This is a senior
This is a senior
Kate Glover

Valedictorian, National Merit Finalist demonstrates love of learning

On the surface of our spinning planet, there are athletes playing in a stadium, tourists flying across the ocean, and students rushing to class. The world is constantly moving, creating a stream of new and exciting events. Understanding everything is an impossible task, but those with a love of learning still seek as many explanations as possible. 

Some pursue understanding through literature or art, while others study history and psychology. Every subject provides some knowledge about how and why things happen. For people who want literal explanations, physics is often their subject of choice. From the formation of galaxies to the way a soccer ball rolls, the field illuminates the dynamics of the world.

Senior Flora Sanderson possesses a deep love of learning, and hopes to benefit the world through her study of physics. The subject has fascinated her for years, and Sanderson is now set to graduate as one of the valedictorians in the class of 2024.

While she plans to spend her future researching, her passions spread far beyond the physics lab. Sanderson is also an avid reader, especially of classic literature. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of her favorite books. She also loves the writing of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

However, she has a clear favorite subject: math. For Sanderson, numbers are a universal language. During the pandemic, she checked out a stack of textbooks from the library to teach herself geometry, algebra 2, and precalculus. Returning to in-person classes, it was a math class that started her academic journey.

“My tenth grade math teacher—Mr. (Eric) Kohlbrand—was the first person who really saw me and saw my love for learning, and recognized that that’s completely legitimate,” Sanderson said. “He was able to push me, not just say ‘Oh you’re above the water, you’re fine,’ and actually provide that stimulation for me, and that challenge that I really really love. That was really crucial.”

Initially, Sanderson had felt limited by many of her classes. This challenge helped her become more engaged in school and pushed her to achieve goals for herself.

“She was very good at math, but she wasn’t super interested in making a career out of it,” Eric Kohlbrand, former FCHS math teacher, said. “When she got far enough to see what was actually there, all the things that you could do with it, then it got more interesting to her. It really came down to: she held on, because she figured the end result was going to be worth it.” 

This perseverance would not have been possible without the people around her. Sanderson credits the support of her family and teachers as a way of finding direction, and a reminder to maintain faith in learning, especially when she is struggling with self-motivation.

“I have these moments every year around AP Exams. I’ll take a practice test, and it’ll be like ‘That’s not what I want to have happen,’” Sanderson said. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the path between where I am now and where I want to be.”

While such moments can be difficult for any student, Sanderson knows how to overcome them. She demonstrates how to move past feelings of discouragement and keep working toward goals.  

“Things do not always go your way the first time, but that didn’t matter to Flora,” Kohlbrand said. “She would sit down, and she would figure out what went wrong, and she would reapply herself to it. It didn’t matter if it took two, three, five attempts to get it. She always wanted to know how something was done. That resilience, that unwillingness to walk away from something, that’s where success is found.”

Sanderson’s resilience has led her to be competitive in the National Merit program. She has been working to reach the highest levels of the program since her junior year. This path began with taking the PSAT/NMSQT.

“I’d been working pretty hard for the PSAT. I was aware what the cutoff scores were,” Sanderson said. “The score I got was right on the edge for Colorado. I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, but it did.”

Sanderson made it through the initial and semifinal rounds of the program. In February, she was named a 2024 National Merit Finalist, an honor given to only 15,000 students in the nation. This achievement qualifies Sanderson for scholarships at colleges across the country. 

Being recognized for her success was a highlight of her senior year. 

“I was really excited. I was smiling all day,” Sanderson said. “I love that feeling when you get something back and you did really well on it. You feel like it was hard for you, but you did it anyway.” 

The National Merit program involves more than a single PSAT score. Potential scholars have to receive recommendations and fill out an application to move on. At this point, extracurricular involvement is considered.

Another part of the application asks students to write an essay about something that shaped them. Sanderson chose summer chamber camp, which helped set a trajectory for her senior year.

“It was the most positive, welcoming environment I’ve ever been in,” she said. “That environment and that space gave me the confidence I needed to really find out who I am.”

Orchestra has always been a pivotal part of Sanderson’s life.

“The orchestra program is like my second family,” she said. “I find my connection to school through music.” 

Sanderson is a dedicated violinist in the FCHS symphony and tower orchestras and has performed with these ensembles her entire high school career. She was a soloist at the 2022 fall concert. 

“You listen to professionals playing music, but then you listen to her playing music. She has that heart and that passion,” Kohlbrand said. “She’s put a lot of time and energy into it. I was very far away, but at the same time, you could tell how she was performing and playing with the music, keeping herself focused on where she was with it.”

While balancing her musical pursuits with academics has not always been easy, Sanderson is not one to back away from a challenge. This year, she expanded her commitment to the theater’s pit orchestra, spending extra hours rehearsing and accompanying the cast of multiple shows. 

As her time at FCHS comes to an end, Sanderson leaves with knowledge born from experience working toward a goal.

“Split it up. Don’t do it every day, don’t do hours upon hours,” Sanderson said. “Don’t get discouraged, because if you put in the work you will get there.” 

Sanderson is living proof of this advice, and has found the path to where she wants to be. She hopes to use applied mathematics to make a positive impact on the world. 

“I’m going to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts,” Sanderson said. “I love the idea of a women’s college. My current plan is to major in physics, and work in the renewable energy lab.” 

This next step has been a long time in the making. 

“Physics was her original choice, way back,” Kolhbrand said. “When I first met her, she was like, ‘I just need to know enough math to do physics.’ If you know anything about physics, there are times where pi is the number 3.”

Sanderson has proven she is willing to learn more than what is expected. This commitment has been rewarded, creating momentum for her future. Even as she rounds pi to 3, she plans to employ her love of learning as much as possible. 

“Since it’s a liberal arts college, there’s a lot of opportunities to explore new things,” Sanderson said. “I’m also trying to keep an open mind and see where that takes me.”

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