QUINCY — Katarina Vrtikapa believes her high school experience began well before her high school years.
The death of her mom — diagnosed with stage four colon cancer when Vrtikapa was in fourth grade — in freshman year shaped her time at Quincy High School.
"My mom made me promise to her that I would never give up and would always try my best. Because of that, I tried to be the best version of myself," Vrtikapa said. "I joined a lot of clubs, took the hardest schedule I could, and I think doing so really set me up to be super involved in the school and to get to know my classmates, my teachers and administrators. Being so involved made me so proud to be a Blue Devil."
Vrtikapa graduated as salutatorian with just over 400 other Blue Devils in a virtual ceremony Friday night, wrapping up what she described as a "weird limbo" of a senior year truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My classmates didn't get the closure or celebration we deserve, but I know that we won't let COVID-19 take over our senior year," Vrtikapa said.
Instead she'll emphasize favorite moments like finally winning the sectional title for tennis in the fall, donating more than 2,000 cans to the local food drive for Beta Club and celebrating correctly answering a hard question with Scholastic Bowl teammates.
"I am going to miss the little things, too, such as chicken twister lunches and constantly refreshing (Superintendent) Roy Webb's tweets for snow day updates," she said.
"Kat is an incredible student and an even better person," QHS Principal Jody Steinke said. "She is involved and engaged in all aspects of QHS, and she is a mentor, leader and role model. She is unfailingly positive, and she is truly interested in others' well-being."
Now Vrtikapa will focus on her next step — heading to the University of Illinois to study molecular and cellular biology as a pre-med student and eventually becoming a physician just like her late mom.
The daughter of war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Vrtikapa tried to take advantage of opportunities to succeed available in Quincy and at QHS.
"People at QHS just genuinely care about you, not only as a student or a peer but also as a person," she said. "That kind of creates a domino effect. Because you feel cared about, that inspired me to really value the relationships I built with people at QHS and in return realize that life is way too short to not be supportive of your peers. I'm very thankful to have had that school experience that taught me those lessons."
The 17-year-old said she had "so much fun" at QHS despite a daunting schedule — with 11 AP classes and earning 34.5 credits combined with clubs and sports.
"The past two months made me realize I was so lucky to have such a nice high school experience that I actually miss high school. I don't miss getting up early, but I definitely miss school," she said.
"I spent a lot of freshman year looking forward to the next thing — I was excited to drive, excited to finally take an AP class sophomore year, but I think I would tell my freshman self to pay attention to the what's now because the what's now, the mundane things, are the things I ended up missing the most in these two months," she said. "Don't take for granted the little moments in life. You never know what will happen tomorrow."