Eighteen years ago, Cate O’Malley was a helpless infant, left at a Chinese orphanage in a metal bucket, with her future, even her life, hanging in the balance.
Five years ago, she was a middle schooler in Kettering, succeeding in school, but suffering through some kids’ cruel insults about her Asian appearance and heritage that left her wanting to just blend in.
But what a change a few years makes.
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O’Malley just graduated as Fairmont High School’s student body vice president, brass captain of the marching band and homecoming queen. She was an inspirational speaker at the annual baccalaureate service.
“I left middle school feeling lonely and unsure of myself,” O’Malley said in her speech. “Tired of feeling so much self-pity, I realized there needed to be a crucial change. Knowing I had a chance to change my story, I decided that rather than being led like a sheep, I wanted to be a shepherd and lead.”
O’Malley said she had let other people’s stereotypes define her in those middle school years when so many students just want to fit in. She said the difference was that gradually, through high school, she chose to stand out.
“I had a hard time figuring out who I was. I think peer pressure is a big thing for everyone to different extents, and I had a hard time trying to please everyone,” she said, adding that she felt pressure to act one way in band, another way in class and still another in church. “I feel like now, after four years, I’ve learned some lessons about myself, and that what other people think about me doesn’t really matter.”
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Today though, many people think that O’Malley is a star. At recent school assemblies, she was honored for her strong SAT scores and winning local Kiwanis and PTO scholarships. She’ll attend Davidson College in North Carolina, which also awarded her a music scholarship. Davidson is ranked among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
And Mike Berning, Kettering schools’ coordinator of music and director of bands, said O’Malley has been a strong performer from marching band to jazz band to first-chair trombonist in the wind symphony, performing solos in almost every group she plays in.
“She is a top-notch music student, I don’t think I have ever seen her without a smile — seriously ever — and she is a great leader who sets the finest of examples in every way,” Berning said.
O’Malley said if she had to give advice to an incoming high school freshman, it would be to try lots of things, rather than pigeonholing themselves into just sports, or just music or another activity.
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“I would encourage them to step outside their comfort zone because it goes by really fast and you’re going to wish you had done stuff you didn’t do,” she said. “Open up and explore and be confident in yourself.”
O’Malley said she did that herself, appearing on stage for the first time this year in Beauty and the Beast — “I made my musical debut as a fork” — and participating in the school’s PowderPuff football game “even though I’m not a very athletic person.”
O’Malley said she’s very involved at her church and does a lot of community service and volunteering. Last fall, she was a leader of Fairmont’s annual Spirit Chain fundraiser, guiding the school to a record-breaking $100,001 raised for charity. She said breaking that record and being part of the student section at the football team’s win over Alter were highlights of the year.
“That was a really good feeling. You’re with your friends and jumping around having a good time,” O’Malley said. “I think those are moments that you don’t always get. When you get them, you should hold onto them and enjoy them.”
O’Malley called the homecoming queen honor a big surprise, saying one of the most fun parts was helping out with the Kettering Rec Center’s “princess for a day” event for little girls after the fact.
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In school, she has enjoyed environmental science and classes like Emily Bruzzese’s junior-year AP English course, where she said good books led to great conversations about real-world issues.
At Davidson, she’ll start with an undecided major, hoping to explore a lot of different classes to determine where she wants to go in life. She thanked her parents for the motivation that will carry her.
“I think it’s a combination of me wanting to succeed, but I think that motivation probably came from my parents (John and Leah),” O’Malley said. “They’ve always said work hard, play hard. And I think they’re really good models of working hard, and that success takes sacrifice.”
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No matter what path O’Malley takes at Davidson and beyond, she would do well to remember her own words from that baccalaureate speech:
“You are never done writing your own story.”
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