The vast majority of Saint Ignatius High School students matriculate to a college or university after graduation -- 99% to be exact.
It's also a safe bet that 99% of graduating seniors would never think of running a marathon, and most would not consider a gap year.
But Luke Van de Walle is not your average 18-year-old. In fact, he's quietly extraordinary -- a humble, kind, and caring young man with a bright future ahead.
The Pepper Pike native is getting ready to embark on a journey not often traveled. Van de Walle is getting ready to take a gap year in Ecuador before enrolling at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2020. In a way, maybe running a marathon prepared him for his unique path.
His voyage to this point began on January 1. As many rang in the new year with empty resolutions, Van de Walle committed himself to a real and incredibly challenging goal -- running a marathon. He wanted to stay in shape after running track & field the previous season and completing his four-year run as a manager for the football team.
To prepare, Van de Walle did what any Millenial/Gen Z'er might do -- listen to podcasts. He looked up training methods, finding several websites with helpful tips. After watching some videos on YouTube, Van de Walle began his training journey, with his sights sets on running the Cincinnati Marathon on May 5, 2019.
Meanwhile, the college application process intensified. Van de Walle looked at a number of schools, searching for the right fit. After visiting some schools and doing plenty of research, he set his sights on Notre Dame. His parents, Tim and Ann, both attended ND and are proud graduates. Luke didn't feel any pressure from his parents, though.
As winter slowly transformed into spring, Van de Walle's training ramped up in preparation for the big day. In the midst of a busy second semester, Notre Dame sent its decision on his early admission application -- deferred.
As the Pepper Pike native continued his training regimen, the idea of a gap year surfaced. He began a rigorous application and interview process.
In the end, Van de Walle was rewarded for his efforts. He was granted a spot in The Global Citizen Year program. Not affiliated with any college, the program offers an immersion work experience with placement in one of four countries -- Ecuador, Brazil, India, or Senegal.
After much discernment, Luke had a strong sense that the gap year was his calling, and what God wanted him to do. Another curveball from Notre Dame solidified his decision. The prestigious Indiana school placed him on its waitlist.
Van de Walle did not allow the news to break his spirits. Instead, he marched forward with his gap year plan and his goal of running the marathon.
Running short distances during the week, Van de Walle reserved his long runs for Sundays, often his only completely free day (besides morning Mass). He also ran in the Cherry Blossom race, a 10-miler in Washington, D.C. Building his endurance, he looked ahead to the challenge of the 26-mile run.
At last, May arrived. And with it, a 4-hour trip south to Cincinnati.
Bringing his parents and siblings along, Luke headed to Cincinnati for his big day. On Sunday, May 5, Luke woke up in his hotel room at 5 a.m., ready to race.
Van de Walle arrived at 6:15 a.m. to prepare for the start of the race at 6:45 a.m. As the starting gun fired, he ventured out with the crowded pack. At the start, he made solid time. Halfway through, Van de Walle clocked in at 2:08. With adrenaline pumping and a great atmosphere surrounding him, he felt great. His legs felt good and his spirits were high, as a mix of pop and rock played in his headphones.
Around mile 17-18, Van de Walle hit the dreaded "wall," a well-known feeling of fatigue and tiredness that plagues many marathon runners. Fighting the feeling, Van de Walle soldiered on, though his pace slowed. At mile 25, he received a needed boost, in the form of his younger brother, Will '21. The brothers ran together for the final mile, providing one last boost for Luke.
Luke finished the marathon with a time of 4:47.48, above his initial goal, but a wave of satisfaction rolled over him.
Triumphant, Luke celebrated with his family. He even began to make plans to run another one, most likely a half-marathon over the summer.
"I really enjoyed it," Luke said. "It seemed like an impossible goal at first, but I pushed myself. I'm glad I did it."
Upon returning home, Van de Walle quickly fell back into his typical routine. With four AP classes to prep for, he didn't have much time to bask in his glory. On Tuesday, May 7, Van de Walle rolled through his routine, picking up his younger sister from school. As he pulled into the driveway, he received a call from a number with a South Bend area code.
Luke called the call "anti-climatic," but it would change the course of his life. Notre Dame offered him a spot in the class of 2024.
A gap year followed by the chance to attend Notre Dame immediately appealed to him.
"It's an amazing opportunity," he said. "This is a once in a lifetime chance, to live in another country and learn a different culture. If I didn't do this, I knew I would live the rest of my life thinking, 'What if?'"
After looking at the destination options, Van de Walle selected Ecuador. A country of 16.6 million people, Ecuador sits on the equator on the west coast of South America. A diverse country with Amazon jungle, Andean mountains, and the Galápagos Islands.
Van de Walle's experience will begin in August with 10 days at Stanford University for training. From there, he'll fly to Ecuador for an 8-month stay, living with a host family. Upon arrival, Van de Walle will interview with several organizations to determine where he will have an internship or apprenticeship. Most likely, he'll work in either social work or public policy.
"I'm excited, but very nervous," Van de Walle said. "The biggest difference will be the language barrier -- I'll be trying to learn Spanish over the summer. I took three years of Latin here. But I do have a friend who did it, and said it changes your life and gives you a different perspective."
His brother, Will, is also very thrilled for him.
"Poor Ecuador," Will joked. "But seriously, I support him 100 percent. I'm very excited for him. This is a great opportunity for him."
Luke's parents are very nervous, but they'll be able to visit early in 2020.
"I'm so lucky my parents value this type of education," Luke said. "They appreciate this type of education -- not being schooled in traditional ways, but you still learn a lot."
Van de Walle traveled to El Salvador on a mission trip through his parish, St. Dominic's, so he does have some miles under his belt. He also has other service experience with the Arrupe Summer Program and other groups on campus. In addition, he led the Jesuit Life Retreat in November.
Van de Walle is a favorite among teachers and staff members at Saint Ignatius.
Ask his teachers about him, and they will rave about his kindness and caring attitude. All agree that he has a limitless ceiling.
Here's a sampling of the good things his teachers said about him:
Cindy Reagan, Math Teacher:
"Luke is one of the kindest students I have ever taught. His quiet demeanor can disguise how deeply empathetic he is. I taught him during his junior year. He was one of the student leaders of "The Race", a 5K that raises awareness and money for innovative breast cancer research. That year, my best friend (who is diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer) was the honoree of the race. Knowing that I was going to be there to take part in the celebrations, Luke arranged a surprise: during the ceremonies, he and some of his classmates, honored me and my cancer fight. In the grand scheme of the day, it was a small moment - but for me and my family, it meant the world. I am so thankful to have taught, known, and been influenced by his generous, gentle soul. He is going to go and set the world on fire - I can't wait to watch him!"
Rory Fitzpatrick '88, Athletic Director:
"Luke is a fairly quiet guy, but is dedicated as anyone in our athletic program. He cares a great deal. You can tell when you talk to him that he's a very thoughtful person. With a decision like this, I knew he put a ton of thought into it. He's going to do great things. He's a leader, often by example, through his work ethic, dedication, and kindness. I'm struck by his kindness after talking to him. I'm super excited for him. This is an incredible opportunity. I know his mom and dad are nervous, because it's a big trip and a big change. But these opportunities don't come along often in life. For him to see that opportunity, realize that opportunity, and act on it, that's a smart young man. He has vision and courage."
Hugh McManamon '76, College Counselor:
"Working with Luke on his college process, and subsequently on his gap year decision, I was struck by the deep thought and discernment he exhibited. He is a very even-tempered young man, and really took the time to find out what God was calling him to for the future."
Bob Corrigan, History Teacher:
I taught Luke as a sophomore in AP US History. Luke began that year as a slightly timid gent, surrounded by twenty other brilliant students who made up our first class in the AP Capstone program. As the year progressed, Luke grew into his own as a student, a historian, and as a human being. He is whip-smart and terribly funny. However, what I will remember most about Luke are our chats during my 9th period proctoring assignment in Rade, this past year. As he and a few of his friends assisted me in my attempts to finish crossword puzzles, we would chat about politics and movies and music. Through these conversations, Luke demonstrated a deep compassion for all of those who are marginalized in this world. He is a kind and loving young man. It is of no surprise to me that he would choose to spend a year enriching his understanding of the world, the lives of those who struggle so terribly to survive within it, and the policies that those in power have put in place that maintains and exacerbate those struggles. Luke also hates Weezer."
David Sabol '99, Math Teacher:
"Luke was one of the originators of the podcast club. He is a student that takes needed time to prepare and reflect on what he is doing and wants to do. Taking a gap year is so clearly in line with the way he conducts himself in every way."
Jon Barker '87, Math Teacher:
"Luke was a rock solid AP Calculus BC student; he loves to learn and does it very well. He was a real team player in class this year -- always willing to help out his table buddies. He crushed the class all while being a great influence and having a good time in the process. 10/10 would teach again."
Dr. Anthony Fior '02, Theology Teacher:
"I taught Luke AP Research as a junior and spent time with him as a senior in our Emmaus Discernment group. Luke thinks deeply, wrestles with complex questions, and has a rich interior life. He cares about others and especially demonstrates a genuine concern for the poor and marginalized. He exemplifies what is best about our students -- a young man of competence, conscience, and compassion. I think very highly of him."
Ryan Franzinger '02, Assistant Principal for Student Discipline, Assistant Football Coach:
"Luke was a rock solid member of our football student-manager staff. This group is vital to the team's operations, especially on game days when they arrive several hours before team Mass, and they continue to work until all the equipment is unloaded and returned to storage after we return to campus. Luke understands the concept of personal sacrifice for the good of the group. Notre Dame is privileged to have him in their community."
On behalf of Saint Ignatius, congratulations, Luke! We can't wait to watch you succeed, in your gap year and beyond!