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Upcoming top grads reflect on high school careers

PALM BEACH GARDENS  |  The Diocese of Palm Beach honors its Catholic high school graduates, particularly the valedictorians and salutatorians, with senior spotlights. In the first of three articles shining a light on excellence in Catholic education, the Florida Catholic spoke with the top seniors at Cardinal Newman High School.

High school seniors this year will get to experience something that they generally missed four years ago — a graduation ceremony. As everyone was in the throes of the pandemic in May 2020, most schools elected to forgo an eighth-grade graduation ceremony in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For Nathaniel Gonzales, 2024 salutatorian at Cardinal Newman High School, the pandemic is a strange memory.

“Four years later, I don’t even think about it very much anymore,” he said. “This is the first actual graduation we’re having (since their eighth-grade commencements were canceled). And it just doesn’t register with me because it just feels like another milestone that we’re going through. I think we turned out fine.”

Both Gonzales and valedictorian Christopher Dougherty look back fondly to their involvement in the high school’s music program. A highlight for Dougherty was playing flute in the marching and concert bands and traveling with band friends to Universal Studios and Disney World.  

“I enjoyed being able to go to the games and be able to play and see the impact that we’ve been able to have on others,” said Dougherty, whose parents are John and Kristiann Dougherty.

In addition to being a cellist in the school orchestra, Gonzales enjoyed singing baritone in the chorus, which made a positive impact on his character. “I’d never sung in an official chorus until I joined the school and I ended up being in the chorus as an elective in freshman year,” he said. “I was a little unsure about it. After singing for a year, I found out I really liked it.”

A source of pride for Dougherty was completing a major service project by building benches for the Cardinal Newman campus.

“This has been a thing that’s been really building up for me because I’ve been kind of looking forward to it since then,” he said. “I had to do a lot of work, a lot of reaching out, a lot of resource gathering, and planning and organizing.”

Gonzales, the son of Peter and Josiephine Gonzales and the brother of last year’s valedictorian, Isabel Gonzales, said he’s proud of helping build a literary club at the school, which his sister started a few years ago. He and Dougherty are co-presidents of the club.

“Our purpose is to stimulate creative writing in kids,” Gonzales said. “A lot of us write stories. Some of us have completed actual novels already, though we haven’t published them. We focus on editing each other’s work, making suggestions, constructive criticism, and occasionally just making writing fun.”

Dougherty, who attended elementary school in Orlando, then middle school at All Saints in Jupiter, said Catholic education has helped hone his critical thinking skills, especially in theology classes taught by Michael Novak.

“He asks us a lot of questions during class. It’s really class-oriented with discussion. He gets us to really think about what we’re reading or what we’re talking about in class,” he said. “Another thing about Catholic schools that’s really good is that they helped me see the importance of faith in my life and how faith is necessary for my continual development and growth.”

Gonzales, who attended elementary and middle school at St. Clare in North Palm Beach, credits Catholic schools for helping him “say what I believe, live what I believe, and even talk to other people about what they believe, too, and maybe create some form of dialogue.” Novak, faculty advisor for the literary club and philosophy club, has helped nurture Gonzales’ search for common ground, the student said.

College plans for both top graduates may involve Ave Maria University near Naples. Gonzales is sure he will be going there, where his brother and sister attend, but Dougherty said he may head to the University of Florida instead, to major in biochemistry with a double major or minor in philosophy. Gonzales has his sights set on a nursing degree and possibly becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

For the students, who obviously put a lot of emphasis on academic achievement, careful attention to time management has been vital. Dougherty urges fellow students to limit club and sports activities to a few that they would like to help lead, while Gonzales says to beware of thinking that high school is “a Romeo and Juliet romance location.”

“It will happen when it happens,” he said. “Go in there, live your life, meet people. Try to look for friends. Don’t look for relationships, and maybe one will happen to you.”

For more information about Cardinal Newman High School, visit, call 561-683-6266 or follow the school on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.