D210527 austin high grad

Caroline Branum is among about 360 seniors graduating from Austin High tonight. She wants to study nursing to help babies born prematurely like she was in 2003. [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY]

Caroline Peyton Branum was born prematurely — at 27 weeks — at UAB on March 3, 2003, and remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for 98 days. Now 18, the Decatur native graduates tonight from Austin High and wants to someday be able to help other families facing premature births.

“I want to be a nurse. I want to help those families,” said Branum. “Pretty much all of my life, I’ve never said I wanted to be anything else but a nurse.”

Branum will attend the University of North Alabama in the fall to pursue a nursing degree, then she plans to work as a nurse for a year before continuing her education to be a nurse practitioner in a hospital NICU or in pediatric care.

She’s among about 360 seniors who will graduate at Austin’s stadium at 7 tonight.

“Each student gets eight tickets, and families must sit together,” said Principal Demond Garth. He said there’s adequate space for social distancing among visitors in the stands and on the field.

Branum started her health care experience in the ninth grade, in the health science program at Career Academies of Decatur, and she’s also been involved with Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA). She was selected for a limited number of spots for a medical internship during her senior year, after applying and undergoing interviews with a panel of health science instructors.

“I’ve learned the terminology and many skills to where I’m prepared for college,” she said.

“She excels in everything she does,” said Kiersten Jones, a registered nurse and medical internship instructor. “She sets goals and makes sure she reaches them. She’s very driven.”

Jones said Branum “excels in making people feel comfortable,” even making children feel at ease for procedures like taking blood pressure.

Branum and Lily Clowers decided to compete this year in the HOSA state competition for secondary students and developed a health career display on animal-assisted therapists, spending months doing research about the job and designing and assembling the display.

“We tried to think outside the box of an occupation that not many people think of,” Branum said.

She and Clowers won first place in the health career display category, and Jones said the top three winners’ entries in each category are sent to HOSA’s International Leadership Conference, a virtual conference to be held next month.

“That was definitely a (senior year) highlight, winning that state competition,” Branum said. “It was truly amazing to see us place first.”

Dawn Myatt, who teaches dual-enrollment English classes at Austin, described Branum as a hard-working student and a perfectionist.

“She is very future-oriented and career-minded already, even at the age of 18,” Myatt said.

Another highlight of the year for Branum was being able to cheer at Austin for a fourth year, despite the pandemic, and being named varsity cheerleading co-captain.

“I’m very grateful that we got to stunt and tumble like we normally would and cheer at games,” she said. “It may have looked a little different, but it was still a lot of fun and I’m glad I got to participate in the sport that I love all senior year.”

Branum, who’s receiving an advanced diploma with honors, has been able to juggle academics with a long list of activities: Austin Ambassador, HOSA class representative, secretary of the Key Club and Alabama Youth Leadership Development Program. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Mu Alpha Theta and Recycling Team. She was named a 2021 Star Senior.

“I’m a very organized person,” said Branum, the daughter of Julie and Richie Branum. “I’m definitely a planner. I like to have my weeks planned out.” Although her schedule could get hectic at times, “at the end of the day, I always figured it out,” she said.

Branum’s mother, a UNA graduate, convinced her to tour the school.

“When I stepped on the campus, it felt like home,” Branum said. “It made me feel comfortable.”

Branum has received three scholarships through UNA and one from the Decatur Kiwanis Club.

Even though Branum is looking forward to starting her college experience, she’ll miss her high school.

“Austin High School is one big family,” she said. “The teachers and the staff are so welcoming. They make each student feel loved and cared for.”

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marian.accardi@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.

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