To be in the Onken family is to be a valedictorian.

Sarah Onken was valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Immanuel Lutheran School in 2008 and was one of four valedictorians of the Trinity Lutheran High School Class of 2012.

Her brother, Seth, was the sole valedictorian at Trinity in 2014, and her other brother, Luke, finished at the top of his class at Immanuel in 2012 and was one of four valedictorians of this year’s graduating class at Trinity.

The youngest Onken sibling, Rachel, who recently wrapped up her sophomore year at Trinity, was valedictorian at Immanuel a couple of years ago.

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Even their mother, Carol Onken, was valedictorian at Pendleton Middle School in 1974.

This year, Sarah kept the valedictorian streak going by earning that title for the third time in her educational career — this time at Hillsdale College.

“I’m incredibly proud of my siblings and all that they have accomplished,” Sarah said. “God has given us great ability, and with it the responsibility to use it for his glory. My parents instilled in us a solid work ethic, and we have always sought to attain our best given the circumstances.”

Luke said he was proud to continue a family tradition.

“Being valedictorian means the world to me, as it provides a common accomplishment among us,” Luke said.

Trinity’s other valedictorians this year were Jacob Schult, Hayley Carter and Ethan Neawedde.

“Throughout my time at Trinity, numerous students and faculty in a way expected me to be valedictorian at Trinity, and I for sure wanted to keep the tradition alive,” Luke said. “This did create some pressure in some of my schoolwork, but my teachers did an excellent job of teaching the material and making sure it was understood.”

Second honor

When she graduated in 2012, Sarah was valedictorian along with Daniel Stuckwisch, Brooke Zarick and Emma Franke. She said she credits the accomplishment to God.“He has blessed me with a strong work ethic and an inveterate love of learning, which certainly contributed to that accomplishment,” she said. “Likewise, he provided me with caring teachers and parents who pushed me to achieve my best and were always patient with me and encouraged me.”

Given how rigorous Trinity’s academics are and also participating in multiple sports, Sarah considers finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average a great achievement.

“It felt rather satisfying,” she said. “There are times in high schools everywhere where high-achieving students are not encouraged nor recognized — sports, arts and other activities take precedence over academics. I was able to see that my dedication to learning and hard work toward learning well meant something to someone other than myself, which was gratifying.”

During her time at Hillsdale, a liberal arts college in southern Michigan, Sarah was involved in several organizations, held a job and took on the honors program.

She applied to that program as a senior in high school. Prospective students are invited to apply based on a benchmark SAT/ACT score, and they also submit letters of recommendation, transcripts and essays.

Only 30 students from each class are selected to be in the honors program. They are required to sustain a particular GPA and write an interdisciplinary thesis their senior year.

Sarah’s thesis was on John Locke’s conception of God in his “Two Treatises on Government,” which looked at the relationship between theology and politics. That earned her departmental honors in politics.

Sarah also wrote a thesis on the mathematical philosophy of the Common Core State Standards. That gave her departmental honors in mathematics, but it was not a part of the honors program.

During last month’s commencement ceremony, Sarah received Bachelor of Science degrees in politics and mathematics.

At the top again

Ninety minutes before that ceremony, she found out she was valedictorian of the 353-member class. During a luncheon that honored the top five seniors by GPA, the valedictorian and salutatorian were announced. Sarah received a gold stole to wear with her other graduation attire.When asked if she ever thought she would be valedictorian in college, Sarah said, “Heavens no.”

“Hillsdale is home to so many bright scholars,” she said. “I was thoroughly intimidated during the first college event I attended. Freshmen there were ‘peacocking’ their near-perfect or perfect standardized test scores, impeccable diction and lengthy lists of accomplishments — things with which I could not compete.”

On top of that, she said, upperclassmen told them not to expect any grade higher than a C on their first papers, as the professors were portrayed as “merciless graders.” She also learned only 16 students had ever graduated from Hillsdale with a 4.0.

“I was terrified that I was not nearly as competent as my high school education had made me out to be,” she said.

But she pushed through and finished with a 3.993 GPA.

“I received one A- my first semester, but each subsequent semester, I kept achieving A’s by God’s grace,” Sarah said. “My senior year, I thought it was a possibility that I might earn the title of valedictorian, but I had no knowledge of my class rank.”

Earning that title was a good way to cap off her college career, she said.

“I was certainly honored, and I think I’m still in shock over this honor,” she said. “I love learning, and I love working hard to attain my best. I never thought that ‘my best’ was to be valedictorian of Hillsdale College, but my professors were instrumental in forming my moral and intellectual character. They gave me the tools I needed to attain my best and push the boundaries of my best.”

Challenges passed

The honor is even greater considering she overcame several challenges, including balancing rigorous academics, extracurricular activities and work; coping with the loss of her grandfather in the middle of her sophomore year; and caring for the needs of 50 young women in her dormitory as a resident assistant.“I learned so much more from these experiences than factual knowledge of modern political philosophy and abstract algebra. I learned about life in a way that will make the transition into real life much smoother,” Sarah said.

“This honor certainly gives me a boost of confidence in understanding my abilities and what I am capable of attaining through dedication to what I love — learning,” she said.

She credits God and encouragement from her professors, parents and friends for her academic achievements in college.

“The professors at Hillsdale are brilliant, patient and involved,” she said. “They cultivated my practical academic skills, such as writing techniques and proof-writing approaches, while also shaping my intellect itself. They challenged me to consider very fundamental questions and stretch my mind to dare to answer these questions, find my errors and refine my answers. Their passion drove my passion.”

She said the support of her parents, Carol and Lance, helped her well-being, and fellow students at Hillsdale were serious, genuine and grounded.

“I have formed dear friendships with people who share my values and desire to pursue truth,” Sarah said. “They made me a better person and will continue to do so in the coming years. I thoroughly enjoyed being in a place where learning is treasured and excellence is expected.”

Different paths

While three of the Onken siblings share the title of high school valedictorian, they chose to pursue different post-secondary paths.Sarah plans to use her double-major to become a professor, Seth is studying computer science at Purdue University and Luke is heading to University of Notre Dame to major in biology and study pre-medicine.

“College showed me that learning is my true passion, and this career allows me to pursue that passion,” Sarah said of becoming a professor. “I also hope to inculcate in my students the same love of learning I have. That’s a mark of a good student — one who is willing to learn and think critically, regardless of whether they agree with a professor or not — and it’s my earnest prayer that I have students like this someday.”

In the fall, Sarah will begin graduate school at Hillsdale, going through its Ph.D. program in politics. She said she researched other programs and institutions but chose to stay at Hillsdale.

“I’m overjoyed to receive even more education from an institution which has already taught me so much,” she said.

It’s now up to Rachel to continue the family tradition of being valedictorian at Trinity.

Sarah said she’s confident her sister will do so.

“I think all of this does put more pressure on Rachel, but she handles it well,” Sarah said. “The three of us joke with her about it sometimes. We have confidence in her and her abilities or else we wouldn’t joke about it. She was already surpassing seniors in high school in her engineering classes as a freshman. We three know that she’s the most capable of us four.”

Luke agreed.

“I know that Rachel is working tirelessly toward her goal of valedictorian,” he said. “While she may feel some pressure, she remains confident in her abilities and understands that hard work will lead her to becoming valedictorian, just like how hard work led Sarah, Seth and me to it.”

Sarah Onken file

Name: Sarah Onken

Age: 21

Hometown: Brownstown

Residence: Brownstown, though she lives in Hillsdale, Michigan, for most of the year

Education: Trinity Lutheran High School (2012); Hillsdale College (Bachelor of Science degrees in politics and mathematics, 2016; will begin graduate school in the fall)

College clubs or organizations: President of Pi Sigma Alpha (political science honorary), vice president of Kappa Mu Epsilon (mathematics honorary), secretary-treasurer of Lamplighters (women’s leadership honorary), Sigma Zeta (math and science honorary), Phi Kappa Phi (interdisciplinary honorary), honors program, George Washington Fellowship Program, Students for Life, 1844 Society, volunteer at Alpha-Omega Women’s Care Center

Family: Parents, Lance and Carol Onken; siblings, Seth, Luke and Rachel

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.