NORTH KINGSTOWNâ€”It would be easy for Katherine Bender to be disappointed about finishing second in the 2011 class rankings for North Kingstown High School. After all, she says, first place was so close she could taste it.
But being disappointed would imply Bender has regrets about her time in high school and that couldnâ€™t be further from the truth. For the past four years, sheâ€™s gone out of her way to make sure she experienced everything she could in high school and finding that balance between school work and personal life life taught her more than any class ranking ever could.
Bender, NKâ€™s class salutatorian, will head to The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in the fall. She will spend her time on the small campus located in Needham, Mass. as one of just slightly more than 300 undergraduates pursuing a career in engineering, a career she seems destined for given her time at NKHS.
Katherine, who is known to her friends as Carrie, has had a lot of interests during her time in high school. She plays violin, was in the West Side Story musical and participated in the Blessing of the Fleet Road Race. However, itâ€™s time spent in FIRST Robotics, an international high school robotics organization, that launched her on her path to engineering.
â€śThey have competitions all the time,â€ť she said. â€śThatâ€™s a really big thing for me because it really got me interested in engineering and hands-on mechanical work.â€ť
FIRST Robotics played off Benderâ€™s strengths, particularly her love of math and science, two subjects in which she always felt right at home.
â€śWell, academically, math is definitely my favorite and my best subject,â€ť she said. â€śTo me, itâ€™s simple, itâ€™s straight-forward. English, on the other hand, I had trouble in. English and History, itâ€™s a different part of the brain and everything but with math and science, Iâ€™ve always loved that. Itâ€™s always just clicked with me.â€ť
While English may not have been Benderâ€™s best subject, it did teach her an important lesson.
â€śMy freshman year, we had an English teacher and, like I said, itâ€™s not my best subject,â€ť she explains. â€śI remember on one of the essays she failed every single person in the class except two and as a freshman thatâ€™s kind of like a wake-up call but a gradeâ€™s a grade, itâ€™s not the end of the world to fail something.â€ť
That lesson paved the way for Bender to make sure she never let academics stifle her ability to live a normal high school life.
â€śI got all my work done but I didnâ€™t let it get in the way of everything else I do,â€ť she said. â€śIâ€™m not going to skip a friendâ€™s birthday party or something if Iâ€™ve got homework or stuff like that. I donâ€™t let it get in the way. I still like to have fun and everything.â€ť
Perhaps thatâ€™s why Benderâ€™s not disappointed with finishing second to class valedictorian Elena Suglia.
â€śItâ€™s so smallâ€ť a difference, she says. â€śIâ€™m really happy for Elena, sheâ€™s a friend of mine, and itâ€™s really exciting for her, too. I know thatâ€™s something she really wanted.â€ť
The competition, she says, was more internal than external.
â€śIf you look at the top 10, top 20, top 30, everybodyâ€™s really competitive but a lot of it is with ourselves,â€ť she explains. â€śLike, we always want to do better than our last quiz grade and we always want to improve our own rank but I think itâ€™s definitely more of a competition with yourself.â€ť
As she prepares for life outside of NK, Bender says sheâ€™s looking forward to getting to know new people and taking life as it comes.
â€śThere are going to be a lot of opportunities and itâ€™s going to be great because I can really focus,â€ť she says of heading off to college. â€śThe community there is really tight-knit, everybody is on a first-name basis. I know Iâ€™ll be able to get a lot of help and have a lot of opportunities.â€ť
When asked to sum up her high school experience in one word, Bender pauses, as if stumped. She thinks about the question for a second and answers in a way fitting for a person who always made sure to make the most of every day.
â€śMemorable,â€ť she says. â€śItâ€™s been truly memorable.â€ť