Katie Washington-Cole
Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

When Katie Washington-Cole was growing up in Gary, Ind., with its jagged industrial skyline, she dreamed of following in her parents’ footsteps and entering the medical field.

Her father was a physician and her mother was a nurse. Both encouraged academic achievement and taught young Katie, among other things, the importance of giving back to the community—all lessons to which she paid careful attention.

The lessons paid off. She graduated valedictorian of Gary West High School in 2006 and then became the first black female valedictorian at the University of Notre Dame in 2010 out of a class of 2,000 students. The Root interviewed her for a series on college graduates who have achieved valedictorian status, what motivated them and what came next.

At Notre Dame she obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in Catholic social teaching, which allowed her to learn and understand how faith applies to social problems, including poverty, as well as disparities in health and education, she said. Now, at 26, she is completing her doctoral training in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a focus on maternal and child health and community-based public health. 

“As someone who has been afforded incredible privilege and opportunity, I would love to give back to the community,” Washingon-Cole told The Root while discussing her education. “You look at current events and wonder what is it I can be doing to make the world a better place, especially in communities like Gary, where I came from. There are people who have experienced tremendous challenges and trauma, and I want to help.”           

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That is why she feels such a strong kinship with today’s aspirational and powerful #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was sparked by protests against police violence in the black community.

“When I graduated [from Notre Dame], some people were asking why the media didn’t tell my story,” she said. “Why aren’t people like me being put forth? I think that affects the community when positive examples aren’t being highlighted. It suggests that perhaps black lives don’t matter in a way. But the fact of the matter is that black America has a spectrum of diversity. And I have one version of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ story, and I want to be part of the solution to the problem.”  

Washington-Cole, who this summer married Charles Cole, whom she has known since kindergarten, has already started working toward that goal. Before becoming a student leader (pdf) at Johns Hopkins, at Notre Dame she worked at a variety of community organizations where she explored youth violence, domestic violence, and the effects of poverty and wealth on the relationship between Notre Dame and the city of South Bend, Ind.

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“I always think of my success as an effort on the part of so many people,” she said. “I have had a big village of helpers.”

Indeed, the help started with her parents. She said they were nontraditional in the paths they took into the medical field. Both had children before entering professional school, she said. Her father, William, became a medical doctor and now treats patients with drug addictions. Her mother, Jean, a registered nurse, works in nutritional education. The couple, who are no longer together, met while working at a hospital in Gary and raised Washington-Cole in a Christian household, she said.

“They raised me to do well, and I did my best to work hard every day,” she said. “I didn’t have some supernatural type of intelligence, but I’ve been encouraged and helped a lot by my parents, teachers and mentors, especially in high school and college. Once I got to college, it was about not being afraid to recognize challenges.”

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Speaking of challenges, her appointment to Notre Dame University’s board of trustees last year stirred up controversy because of her public stance on contraception and support of employer-mandated birth control. Her comments enraged the Sycamore Trust, a conservative alumni group that has taken on the mission of “protecting Notre Dame’s Catholic identity,” according to its website.

The Sycamore Trust—along with the more than 1,600 people who identify as “alumni, spouses, parents, students and friends of Notre Dame” who signed a petition—has called for Washington-Cole’s ouster from the board. (There is a smaller counterpetition asking the university to “maintain diverse viewpoints.”) 

Washington-Cole declined to discuss the issue with The Root, but while talking about her educational background, she elaborated on the important role of faith in her life.

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“Faith has always been important to me,” said Washington-Cole. “I’ve learned a lot of things about service, giving, mercy, justice and grace. There will always be people who are marginalized and oppressed in our society. My question is, what can I do as an individual to bring together all types of people? I try to keep that kind of value system at the center of anything that I do. That’s important to me.”

Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The New York-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor at Ebony magazine.