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Southwestern valedictorian to attend Franklin College

Madison Van Gorden, valedictorian at Southwestern High School, will attend Franklin College in the fall to study education. She aims to become an elementary school teacher.

By HANNAH GUNNELL - hgunnell@shelbynews.com

Madison Van Gorden received her last “B” in sixth grade, she said, and it shows. The Southwestern High School valedictorian graduated with a 4.525 GPA.

“I got my first ‘B’ in third grade and I thought it was the worst thing ever,” she said.

But in light of her father’s cancer diagnosis, Van Gorden now knows that a “B” is not the worst thing ever.

“You never think it’s going to hit home, and then when it does, you’re kind of just like, ‘Wow, that was not something I was anticipating,’” she said. “Especially going into senior year. I was kind of like, ‘This is going to be a great year, like you’re getting ready to go to college,’ and then you’re just kind of like ‘Boom!’”

Van Gorden said that there were days where it was harder to focus on schoolwork, but in the end, her father, Mike Van Gorden, wanted her to do well, so she persevered.

“It made me figure out how to work past situations, in a way,” she said. “Because, you know, you can’t just think about that all the time. You kind of still have to do things in your life. You can’t just shut down. So it taught me how to manage my emotions and stuff, and how to put those in check while still doing stuff at school.”

She said she thought that learning how to put things in perspective and keep going before leaving for college would help make the transition easier.

“Before, I would think some small thing was a major catastrophe, and now I just kind of let it roll off my shoulder,” she said.

Van Gorden said she had support from her friends and family, including her basketball team.

She said her favorite team memory was “Cancer Night” – A basketball game where attendees raised money to donate to cancer research.

“Fight like Mike,” read the back of the T-shirts that her friend’s mom made for her team. She said the crowd chanted it too.

“The whole game was just crazy,” she said. “We were playing really well together and ended up winning by 30 points or something like that. So it was just a really good night for basketball and for the community.”

Her father is undergoing immunotherapy to treat his cancer by shrinking his tumors, which are in his throat and chest area. Van Gorden said the tumors in his esophagus have shrunk some and the cancer in his tumors are not as active, but there have been no major improvements. 

Now, Van Gorden will attend Franklin College, where she plans to major in Education and minor in Spanish.

“It’s close to home,” she said. “And coming from a smaller high school, I didn’t want to go somewhere that was really big and feel lost in the crowd. I wanted to still have that same type of class size and student-teacher relationship that I had at high school because I really enjoyed that.”

Franklin College awarded her an $18,000-per-year merit scholarship, she said. She also received a Next Generation Hoosier Educator Scholarship, valued at $30,000 over four years, which is only available to education students and requires they teach within the state for five years after graduation.

“I want to be an elementary teacher,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed being around kids.”

Van Gorden is the oldest of seven cousins on her mom’s side of the family, so she is used to being around younger children, she said.

“I have cousins who are 3 all the way up to 14, I think, so I’ve always been a mother-hen-type person,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do stuff with them.”

She is the role model for them, she said.

“My cousin even said, ‘Wow, you’re setting a high standard being valedictorian. How am I supposed to follow that?’” she said.

Van Gorden’s role as person for her cousins to follow extends beyond academics. One of her cousins even cut her bangs because Van Gorden has bangs.

She said she related to kids because she is “5 at heart.”

“I’m like, ‘Hey look at this!’ and then I think it’s fun, so when they think little things like that are fun too, it’s relatable because sometimes I’m a five-year-old little kid too,” she said.

Van Gorden knew she wanted to be a teacher her junior year of high school, after completing a semester of Cadet Teaching, where she would help teach courses at Southwestern Elementary.

“They’re just so carefree,” she said. “They can have fun with anything. You could give them a pencil and they could turn it into a rocket ship or something. They have this great imagination and they have this great spirit.”

She said she thinks she might return to teach at Southwestern Elementary (where she attended school) after she graduates college.