RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Kaden Olson-Walker has come a long way since his freshman year of high school.

“I struggled a lot when I first got into high school,” he said. “It was a weird scene and I was going through a lot. But now that I’m a senior it’s totally the opposite. I’m doing really well in life and not worrying about the little things. Just worrying about myself and not all the people around me.”

Olson-Walker’s growth reached a high point this year when he was named as one of 100 high school seniors in Wisconsin to receive a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Initiative Scholarship. The scholarship recognizes students who have demonstrated a high level of motivation, have shown strong promise for achieving success in college and beyond, and have overcome significant personal obstacles or adversity.

Olson-Walker will use the $10,000 scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s College of Pharmacy, which was recently ranked third in this year's U.S. News and World Report's ranking of pharmacy schools.

Olson-Walker said his drive to succeed in school has been the one constant in his life.

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“I didn’t really have a great life growing up and I think school was my only motivation because I wanted to be successful in my life,” he said. “Most of my high school career I’ve been in foster care, so it’s been kind of challenging with school work and other things, and I really just pushed myself through school.”

He said his first few years of high school were tough. But he found comfort as a member of the school’s GSA and helped organize a new group called TAG (Transgender Allies Group).

“It’s like a transgender support group but not just for transgender people,” he said. “The first year I joined was the first year we started it, and it kind of helped me step out of my comfort zone.”

He said things started to change for him about halfway through his junior year.

“I was always in my head a lot and I was always in the counselor’s office because I had some emotional breakdowns with a lot of stress and anxiety,” he said. “But since halfway through my junior year, and then my senior year, my head was just clear. I felt like I was on the right track.

Because I had people who I could talk to and people who I knew cared about me and actually cared about how I was feeling.”

Kaden Olson-Walker, left, with his foster family Ally Unger, Mason Unger, Derek Unger, Amanda Unger. Photo courtesy of Kaden Olson-Walker
Kaden Olson-Walker, left, with his foster family Ally Unger, Mason Unger, Derek Unger, Amanda Unger. Photo courtesy of Kaden Olson-Walker

With the support of his new foster family, Mason and Amanda Unger and their children Ally and Derek, Olson-Walker kept his eyes on the prize and continued to shine in the classroom. He took advanced placement chemistry and completed a college calculus class at UW-River Falls this past year to help him prepare for the rigors of pharmacy school.

“My cousin was a pharmacist and always talked about it and I thought it was a really cool career,” he said. “And I’ve always been fascinated with science and math. So I thought it was just something for sure I wanted to do.”

He said not being able to attend school the last few months because of the coronavirus pandemic has been tough, although he has been able to put in more hours at his job at Moody’s Corner in River Falls.

“I was still working, so I got more hours and was making more money,” he said. “But it was hard having that feeling I wasn’t able to finish my senior year, and that was kind of hard for me because it was kind of abrupt and we didn’t have any warning.”

He also wasn’t able to attend the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation recognition luncheon, which was scheduled for April 26, in Baraboo, or walk across the stage to receive his diploma at graduation.

“That was a huge milestone in my life that I was looking forward to,” he said. “I knew that I was going to miss school when I graduated but it came too early. I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone and have those memories of the last few months.”

He said he’s going to miss all the people who helped him navigate the challenges of high school the past four years.

“I grew connections with my teachers and my principal and my counselors,” he said. “Most every single teacher I had I grew a connection with, and I’m going to miss that.”