Valedictorians look toward graduation and beyond

A new crop of Clovis Unified graduates is emerging this week, sporting their caps, gowns and freshly printed diplomas, all ready to take on the world—whether that means hitting the books at college, entering the competitive work force, or serving our nation proudly in the military.

For these 17 and 18-year-olds, graduation is the pinnacle at the top of the educational mountain they’ve been climbing for 13-plus years. Looking down, each graduate can see the possibilities below as they pick their paths and start to map out their future. What mountains will they tackle next?

The Roundup spoke with a few Clovis Unified valedictorians who answered this very question—what is beyond high school? Valedictorians also shared their memories of high school, the challenges they faced and their advice for their fellow graduates.

Contributed Buchanan High School valedictorian Amanda West.
Buchanan High School valedictorian Amanda West. (Contributed)

Amanda West, Buchanan High School

When Amanda West walks up to receive her diploma at Buchanan High School’s ceremony on June 11, her parents Andrea and Scott may wipe away a few tears remembering how far their daughter has come since birth.

West was a preemie, born weighing only five pounds, one ounce. The beginning years of her life were spent in and out of Valley Children’s Hospital, where she received various treatments and surgeries for an inner cleft palate, clubfoot and to aid her right leg, for which she had no calf muscle.

While these medical challenges may slow some down, it never deterred West who made it her goal a young age to do everything she can and live life to the fullest.

“I can proudly say my disabilities never held me back,” West said. “I may be small in stature, standing at 4’10” and weighing only 73 pounds, but I feel my accomplishments so far have proven that it doesn’t matter how small someone is, they can still be successful.”

Throughout her school career, West has been involved in various activities. She served as student council vice president and president at her elementary school, Century Elementary. She participated in History Day. At Buchanan, she was a peer counselor, a member of the mock trial team, a member of the leadership team and a WEB (Where Everyone Belongs) leader.

Off campus, she volunteered as a P.E. tutor at a local elementary school, aided her church, Clovis Hills Community, in cooking breakfast for the homeless and helping with various other church outreach events. She also volunteered with Miss Winkles Pet Adoption Center, Read Fresno, the Fresno Fly Fishermen’s Conservation Club, which does river clean-ups from time to time, and her mom’s work Fresno County Federal Credit Union, which puts on charitable events to benefit places like the Poverello House, the Ronald McDonald House and Golden Living Center.

In school, she even participated in sports—T-ball, softball, volleyball, track, basketball and her favorite at Buchanan High, badminton.

“My parents always encouraged me to get involved in school and to try things I didn’t think I could do,” West said. “I may not have been the best athlete out there, but I tried hard and most importantly, had fun.”

Winning a Valley championship for badminton is one memory West will cherish forever.

Another memory from her senior year that West will always remember is modeling in Buchanan’s annual Ambiance Fashion Show—an event near and dear to her heart as it raises money for Valley Children’s Hospital.

“Valley Children’s was the hospital that aided me with my disabilities when I was born so it felt great that I was able to give back to them,” West said.

Being named valedictorian was something West dreamed of since the start of high school.

“I wanted to get straight A’s and I pushed myself to be successful,” West said. “It was a hard road to go down. It wasn’t easy. It took hard work, time and dedication.”

This fall, West will be attending Fresno State, majoring in Liberal Studies in the hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher and later on, an administrator.

Her advice to her fellow graduates is to not be scared to ask for help when you need it.

“I got a lot of help throughout the years,” West said. “To be valedictorian, yes you have to be smart but part of that is knowing to ask for help when you need it. Without help from others I would never have achieved my goal, so don’t be afraid to ask.”

Elizabeth Theng, Clovis North High School

Clovis North valedictorian Elizabeth Theng is one of those rare individuals who can’t be labeled as “right brain” or “left brain”—she could become a successful doctor or an equally successful lawyer, its all a matter of choice; she has the talent.

Theng’s current plans include going to medical school to be a doctor. She loves all things scientific—competing in Science Olympiad and Chemistry Olympiad, taking multiple advanced courses in biology, chemistry, physics and calculus, and serving as a summer intern at Community Regional Medical Center.

On the other hand, she also has a knack for persuasion in the courtroom as a member of Clovis North’s mock trial team. Her favorite high school memory is actually competing with the team at the international tournament in New York City. She even put her attorney skills to good use in the political realm, volunteering with Andy Vidak’s office during his last campaign.

“The funny thing is I have a friend who is also good in both areas but she is leaning toward law school,” Theng said. “In order to get into law school you have to take the LSAT, and for medical school you have to take the MCAT. She and I have decided we will take both when the time comes—she will take the MCAT for fun and I’ll take the LSAT for fun, just to see if we can pass.”

Separate from both these avenues, Theng also has a passion for foreign languages and did the unthinkable in taking Spanish and French simultaneously while at Clovis North, even moving up to the AP level in both.

Truly, the doors are wide open to Theng and her toughest challenge is picking one.

For now, her choice is to go Pre-Med as a participant in the Smittcamp Honors College at Fresno State—a great program, but a tough decision for someone who was accepted to Stanford University.

“I hope I don’t live to regret my decision,” Theng said. “I considered both schools. I toured both and spoke with students and I just felt Fresno State was the better fit for me. There are a lot of opportunities as Fresno State and while Stanford would have been amazing, in talking to students there I know Stanford is highly competitive academically and students break down from the pressure. If I went there, I would have to solely focus on my Pre-Med class work and I wouldn’t have time to explore my other interests. In that respect, Fresno State had more to offer me.”

The choice for Theng ultimately was about being authentic and genuine with herself—something she encourages her fellow graduates to be in all that they do.

“Be genuine in everything you do,” Theng said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the hours of studying and forget about the purpose behind what you are doing. You might be tempted to give up or to cheat, but be responsible and remember why you are there and what you want to accomplish and work hard to achieve your goal.”

 

Rachel Rubin, Clovis West High School

Stress—its something every high-achieving student like Rachel Rubin has had to deal with, but for Rubin stress is more than just, well stressful, it can be dangerous.

Before high school, Rubin was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a rare disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands produce too little of the hormone cortisol—a hormone that helps people keep their stress levels under control.

Without enough of cortisol, Rubin has had to learn to manage her stress in other ways—a feat that would be difficult for the average student to accomplish let alone a valedictorian. But, Rubin takes it in stride, saying the diagnosis has actually been a blessing in disguise.

“It forced me to learn extreme time management and how to balance everything,” Rubin said. “I also had to rely on others in my safety net—my peers who went through all the advanced courses with me—they helped me see the humor in it all. I also learned how to be more aware of my own body. I have watch my blood sugar and blood pressure and take it easy when I feel a cold coming on as I have a longer recovery from those.”

All these life skills, Rubin said, have equipped her well to take on the new challenges she will face this fall when she starts at Duke University. Currently undeclared, Rubin is going to pursue her many passions before making a firm decision—she loves forensic science, is enamored with law and the justice system, loves to write and is also interested in psychology.

Whatever path she choose, Rubin said she will always remember the friendships—the “safety net”—she had at Clovis West.

“There are 24 valedictorians at Clovis West and I feel that our success is not a reflection of personal success but team success,” Rubin said. “All of us started on this journey together in 7th grade, taking algebra and then all moving up in the advanced courses together at Clovis West. We had the same schedule and we looked out for each other. Several of us chose to take AP Chemistry our sophomore year, which is pretty ambitious. That was the toughest course in high school and I couldn’t have done it without that safety net of peers.”

Keeping that in mind, Rubin said her advice to everyone is to not compare themselves to others.

“Don’t underestimate yourself or the people around you,” Rubin said. “Don’t dwell on what other people are capable of versus what you are capable of because that will bring you down or bring others down. Stay positive and new doors for achievement will open for you.”

Contributed Clovis High valedictorian Thanhmai Le
Contributed
Clovis High valedictorian Thanhmai Le

Thanhmai Le, Clovis High School

As a first generation Vietnamese American, Thanhmai Le knows the value of an American education and doors it can open—that’s why she worked as hard as she could at Clovis High School, taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way.

Both Le’s parents immigrated to American and worked hard to make a better life for themselves. Her father, Son Le, came here to escape communism and went to school for mechanical engineering. He now designs wheelchairs. Her mother, Thao Mai, came to America years later already equipped with a high education from Vietnam. Since her units there didn’t transfer, Thao Mai put herself through school a second time here in the states. She now works in the respiratory center at St. Agnes.

“They really inspired me to do my best and pursue each opportunity that came my way,” Thanhmai Le said.

Unlike many students who may say their favorite memories were winning a Valley championship in a sport or going to prom, Le says the memories she will carry with her from Clovis High School are academically centered.

“I’ll never forget those moments I spent cramming for a big test,” Le said. “I’ll also remember all the activities I was involved in, like History Day, Academic Decathlon, Math team and Science Olympiad. I’ll always remember the project I worked on for Science Olympiad where we had to find the golden ratio in music. I loved learning outside the classroom and applying what I learned through projects.”

This fall, Le will continue to pursue her academic goals at UC Davis, where she plans to major in biochemistry and molecular biology with the goal of becoming a pharmacist.

“I’ve always had an interest in medicine,” Le said. “I volunteered at St. Agnes and was inspired by the nurses and doctors and how they were able to save lives. I really enjoy the chemistry and biology part of it so I think being a pharmacist would be the best fit for me.”

Though Le emphasizes working hard and making the most of every opportunity, her advice to her classmates is to take a step back and remember to enjoy life.

“In applying for colleges and scholarships and studying so much this year, my senior year just passed me by,” Le said. “It went by so fast I forgot to really enjoy it so that’s my advice. Slow down sometimes and remember to enjoy yourself.”