Southwest Michigan’s shining stars setting a bright light for the future

Published 5:58 pm Sunday, March 1, 2020

While no quantitative studies can prove it, perhaps the question high school seniors are asked the most is, “What are your plans after graduation?”

These students are not seers of the future, but six students from six school districts appear to have 20/20 vision for what is ahead in their lives.

Each year, Leader Publications asks the high school principals from Brandywine, Buchanan, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Niles to nominate one high school senior whose character shines bright in the present and whose work ethic gives them a glowing future.

As the following six students prepared to write their next chapter in life, they shared their own triumphant stories that brought them to where they are and who they are today.


Connor Janowiak, Brandywine

Connor Janowiak saw the career mecca that was computer science not from a lab or the Silicon Valley, but the St. Joseph River Valley — specifically, his family farm.

Using GPS technology, the layout of crops could be better visualized, and their yield could be better maximized in turn.

“When I first started using it, I came to the realization that this sort of technology is what gives the ability of a few million farmers to efficiently harvest crops for hundreds of millions around the country,” he said.

The Brandywine High School senior plans to take his passion and use it to change the world, just as the geographic information systems and other technology have changed agriculture.

He considered finding ways to cut down the needs of farmers to soothe a rapidly aging job field through computer science, but in the end, he wants to use technology to solve any sort of national problem.

To do so, Janowiak is taking courses from Lake Michigan College and Andrews University, including courses in computer science.

The college courses, meant to give him a jump start on his college career, turned out to be easier than he expected, but he said he sometimes feels distanced from his friends and the school district he grew up in. He spends most of each school day off Brandywine’s campus.

Service organizations, and his role as a defensive lineman in Bobcat football, have provided Janowiak the link.

He is the treasurer of National Honor Society and Key Club, a chapter he helped found at Brandywine three years ago. Its membership is at about 35 and growing.

“We noticed [Key Club] through other high schools, and we felt like we needed to be part of this,” he said. “We needed to get back and help our community.”

This year, Janowiak and his fellow Key Clubbers have made blankets for the homeless and assembled Thanksgiving food baskets for families in need, among other initiatives.

Janowiak said he plans to take the principles of service he has developed from Key Club and NHS and apply them to his work. He thinks his developing skills in computer science could help others in ways not even thought of now.

He is particularly excited to explore machine learning and artificial intelligence. Their implications on human and worldly welfare are predicted to be massive, if a bit controversial. He thinks finding a balance between creative liberty and caution in the AI community is critical.

Through college classes by day, volunteering in the afternoon and free-writing code by night, Janowiak is working his way toward that community of potential and career change.


Kadin Mills, Buchanan

Two years ago, Kadin Mills raised his hands at a Buchanan home football game. At their fall, the Buchanan High School Marching Band would set into motion, sound and spectacle.

Mills was a sophomore then, leading peers older than him, some of whom he had looked up to, for the first time.

Last fall, Mills raised his hands one last time for the Buchanan marching band, peers his age and younger awaiting his direction.

“You had the people that you looked up to, and when it comes time, you don’t even realize the people looking up to you,” he said.

Mills has and is working to make a lasting legacy at Buchanan, even if high school students a decade from now may not realize it.

As the co-founder of Student Coalition Seeking Reform, Mills hopes to show Buchanan Schools administration and board members that students are being negatively impacted by what he believes is a lack of support for teachers.

For his Eagle Scout project, Mills is planting 10 heritage American chestnut trees in the Buchanan area. The trees are functionally extinct in the U.S. due to a fungus, but he hopes the seeds he has planted will be able to survive long into adulthood thanks to a potential fungus resistance being bred in.

In the coming years, people will be able to view the trees and sit on benches along a chestnut tree trail between Buchanan Township’s hall and fire department.

Mills holds leadership roles in tennis, track and National Honor Society, too, but his years with the band ­— three as a drum major — are what he speaks most fondly of.

The senior has seen the program grow from about 30 students to 70, and he has led the program through a directorial change, complex band formations and challenging musical arrangements.

Mills considers the band a family, complete with its occasional annoyances and rifts. He said he loves it all, although he feels “melancholy” about leaving it and being forgotten.

“You’re taken into this family with open arms, so there’s already this culture established that you’re welcomed into,” he said. “You see there’s the seniors who you look up to, and then they leave you. It’s just that slow progression of welcoming more people in until, eventually, you’re the one that’s leaving.”

Mills will leave his leadership role for a college degree, tentatively, in journalism.

If he chooses that route, he said it would be a bit fateful. He used to type out articles on a typewriter and take pictures with his great-grandmother’s camera when he was about 10.

Mills has every intention to keep in touch with the Buchanan band, however. He might even join a drum corps while taking classes.

Meanwhile, in Buchanan, Mills’ chestnut trees will continue to grow, students will continue to seek reform and the band will play on under new leadership who looked up to him. 


Katelyn Waldschmidt, Cassopolis

Katelyn Waldschmidt, a Ross Beatty High School senior, had the weight of tradition on her shoulders, but she followed through with a clean lift.

Cassopolis’ National FFA Organization chapter has a history of performing well at state competitions, powered by a coach who was on the last Michigan team to receive a national gold medal.

Waldschmidt was part of the 2019 team that won the Michigan 2019 State Leadership Conference in FFA’s parliamentary procedure competition.

The team moved on to the national competition that fall in Indianapolis, where it placed in the top 12. The team took 30 tests, then took on the roles of members of a parliament in front of a panel of judges twice, once for the qualifying round, one for the semifinals.

Waldschmidt said her “family” of fellow FFA members have kept her coming back to the organization, this year as president. The personal impacts FFA has had on her growth and confidence keep her engaged, too.

Soccer has had a personal impact as well. What started as American Youth Soccer Organization play when she was young became joining Ross Beatty’s varsity soccer team as a ninth grader and being named a captain in the 10th and 11th grades.

She said the team is on a bit of a rebound streak. Each season, its record has improved more and more. This year, with her friends by her side, the midfielder hopes to move the team into a positive scoring record.

“Both teams and my leadership roles have really brought me out of my shell and helped me become a team player and a more outgoing person in general,” Waldschmidt said. “I definitely think I’ll take that out to the world with me: being able to communicate, and being a team player and a leader, while also being able to listen to others.”

Waldschmidt said she will take her confidence and team skills into college, where she hopes to study either English, a favorite high school subject, or chiropractic health, something she thinks she could excel at. Either way, graduate school is likely in her future, as is a study abroad.

A sign language minor could be a possibility, too.

For now, however, Waldschmidt will gear up for soccer, finish up her yearly studies and take part in the Penn 4-H Club, Yearbook and Students Against Destructive Decisions.

If she finds the time, she might read a John Green or Rainbow Rowell novel, too.


Jossalyn Rogalski, Dowagiac

In 2018, Jossalyn Rogalski looked at lions square in the face and squirted milk in their open mouths.

She said it was the happiest moment of her life.

“It was the most exhilarating feeling when the lions came into the back [of the exhibit],” the Dowagiac Union High School senior said. “They were right there. They just started roaring, and you can feel it through your whole body.”

The act, made possible by connection her principal, Kelly Millin, had fed into a passion for animals that has been growing. … Now, she is dual-enrolled at Southwestern Michigan College, working to get a leg up on a four-year degree that will strengthen her ability to care for and rehabilitate creatures.

“I could work literally anywhere caring for animals, and I would be happy in life — literally,” she said.

Rogalski said her animal appreciation honed in to endangered species when she chose to create a brochure about them for a library project a few years back.

Since then, she has worked in a Michigan Nature Association preserve to find, take samples of and note the threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Michigan’s only venomous variety.

She has also recently taken part in controlled burns at MNA sanctuaries, volunteered at an Athens, Michigan, alligator sanctuary and started an individual effort to raise funds for endangered animals, using her drawing skills to market the cause.

She also will use her position in Rotary International to host an animal shelter fundraising drive.

The efforts come as Rogalski maintains her grades and serves in student senate, Chieftain Heart and National Honor Society.

The amount of work has made life difficult at times — she had to drop basketball this season despite playing since seventh grade — but it paid off in a SAT score that will give her a full ride to Western Michigan University. She will apply to the university as she finishes her last semester at Southwestern Michigan College.

Rogaliski said her commitment to bettering herself came as she entered high school. At the time, she was hanging with a crowd that did not prioritize self-betterment.

“I realized that I needed to be focused on education, and this and that, for myself,” she said. “Ninth grade was when I figured out who I needed to become throughout high school to be the best me I can be.”

It is advice she wants to pass along to other incoming first-years and use when she enters Western as a first-year herself.


Tyler Dahms Edwardsburg

Tyler Dahms woke up for his last first day at Edwardsburg Public Schools in an unfamiliar bed in a somewhat-unfamiliar house. His parents were about 1,000 miles away in Colorado.

It has been that way since, but it was a decision Dahms made himself. His father received a job offer in Colorado, and Dahms chose to stay in Edwardsburg with a friend’s family. He could not leave the people who grew close to and the organizations he was invested in at the school district in rural Michigan.

In fact, in his run for Mr. Edwardsburg last October, which he won, Dahms was asked by a moderator, “What is the greatest thing?”

His response was the Edwardsburg community.

“I’ve had the privilege of being able to get involved in so much that Edwardsburg has to offer,” he said days later.

Dahms reflected with appreciation of the groups he is part of: varsity soccer, student council, Leos Club and theater. He also remarked on the people in each group with him who made the programs as strong as they were and, personally, his life situation comfortable.

“I’ve got a lot of great friends I can rely on and who can support me,” Dahms said. “That’s another reason why I’ve stayed. I so do feel very connected and supported here.”

By staying, Dahms can continue performing, competing and volunteering with the groups he has seen grow.

If he had moved to Colorado, he would not have landed the lead role in a thriving theater program; led student council as its president on a number of service missions; felt the rush of an Edwardsburg soccer match as he sprinted down the field; or told people’s stories through photos while on yearbook staff.

The work Dahms put in garnered him two post-season awards from his soccer coach. Two years ago, it was the “I’ve Got Bad News Award” for sometimes having to halve or no-show practice to attend theater and other events.

Last year’s was the “Balanced Award,” a recognition of his dedicated devotions.

Dahms said he is nervous to leave the high school he is invested in to attend Grand Valley State University. The unknowns of college and leaving friends are among his concerns. Despite numerous interests, he is going in undecided to obtain the best breadth of career options.

He said he knows, however, that he will work to stay in touch with those who have supported him and those he has supported back.


James “Trey” Knight, Niles

Last school year, James “Trey” Knight entered the Niles High School halls somewhat unrecognizable. He looked a bit sickly. His skin was puffy, and acne had broken out due to steroid treatments. Peers had hardly seen him that spring. He had more than 100 absences.

Now, Knight radiates happiness, healthiness, generosity and kindness, and he is dead set on helping those struggling with similar situations come out the other side in the best ways they can.

“Live every day like it’s the best day ever. No reason not to,” he said. “Take things one thing at a time.”

Knight was forced to take life one painful day at a time starting his sophomore year when he unknowingly developed Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorder. He began vomiting and suffering terrible aches and pains. At times he cried, he said.

He was taken from doctor to doctor. He said he was continuously sent home, given risky treatments and could only eat animal crackers and jelly for a month.

Through it all, he maintained his GPA, having his teachers send him his work once a week.

Then, Knight met Dr. Russell Cameron, of Bronson Healthcare in Kalamazoo.

“He pretty much told me we were going to figure it out and work our way up to where I am now, and that’s exactly what we’ve done, and here I am,” the student council member and National Honor Society member said.

Knight thought his mental strength, courage and relationships with others were strong before. Now, they are stronger and coupled with a new passion.

Knight wants to embody the principles of care Cameron showed him by becoming a pediatric gastroenterologist.

“I want to help kids my age that have the same problem or worse … and I want to help them as much as my doctor has helped me,” he said. “I don’t want them to go through the same experience that I did.”

Few people in college and beyond will know what he went through, Knight said, but that is fine with him. The people who need to know are those he works with and, more importantly, those he helps. He will use his experience to become a caring expert physician.

Knight is defined by more than his disease and his goals to help those with it, however. He is an active member of school service organizations, helping, for instance, first-year students navigate the halls during their first days of school.

The senior loves the “inconsistent consistency” of baseball, too. Through his passion for the sport and while on Niles’ team, he said he has learned that talent and natural prowess take the bench when it comes to the best players. Rather, the best are those with the most drive, and the largest hearts.

While Knight preps to become a gastroenterologist in college, he said he just might bring his other passion with him, donning a new team name.