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Before 17-year-old Tyler Orr became valedictorian of Berkeley Springs High School in West Virginia, he had already moved five times.
Orr is now living with a legal guardian until he goes to the University of Virginia this fall, where he plans to major in chemistry.
He already knows he will go to medical school, telling Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “I want to go into preventative medicine and cardiology.”
On how he became valedictorian, Orr says, “I was fully committed to my school work. I knew that I had to be to attend college because there wasn’t any money for me to do so otherwise.”
On how he achieved the rank of valedictorian
“I was fully committed to my school work. I knew that I had to be to be to attend college, because there wasn’t any money for me to do so otherwise. So I was relying on scholarships. And I got my class rankings at the beginning of my sophomore year and found out that I was the first in my class, which was a complete surprise. I had worked hard, but I didn’t realize I had worked that hard. And from there, it was just a commitment that became just a small goal of mine, kind of a subset of my larger goal of getting a post-secondary education.”
On what drove him to succeed
“Once I came to Berkeley Springs, I kind of — it became known within my school that, after I was first in my class — and from there I was motivated a lot by my educators and my peers. I mean, that was a big part of it. Through middle school and elementary school, I got average grades, but it was really once I got to high school — the motivation that came from my peers and educators.”
On what he would tell his younger self
“If I could go back and tell myself something it middle school, it would have been to have more fun in high school. I was committed to my schoolwork and I did well, but I really didn’t have the experiences that a lot of my friends had during high school until my senior year, and that was in part because I stressed a lot about being able to have a post-secondary education. So if I could go back, that would be the one thing I would tell myself.”
Note: This is the last of our three interviews with valedictorians this week. See our interview with Leilanie Martinez, 17, of South Gate High School in Los Angeles county here, and our interview with Jordan Thomas, 17, of University High School in Newark, New Jersey, here.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
As the academic year comes to a close for high schoolers across the country, we've been talking to valedictorian's this week about how they made it to number one. Yesterday, we heard from Leilanie Martinez in Los Angeles, where she wants to someday be the mayor. She will be attending UC Berkeley. The day before, we heard from Jordan Thomas, in Newark, New Jersey. He'll be attending Princeton University. And for our final valedictorian conversation, we're joined by Tyler Orr, of Berkeley Springs High School in West Virginia. Tyler, congratulations and thanks for joining us.
TYLER ORR: Of course. Thank you very much. It's quite the honor.
HOBSON: How did you get to be valedictorian? Describe the journey that you've been on because it hasn't been an easy one for you.
ORR: I grew up in Falling Waters, West Virginia, which is a small city in the Eastern Panhandle. There I lived with my grandparents. My grandparents adopted me at the age of five. About a year later, my grandparents were divorced. And I ended up living with my grandfather for my kindergarten year of school. Then I moved to Hagerstown with my grandmother and some issues existed there. She got remarried. And in middle school, that's the first time I moved to Morgan County, West Virginia. And I attended Berkeley Springs schools. I went here six and seventh grade, and there were issues with living with my mom. So I ended up going back to Hagerstown to attend school there. And it was my 8th grade year that I decided to enroll in the IB program, which required me getting special permission to attend North Hagerstown High School rather than attending South Hagerstown High School. And then I moved to Berkeley Springs, and I just - I was fully committed to my school work. I knew that I had to be to attend college because there wasn't any money for me to do so otherwise. So I was relying on scholarships. And I got my class rankings at the beginning of my sophomore year and found out that I was first in my class, which was a complete surprise.
ORR: I had worked hard but I didn't realize that I had worked that hard. And from there it was just a commitment. That became a small goal of mine, kind of a subset of my larger goal of getting a postsecondary education. So...
HOBSON: But that's a lot of schools to go through to stay as focused as you did.
ORR: Yeah, definitely.
HOBSON: How did you do that?
ORR: A lot of it - once I came to Berkeley Springs, I kind of - it became known within my school that - after I was first in my class. And from there, I was motivated a lot by my educators and my peers. I mean, that was a big part of it. Through middle school and elementary school, I got average grades. But it was really once I got to high school, the motivation came from my peers and educators.
HOBSON: Did you have a mentor that you remember throughout this period?
ORR: I really gained my first mentor in high school during my sophomore year. I got to know my science teacher really well. And science is what I was really interested in. And throughout high school, she gave me the opportunity to attend many different conferences and - that were all related to science. And that really motivated me. I saw the kinds of things that I could do with a chemistry degree. And so that was really motivating. And she also helped me on the front that she was a teacher that I could really relate to and that I felt that I could be completely open with about the things that had happened in my life. So not only was she an educator, but she was also in a way a friend, which really helped me, so...
HOBSON: How did you manage to push aside all the distractions that so many high school kids deal with all the time, whether it be your friends not wanting to focus on school, or, you know, things that you're doing on the Internet or with your mobile phone, or games or whatever it might be that keeps you distracted from studying and staying focused on getting into college?
ORR: I've been really lucky to have a lot of friends that were respectful. A lot of my friends were - they understood how committed I was to school. So they were respectful when I couldn't go out on a Friday night and that I had to stay home to finish a report that was due on Monday. So a lot of my friends recognized this. But for me, it was a delicate balance. It wasn't - it was schoolwork first, and then I could have fun. So I kind of - I was able to manage to do both in high school. I mean, I did commit myself 100 percent, but it was schoolwork first, fun second.
HOBSON: Is there a message that top-of-the-class Tyler Orr in 2014 would give to young Tyler Orr back in middle school?
ORR: Huh. That's a good question. I think what I would - if I could go back and tell myself something when I was in middle school, it would have been to have more fun in high school. I was committed to my school work, and I did well, but I really didn't have the experiences that a lot of my friends had during high school until my senior year. And that was, in part, because I stressed a lot about being able to get a post-secondary education. So if I could go back, that would be the one thing I would tell myself.
HOBSON: Tyler, you've had, it sounds like, a lot of issues with family. Did that motivate you at all as you went through school?
ORR: That was my biggest motivator, in fact. I knew that from the beginning that to overcome what the obstacles that I had in my life due to my family circumstances, I knew that I had to go on and get a post-secondary education. And I knew that I had to motivate myself. So family most definitely was a motivator, yes.
HOBSON: Well, what was the message that you gave in your valedictorian speech?
ORR: It mainly - the idea behind my valedictorian speech was that our school prepared us well for our future and that we just need to go confidently. And by doing so, we all have the potential to be successful.
HOBSON: What are you planning to do?
ORR: I am going to the University of Virginia to study chemistry. And after that, I want to go to medical school to study preventative medicine and cardiology.
HOBSON: Tyler Orr is valedictorian at Berkeley Springs High School in West Virginia. And as he said, he's going to be heading off to the University of Virginia to study chemistry. Tyler, congratulations and thanks so much for talking with us.
ORR: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And many of you have written in about our conversations with valedictorians. Renee Pitman (ph) wrote in to tell us about her daughter Anna, who is graduating from high school on June 14 and will be heading to Harding University in the fall to study speech pathology. Anna, we're told, is a big HERE AND NOW listener. And by the way, Anna, when you're at Harding, you will probably be able to hear us on KUAR out of Little Rock, Arkansas, although you might need, like, some tinfoil to attach to the antenna to get it that far way.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, then it sounds like in a couple of years, come work with us.
HOBSON: Come on over, we'll keep a seat warm for you. Keep listening. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.