informational sessions my sophomore year, but I didn’t really pay much attention. I thought it was far ahead in the future. Our counselors start preparing us for college in our freshman year, though. One of the first things we did was take a career-interest test. 

What was the transition from middle school to high school like for you?

It wasn’t as difficult as it was for some people. Two or three of my friends who I went to middle school with also went to my high school. Academically it was totally different. I went from having about an hour or two of homework to three, or sometimes four, as a freshman. 

You went to an all-boys school. How was that? 

At first it was a little weird. But after a couple of months I didn’t think anything of it. There’s a misconception that if people go to an all-guys’ school, they will never see girls, but there are sister schools. They would come over for lunch, and we had pep rallies. It does make you more focused on academics, and a lot of the guys at my school would say there is less pressure to look your best.

What advice do you have for students who are new to private high school?

When people go to a new setting, they have in their mind a list of things they think they can’t do. A lot of people worry about what other people tell them, but I think we need to worry about what we tell ourselves, and not let ourselves be our own worst enemy. We should all try to develop, within ourselves, this confidence that we can use to navigate the world. 

What advice do you have for the parents of private school students?

Sometimes parents are so adamant in their thinking. They don’t really take the time to understand how their child feels. I recently wrote a scholarship essay, and the question was, “What’s something you wish other generations understood about this generation?” I said that for us being different is okay.  

How did it feel when you were named not only valedictorian, but the first African American valedictorian at St. Thomas?

I knew that I was up there, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting it on awards night. I was proud that after four years of countless hours of homework and sleepless nights that I’d achieved a goal. I don’t want to say that I was striving for it. I just wanted to try my best. But this was the culmination. They recognized me at my church. I didn’t really see the significance of it until a woman and her two sons walked up to me. She made them look in my eyes, and she said, “You can be the valedictorian of whatever high school you go to.” In that moment I realized that to some people in my community, I can be this inspiration, and remind them that they can do whatever they set their minds to.

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