During Katie Yurechko’s sophomore year at the John Carroll School, she was chosen to present a group project in her English class. Her teacher was so impressed with her speaking ability, she encouraged her to join the school’s forensics team for speech and debate.
“Ms. [Tara] Millburn came up to me and was just very adamant that I should do speech, just because of the way I was able to grab everyone’s attention and hold that kind of presence in front of the classroom,” Yurechko, of Havre de Grace, said. “She said she hadn’t really seen that before. I told her I’d give it a try and I just ended up falling in love with it and making it my main passion.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic kept her from participating in traditional speech and debate tournaments in her senior year, Yurechko was still able to compete virtually. That included being part of the University of Kentucky’s Tournament of Champions, considered to be the national championship of high school debate teams.
Yurechko, who was captain of school’s forensics teams, was the first person from John Carroll to ever qualify for that tournament.
“I held my own,” she said, noting that competing virtually is nothing like doing so live “because you don’t have the crowd or that audience that you can draw energy from, you’re just in front of the a computer. It was still an honor to be a part of that, since it was such an elite tournament.”
Speech and debate was just one of handful of activities Yurechko was involved with, both inside and outside of school, during her four years at John Carroll.
In addition to being the Class of 2020′s valedictorian, Yurechko was also the class’s female Black and Gold award winner, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a graduating senior at the independent Catholic high school in Bel Air.
“It’s kind of a reflection of and a way to know the work that I’ve been doing throughout these past four years and growing as an individual, it’s not just something that I’ve recognized and my family has recognized, it’s something that my school community really values, both the students and the administration and faculty,” she said. “It’s just a huge honor.”
Yurechko is the founder and president of the school’s Friends R Family club, dedicated to raising awareness for mental health. She also serves as a peer minister, peer tutor and a member of the Patriot Hospitality Group. She was named an Archdiocese of Baltimore Distinctive Scholar and National Merit Scholar and earned membership in multiple honor societies.
Mike Monaghan, STEAM coordinator and science teacher at John Carroll, called Yurechko “the ideal student,” due to her poise, enthusiasm for learning and inner confidence.
“Katie has been a student of mine in each of her four years at John Carroll and I have enjoyed every minute of our interactions in those classes and working with her in extracurricular activities,” he said.
Yurechko cited Monaghan as her favorite teacher, noting how supportive he was attending school events, and helping students work through challenging assignments. But Monaghan noted it was Yurechko that sometimes helped him explain difficult concepts to his classes.
“If I was having trouble getting the class to catch on to a new topic, I’d have Katie come up to the front and have her talk through it. Then I’d be the one taking notes on how she approached the explanation,” he said. “The class would catch on and we could continue, she was a great teacher.”
Yurechko plans to attend Washington & Lee University in Virginia in the fall, where she is considering majoring in either chemistry or computer science, and possible a double major with social studies or “something else in the humanities.”
The university offered Yurechko its Johnson Scholarship, which is awarded to approximately 10% of each entering class. It covers at least tuition, room and board and also provides $7,000 to support summer experiences during their time at the school, such as internships, volunteering or research projects.
The college does not have a forensics team, although Yurechko said she may try to start one herself there. But if not, she plans to return to her alma mater to help coach other John Carroll students who find an interest in speech and debate.
Outside of school, Yurechko found plenty of other activities to keep herself busy. She began playing the piano in the third grade, and recently performed several pieces, including one she wrote herself with the help of her instructor, Irene Yeakel, as part of her senior recital.
She also writes poetry. Though she considers it a hobby, she submitted a poem to John Carroll’s literary magazine for its summer contest and won first place. Titled “Perspective,” the poem “was basically about your outlook on life. I used a lot of nature imagery to tie that in,” she said.
Poetry was also the catalyst for her senior project, starting the Friends R Family Club focused on mental health. After performing a poem in front of the school about mental health, “I had a bunch of people reach out to me and tell me I should start something up related to that.”
The club seeks to promote a better understanding of mental health and work to eliminate the stigma around it.
“Mental health is really important to me and throughout my family,” she said. “I have relatives and myself too that deal with anxiety issues. I wanted to start this as a way to kind of normalize mental health for my peers, and they get something that’s not so hard to grasp or understand that’s applicable to everybody.”
Between all these activities, Yurechko has also found time to give back to her community through volunteer work. She is a part of the youth organization Volun-Teen, volunteers at her church, St. Joan of Arc, and the Aberdeen library, where she helps children’s librarians and with science clubs for kids.
Having a hand in so many things may seem stressful, but Yurechko said, for her, it’s just the opposite.
“The key is that all of those things do help me to relax. When I play piano, that’s really a mindful time for me, just time to play and not think about more hectic things,” she said. “Same with speech. While it takes a lot of time and preparation, when I’m actually part of it, performing live, it’s just such a great experience.”