By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 9, 2015
CALHOUN—Scholar-athlete Natalie Collins pushed herself in high school to step into leadership and service roles, chart her own course and maximize her experience.
Her goal was to achieve her personal best and be accepted at a university where she could work successfully toward her next dream of medical school.
With that focused attitude, the Calhoun teen graduated from the Darlington School in Rome as valedictorian among 117 classmates. She will attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville this fall and pursue a pre-med track.
The daughter of Forrest and Rozanne Collins, she is a member of St. Clement Church in Calhoun.
“My parents have always pushed me to be a leader, particularly my freshman year in high school when I started to step up and get involved in different leadership opportunities at school,” said Natalie, whose brother, Cam, competes on UVA’s track team. “I knew it was necessary for being successful in high school and preparing for college.”
“I wanted to do everything I could to stay on that track by taking difficult classes, getting involved as much as I could be effective in those leadership positions and clubs,” Natalie said. “My main goal was to attend a university to prepare me for medical school and attend where I could get other opportunities. That self-discipline carried me through.”
An Advanced Placement scholar with distinction, Natalie also won the 2015 High School Female Scholarship Award Competition from the Georgia Athletic Directors Association for her sportsmanship as a coxswain on the Darlington varsity crew team. GADA selects one male and female senior yearly for outstanding performance and leadership athletically, academically and beyond school. She was a three-year member of the varsity crew team.
Easing her transition from middle school at St. Mary’s School in Rome to Darlington, Natalie became a cheerleader her freshman and sophomore years where she made friends and found her own school spirit. But she decided to switch to crew in the spring of her sophomore year upon learning about rowing scholarship opportunities with Ivy League universities. As coxswain she steered and directed teammates down the Etowah River.
Her biggest struggle was finding a balance between academics and leisure.
“I wanted to achieve all my goals, but I didn’t want to miss out spending time with my friends and having fun and enjoying myself,” she said. “I gave up cheerleading to do a sport to enable me to have a strong college application. It was tough, and I felt I was missing out, but I was able to work through that.”
While the coxswain scholarship plan “just didn’t pan out,” Natalie enjoyed rowing and will never forget the excitement of the Southeast’s largest race in Chattanooga. As coxswain “it required me to think quickly on my feet and make decisions quickly for the entire team,” she said. “I had to be completely in control the entire time. I feel I was able to learn to be a leader in a team setting even with people I didn’t know very well.”
Natalie also explored her medical career interest, participating last summer in a high school pre-med institute at Washington University in St. Louis. There she attended lectures, learned clinical practices like suturing, presented a spina bifida research project and interacted with medical students. She became interested in becoming a surgeon, excited by the opportunities to be at the forefront of new medical techniques. But with a broad range of interests she added that her favorite subject at Darlington was actually junior English class where she learned critical research and writing skills to prepare her for college.
‘Motivated and driven’
Dean of college guidance Sam Moss taught her honors freshman English.
“She’s a wonderful example to other classmates and she’s got more academic honors than I can even mention. … She’s motivated and driven and she genuinely seems to enjoy learning. She’s not going to compete with other people but tries to be doing her own best,” he said. “She’s very universal in her focus. She’s not just a math-science or English-history person. She has a lot of different interests. She had 18 honors and AP courses, which is just about unheard of.”
He added that her switch to the rowing team wasn’t “as expected as being a cheerleader” and “again shows her independent streak.”
Moss thinks she is well suited for a medical career or another service profession.
“I continue to be blown away by her utter sincerity and innate goodness as a person. That was the first thing I quickly noticed when she was in my class,” he said. “She has a real desire to help people. She cares about people. She may be the most cheerful, optimistic, bright-eyed student whom I know.”
Natalie developed a strong foundation in community service at St. Mary’s that she built on at Darlington. As a freshman she initiated a service project to collect backpacks filled with toiletries for homeless families. She worked with community organizations to distribute packs to local schools and every summer and fall has continued the project that has expanded to Calhoun, Rome and Dalton. This year as vice president of Darlington’s Y-Cabinet Christian service organization she combined its annual Thanksgiving project with the backpack collection to attract over 700 additional participants.
“I knew I was given the opportunity to go to Darlington and I wanted to give back to students going through much more than a stressful school day in acquiring toiletry items and basic needs,” Natalie said.
She also traveled on a school mission to New Delhi, India, to a school that included children from disadvantaged families. While the school lacked American comforts like air conditioning, she was inspired by the students’ determination to succeed.
“They were all learning the same stuff and that (lack of resources) wasn’t an issue for them. That they were able to come to school was a blessing.”
She also served on Darlington’s Honor Council and as a spiritual life liaison and has found courage and strength through her faith.
“I go to church every Sunday. It means a lot to me because my parents have always pushed me to focus on faith and put faith first. That has always been kind of a goal, especially in high school when it’s easy to get distracted,” she said. “Reading Scripture helps me, especially when I’m about to do something I’m really nervous about or experience something new. I always try to read Scripture beforehand. That is most calming for me.”
At UVA she plans to seek out medical research opportunities for undergraduates as well as spend a semester at sea and study in Spain. She’ll continue to look ahead to career goals, an approach that served her well in high school.
“I set a goal in middle school and told myself I’d be valedictorian in high school and it motivated me to achieve that goal.”