North’s do-it-all valedictorian
Sophie Elam doesn’t have time to procrastinate, and that’s the way she likes it.
As one of North Medford High’s 10 valedictorians, Elam has the GPA (4.0; 4.28 weighted), honors and scholarship bucks typically associated with those of that distinction. But that would make up only the first few lines of Elam’s résumé, which may well grow an inch in the time it takes to read this story.
She is North Medford’s student body president. She has won enough scholarships to fill a paragraph or two in the transactions section of today’s sports page. She’s the school’s Pear Blossom Princess, President’s Gold Award winner for educational excellence, an OASSA Student of Merit. She won the school’s outstanding orator award as a sophomore — the same year she was named Miss Jackson County’s Outstanding Teen — and represented the school as one of Southern Oregon’s Top 10 Emerging Leaders.
Still, those are only a few academic/leadership highlights plucked from a much longer list. Then there are Elam’s athletic achievements. Considering her college of choice and ultimate career plans, some may wonder why she would bother with a sport. College is hard enough without the demands of an NCAA Division III practice schedule, and California Institute of Technology isn’t just any college — it routinely ranks among the top 10 science and engineering schools in the country.
But Elam isn’t planning to compete in one sport there. She’ll be participating in two: soccer and track.
Why? How? Elam, who has a soft speaking voice capable of disarming those intimidated by her credentials, says for her it’s just better to fill every gap in her itinerary, then keep moving to stay on top of it all.
“Staying busy helps me focus on things more because I know that my time that I dedicate to one thing is so much more valuable because I don’t have the time to do it later,” she said. “So if I’m at soccer, that’s my chance to not think about school and not think about student government, but just to focus on what I’m doing in the moment.”
Elam says she finds motivations all around her every day. While others pull out their phones and watch from a distance, Elam jumps into the fray. Where others see obstacles, Elam sees motivation.
“Overall, I’m a very passionate person, and my big driving force in life that I’ve kind of found over the last year is that I really like adventure and I like having new experiences, and I really want to try it all,” she said. “And so I’ve really found that it is possible to do everything.”
Some, she says, may warn her that she’s spreading herself too thin.
“But it’s kind of, hey, if I can, I can,” she said. “So it’s about where I place my priorities. It’s what I enjoy doing and it’s what I’ve always done, I guess.”
Her mom, Helena Elam, concurs. Her daughter’s drive is something she can hardly relate to. She suspects it’s a personality trait Sophie inherited from her dad, Doug Elam, a freshman algebra teacher at North Medford who used to coach college football. Before the Elams settled down in Medford they moved from town to town following coaching jobs. There were stops in San Diego, Montana, Puget Sound, Ashland, a few NAIA gigs in the Midwest.
Sophie was about 4 when the Elams finally decided to park in Medford. Here, Helena says, her daughter’s ambitions seemed to explode early on in high school. “She gets inspired and it gives her energy, and then wants to put it into something,” Helena Elam said.
That’s an understatement. Like an adult with a full-time job, Sophie Elam tucks in early and sometimes beats the sun in the morning, usually rising before 6. There were signs that she was perhaps more goal-oriented than most kids her age even before high school. It turns out that that wasn’t a phase. It’s just who she was, and is.
“Even on the weekends it’s hard to get her to sleep in,” Helena Elam says. “But also, she gets to a certain point at night and, whether she’s asleep or not, she’s kind of done. Parents used to love having their kids come spend their night at our house because they knew their kids would go to bed before 10. Because Sophie would be no fun. She’d just be, ‘OK, I’m done.’”
When asked to name a few North Medford High standouts whose accomplishments may warrant special attention, Jeri Childress, the Tornado Future Center office assistant and scholarship coordinator, raved about Sophie Elam and quickly fired off an email that itemized her awards. Then another. She also added a note that had less to do with Elam as a scholar and an athlete than Elam as a person: “Her energy is contagious and she makes everyone around her better by her positive can do attitude!”
Indeed, with a list of exploits as long as the one under her name, Elam could easily be mistaken for a single-minded overachiever focused like a Thales laser on expanding her LinkedIn page and little else. In fact, in the days after the Almeda fire part of her house looked more like a department store after she organized a relief effort to supply fire victims with items they might not be able to find in one of the many relief centers that sprouted up last fall.
Looking back, she said she didn’t exactly know what to do, only that listening to the stories and not acting was not an option.
“There was definitely this call to action and I felt like I had a position where I had a voice that could really help,” she said. “We kind of reached this conclusion that there are so many people in the valley who are coming together to do incredible things for people to meet the immediate, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs of the people who lost their homes. But what about those social-emotional, kind of second-level needs?”
So Elam, her family and friends decided to put together care packages that met some of those needs. The effort was staged at the Elams’ home, filling a bedroom and half a hallway.
“It’s like, FEMA’s not going to give you a book to read before you go to sleep,” she said. “I think we had thousands of dollars of monetary donations alone. We put together over 200 boxes of care packages. We had a couple SUVs and a couple trucks and made two or three trips to The Expo one day.”
Elam has also organized a Red Cross blood drive at North Medford and led 12 student government projects. Childress may have put it best: “She is involved in literally everything here on campus.”
And though her merit-based scholarships from Cal Tech totaled $57,354, when asked which award she is most proud of Elam singles out the Ryan Folsom Memorial Scholarship, named after the do-it-all North Medford alum who died in a car crash in 2018.
“As somebody who has gone to North, I’ve heard all these things about Ryan,” she said. “He was in student government, he ran track, he was an outstanding athlete, an outstanding student, somebody who the community really valued, and I think that, personally, those are things that I really try and be. I’m a varsity athlete, I’m student body president. These are things I very much associate with. So to be recognized and to see that not only do I see those values in myself but that other people see those, too, was very (important).
“It was just like, OK, I’m not crazy, I’m not just pretending to be these things. It’s something that other people view me as, too, and I think that was a really special moment for me.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.