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TC valedictorian speaks two languages, plays two instruments and wants to cure cancer

Samantha Ackley cringes at being labeled “smart.”


The Triton Central High School Class of 2021 valedictorian was accelerated into a pre-Calculus class in fifth grade. Her SAT score was over 1,500.


She will attend Earlham College later this year to study Neuroscience with the goal of obtaining her master’s degree in Paris. Curing cancer is on her mind.


“I wouldn’t call myself smart as much as I call myself hard working,” said Ackley, who can play clarinet and French horn and speaks two languages. “Intelligence is measured on your ability to identify patterns. I just work harder than some people, not all people, but some people.”


Ackley admits being valedictorian was never a stated goal even after finding out she was ranked No. 1 in her graduating class as a sophomore.


“It was a curious thing, but I wouldn’t ever say the goal was to be valedictorian,” she explained. “The goal was to just do as good as I could in all my classes. It’s good to have good grades on your transcripts because you get scholarships and you get college credits.


“It wasn’t ever the goal to be first, it was just the goal to do well in my classes.”


The daughter of Travis and Rachael Ackley found too many positive options about Earlham College, located in Richmond, Indiana, to go anywhere else.


“It’s a nice school and campus. I think I thrive better in smaller communities,” she said. “They have a really good study abroad program and they have a really good internship program.


“It’s a good community and staff that cares about you and it has a lot of good opportunities.”


Those opportunities include minoring in French and allowing students to continue performing music without being part of the college’s music program.


At Triton Central, the marching band program was a huge part of Ackley’s life.


“I was really involved in the music department,” she said as her eyes lit up. “I was in marching band all high school, winter guard all years except one due to my injury and I played in jazz band this past year. And I was in concert band which was a class every year.


“I’ve done practically all forms of band you can do there.”


She sat up in her chair a little taller when asked to explain just how difficult marching band can be to succeed.


“Woo hoo … I get a lot of crap for this because people think marching band is not that tough,” she said with energy. “So I want you to jog but you can only breathe when I tell you and the rest of the time you must spend your time breathing out. It seems like a piece of cake but then you have to try and do it.


“You have to breathe out for like 20 seconds then I will tell you to breathe in.”


As for color guard?


“Specifically for guard, basically everyone is doing a modified version of ballet while running on the field with a heavy piece of equipment in your hands.”


And then there is music to learn?


“You have to be able to play an instrument first and a lot of people just can’t do that,” she continued. “It’s a lot of mental work. You have to memorize your music. You have to play your music well. You have to keep good posture. You have to march correctly and if you don’t do all of those things correctly it’s not going to come out well.


“You have to march well in order to sound good, and if you don’t sound good even when you march, what’s the point? There are a lot of moving pieces and it’s a lot of mental effort to coordinate it all together.”


Ackley suffered a severe neck injury in an automobile accident during her junior year which prepped her for a serious dose of virtual learning that was on the horizon.


“I broke my neck on Oct. 27 my junior year,” she said. “I had to stay at school and do some things and went through virtual learning until early January (2020). So I had done something similar to e-Learning for two months and then I came back and was back in school and getting to do all the things I missed out on and then I went back home.”


The COVID-19 pandemic put all Indiana school systems into virtual learning outside of school buildings in March of 2020.


“It was something I felt like I had practice with but that doesn’t mean it was fun by any means,” said Ackley.


Earlham College is preparing for students on campus this fall and Ackley is ready to put her post-Triton Central plan into motion.


“The idea is to get my general degree then I would like to do a graduate program in Paris in genetics,” she said. “There is a lot you can do with those sorts of things because we still don’t understand how genes affect neurological disorders and diseases.


"And if I get really good at it, one day I would like to do something with cancer because there has to be something going on with genetics that we haven’t figured out yet.”