Florida student overcomes adversity, becomes valedictorian

APOPKA, Fla. — High school graduation is special for every student, but it meant much for an Florida senior who was at the top of her class.

Marla Horn was among 728 students in Apopka High School’s Class of 2020 who were honored during a pandemic-style ceremony. There was a procession with a line of cars two miles long filled with bright minds and ambition. Horn, as valedictorian, led the way.

“I guess my whole outlook in life is not to worry too much on the little things or to stress myself out because it just spirals into something bigger that I can't control later on,” said Horn, who has a passion for dance and love for science.

Horn is heading to the University of Florida, where she plans to double major in aerospace and mechanical engineering. Her graduation ceremony took place Saturday, the same day as the first crewed space launch in nearly a decade.

But her path wasn’t always clear.

Horn was born in China and abandoned as a baby a victim of the country’s one-child policy. Ronald and Diana Horn adopted her as a toddler.

“I just always wanted to be a mom,” Diana Horn said. “And I remember gazing down at her while she was sleeping, and she looked up and did the big-eye thing at me, and I just couldn’t believe it. Was so surreal.”

Marla Horn would only have a few short years with her adoptive father, Ronald, who died suddenly from a heart issue when she was five. His birthday would have been the same day as her graduation ceremony.

“He was very, very proud of my accomplishments, even when I was five, because I think I got into the gifted program around that time,” Marla Horn said. “And he went out and bought a computer or a laptop for me at the age of five, because he was just so excited. And that’s just what I remember, was having fond memories of going to the park with him. So there was just a lot of love there.”

New Hope for Kids, an organization in Central Florida that helps children deal with grief, was there for Marla Horn in that moment. Later, she volunteered to help other children handle loss. She also helped feed the homeless, taught children to read and went back to China with her mother to adopt a little sister.

And it didn’t stop there.

“I was vice president of the Beta Club. I was in math honors society, science honors society,” she said.

Her mother said: “I don’t force her to do things. All I ask is that (she did her) best and she sets her own goals.”

Marla Horn said she also advises people to have fun.

“I think it’s really important to just remember to enjoy what you’re doing instead of focusing on the numerical aspects of your applications or other things like that,” she said. “Just make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing."