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Kellin McGowan Makes History At St. Thomas High As School’s First African-American Valedictorian

“Honestly, I’m proud to say I’m the first one.”


Marie De Jesús/ For NPR
Kellin McGowan, the first black valedictorian in St. Thomas High School’s history, addresses the audience during his speech as valedictorian at the commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2019, in Houston.

Thousands of Houston-area high school seniors will walk across the stage and receive their diplomas this graduation season.

At St. Thomas High School, just west of downtown, commencement also marked another milestone.

That’s because senior Kellin McGowan made history this month at the Catholic all-boys high school, as he became the first African-American valedictorian since the school was founded almost 120 years ago.

“Honestly, I'm proud to say I'm the first one,” McGowan said. “I think by being valedictorian, I can show other people, particularly within my community, that they can do whatever they set their minds to.”


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McGowan not only graduated with a 4.57 GPA, he also received the school’s prestigious Albert R. Gaelens Award, which recognizes the senior student who best embodies the school’s motto of “Teach Me Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge.”

His class, their family members and faculty gave McGowan a standing ovation as he received his diploma and later approached the lectern to deliver his speech.

“Whether the road you're on leads you to the Oval Office or to a small business in the middle of nowhere, always remember where you came from, sit down, be humble, and complete every task thoroughly, ethically and honestly,” McGowan told his fellow graduates — his speech playing off of popular songs’ lyrics.

The 17-year-old plans to study political science at the University of Chicago.

His social justice teacher and campus minister, Alex Gotay, described McGowan as gentle, eloquent and firm. Gotay said that his being the first black valedictorian was huge and reflects both where the school is headed and the diversity of Houston.

“I know there's a lot of pressure, but it's a good pressure for Kellin. And I know where it is that he's heading. He's going to do big things. Whoever's listening to this, I promise you, remember his name — Remember this young man's name because he is that special,” he said.