Kaleigh Mattos, Southeast Bulloch High School’s valedictorian, recently read a letter she wrote to her future self when she was a student in Cindy Mott’s eighth grade science class at Southeast Bulloch Middle School. The letter made a prediction of who would be valedictorian of their senior class, but Mattos had not listed herself. It was not until after her freshman year that she began to think about the possibility that is now reality.
Mattos is the daughter of Josh and Dana Mattos of Bulloch County. She has chosen to attend the University of Alabama, where she has been accepted into the university’s honors program and selected as one of its Blount Scholars. A competitive application and interview process led to her selection into the living and learning community. She was also awarded Alabama’s Presidential Scholarship and Tutwiler Scholarship. While she did not receive it, Mattos was also one of the top 60 finalists from more than 2,000 applicants for the University Fellows program, which ultimately honors the top 25 incoming freshmen.
“I visited Clemson, South Carolina and the University of Georgia, but they didn’t feel like home,” Mattos said. “When I went to Alabama to tour, they wanted me to be there, and they wanted me to be part of and serve the community. They really create a sense of community.”
She’s fully committed to her chosen university, even dressing her graduation gift, a Corgi puppy, in a collar and jersey in the iconic crimson and white. The new furry friend was a gift from her parents, but unfortunately little Maggie May will have to stay behind with her parents and younger twin siblings, who are Clemson Tiger and Georgia Southern Eagle fans.
Mattos plans to major in biology and then attend dental school and seek a career as an orthodontist. She’s already learning all she can from local orthodontist Dr. Michael Wall, with whom she plans to complete a summer internship.
Mattos credits her science teacher, Danielle Hibbs-Heiser, who taught her biology her freshman year and Advanced Placement Biology her senior year, as a key influence in her interest in science and to pursue a science-related career.
“I learn best by using analogies,” Mattos said. “I have these weird mnemonics, and Ms. Hibbs-Heiser understands that and encouraged it. She really made me love science and genetics.”
Mattos' other major interest in high school was music. She was a member of her school’s internationally acclaimed advanced and women’s choruses.
“Kaleigh is one of those students whom you never have to worry about working on any task you have for her,” said SEBHS Choral Director Brent Whitaker. “You simply show her what needs to happen, walk away, and rest assured knowing she will not only accomplish it, but she will do all she can to exceed in every way, and get others to do the same. If I was running a company or recruiting, this would be the number one thing I would be looking for! I consider it an honor to have been able to direct her for the time I have had her here.”
“Mr. Whitaker is one of my biggest role models,” Mattos said. “Chorus was one thing that was a constant for me through high school. He pushed me to be better, to get things done, and to be on time and not be late.”
That work ethic helped her excel in a variety of areas in high school. She was a semi-finalist for Governor’s Honors and a founding member of the school’s Youth Action Team’s Game Changers Chapter that collaborates with the Bulloch Alcohol & Drug Council to help educate local youth about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. This year she was a member of SEBHS’ one-act play cast which won Best Play at region competition, and she was named Best Actress. She was also a member of the Literary Team and won second place in Humorous Oral Interpretation last year.
School may have been closed from March 17 – May 22, but Mattos did not slack off and neither did her teachers. Her advanced placement teachers posted frequent content and lectures and helped ensure she was prepared for the college board’s advanced placement exams in her subjects.
Mattos’ good humor has helped keep her upbeat as well. She incorporated her gift of humor into her valedictory address referencing the separation from her fellow classmates as the speech was videotaped for future broadcast.
“As I stand here today in front of, well, no one,” she said laughing. “Life is just more fun when you can joke about it.”