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Menino Celebrates Boston High School Valedictorians

This article is more than 11 years old.

Tuesday afternoon, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino hosts a luncheon at the Boston Harbor Hotel in honor of the 33 valedictorians of the Boston Public Schools class of 2012.

More than a third of the honorees were born outside of the U.S. and that some of them were already in High School when they arrived here.

Tao Nguyen: Vietnamese Immigrant And Quick Learner

"My sophmore year, the year I came to America, afraid and lost," says Tao Nguyen, valedictorian at Excel Academy in South Boston Educational Complex.

Thao Nguyen (Courtesy Excel High School)
Thao Nguyen (Courtesy Excel High School)

Lost no more, Nguyen is a confident 17-year-old. She in part gives credit her to her AP Biology teacher, Victor Pereira.

"Mr. P, I don't know if anyone else thinks of you this way, but to me you're like an enzyme, what an enzyme does is that it lowers the activation energy for a reaction to happen," she says.

As Nguyen proves her mastery of biology, the Dorchester teen, born in Vietnam, says she would spend six hours a night studying for her three AP classes.

"Handling these pages from the text book hasn't been easy for me, when at the beginning of the year, it took me eight hours... to finish reading one chapter."

Maura McCormack, student development counselor at Excel Academy, has known Nguyen since she first immigrated from Vietnam.

"She just gets the job done. She's one of the most reliable students I've ever come across," says McCormack. "She's pretty exceptional. She did study english in Vietnam. She did have a stronger English base when she came here than some of the other students that we have. She just plugs away. She made learning English her goal and she's clearly succeeded."

Tao Nguyen shares top honors at Excel Academy with Steven Clifford, a student from the Monument High School which merged with Excel this year. Counselor McCormack says there's something special about both of them.

"Neither one of them ever makes excuses for not getting what they need to get done done. Both Tao and Steven have never used their life situation as an excuse to not succeed in school. It's really inspiring," says McCormack.

Steven Clifford: Cancer Survivor, Future Oncologist

Clifford, now 18-years-old, was living in Middleboro and played three sports, on his way to being a jock, when he was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg when he was 11-years-old.

Steven Clifford (Courtesy Excel High School)
Steven Clifford (Courtesy Excel High School)

"I had to undergo multiple chemotherapy treatments, and then they had a bone re-section, which was they took out by tibia, replaced it with a donor bone, plates and screws," says Clifford.

Clifford, his mother and 6-year-old sister now live in Roxbury, closer to the medical treatment he needs. This year has been especially difficult for him.

"I aggravated a nerve from a previous surgery. The nerve would act up anytime it wanted. So I would have shooting pains throughout my leg for about a month-and-a-half to two-and-a-half months kind of time range. I had surgery and everything," he said.

"Steven and I were in Monument [High School] together for the three years before the merger last year," says Beth Bernstein, Clifford's student development counselor at Excel Academy.

"He's just a very inspirational kid, you wouldn't know anything was wrong just by looking at him," says Bernstein. "When I found out what he had been through I was shocked and amazed at his perseverance. And he's just truly a remarkable young man. He's currently enrolled in three AP classes. He did what he needed to do while he was home, never received tutoring."

Steven Clifford even kept his grades up. Now, he says he wants to be a pediatric oncologist.

"Experiences do turn out to shape who you are. I mean if I wasn't diagnosed with osteosarcoma when I was 11, then I wouldn't be on the same path I'm on now, I wouldn't want to become a pediatric oncologist and help people. It's weird, I'm not glad that I got it but I'm glad I got the experience from having cancer," says Clifford.

Chantelle Jones: 'Be A Leader, Not A Follower'

Oncology studies are in the future for another of this years valedictorians. Chantelle Jones of Jamaica Plain, who attends the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, says her aspirations are propelled in part by memories of her late father.

Chantelle Jones (Courtesy)
Chantelle Jones (Courtesy)

"I was 6 when he passed of cancer. Since I lost someone dear to me, I feel that I want to help other people," she says.

Jones who lives with her mother and describes herself as hard-working and persistent, is low-key, but self assured. The Health Careers Academy Assistant Headmaster, Angela Hedley, says Jones is helping the school make its mark in the academic and life sciences community; after Jones and a partner won the school's science fair, the pair went on to win the citywide science fair.

"[The] citywide competition is very steep. I mean you're competing with Latin School and all the exam schools," says Hedley.

Headmaster Hedley says Jones has proved herself as an innovator.

"A lot of students will take a project that's been done and just re-do it and write the research, but Chantelle really took it upon herself to do a project that wasn't a stock project that you could find on a website," she says.

"A lot of times at citywide science fair it's a lot of lab projects sponsored by Brigham and Women's, and Mass General or Genzyme or something like that, but this was a homegrown project that won first place."

Jones says that streak of originality and innovation grew out of a lesson she learned early in life, that she hears often from her mother.

"She alwayes reminds me of this quote my father used to tell me: 'Be a leader, not a follower.' That really motivates me to keep pushing on."

Diana Florencio: A Difficult Transition

Diana Florencio, a 17-year-old and top student at the Boston Community Leadership Academy, says she had a hard transition when she moved to Boston.

Diana Florencio (Courtesy)
Diana Florencio (Courtesy)

"I was born in the Dominican Republic. I came here when I was nine. First of all I didn't know the language that much. Second of all I came with my dad only, so my mom had to stay behind for a while."

But Florencio says that this difficult transition helped her become the person she is today.

"I feel like I'm a really responsible, respectful dedicated person. I feel like those changes made me become more than I was before."

Florencio says she's glad that her family came to America.

"I feel like coming here made me become more advanced," she says.

"Shes going far, she's a student that's going to go far," says Zayda Gonzalez, the assistant headmaster at the Leadership Academy. Gonzalez says Florencio stands out not just academically, but in the total life of the school, leadership, community service, and sports.

"While here she's involved in the school community. She's a member of the National Honor Society, she has probably more than a hundreds hours of community service. [She's a] very responsible person: on time with all of her projects. She knows how to speak and stand up and advocate for herself, Holy Cross is getting a very good student."

The College of the Holy Cross is next for Diana Florencio who wants to become a dentist. Chantelle Jones is headed to Boston College for a double major in pre-med and business.

"I've been in remission for 5 years," says Steven Clifford. He is also the winner of the Christian Herter Scholarship - which covers only part of his college costs. Clifford is headed west after graduation, he will be studying at the the University of California, San Diego.

"The weather affects my leg and so when its cold my leg hurts more often, the University of Calif, San Diego had great weather, being in San Diego, which is helpful, but I also wanted to look at schools that had good biology departments which they have one of the best in the country."

Tao Nguyen has yet to decide what her major will be when she enrolls at North Eastern University this fall.

"I would like to, after college, I want to pay my parents [back,] they have used their whole lives to develop me," she says.

Through hard work, diligence, supportive parents, committed teachers, these valedictorians have conquered challenges to make it to the top of their class.

This program aired on May 29, 2012.

Delores Handy Reporter
Delores Handy was formerly a host and reporter at WBUR.



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