Antioch High valedictorian, 13, sets sights on next chapter
By Lou Fancher
Despite standing less than 5 feet tall at the tender age of 13, there is nothing diminutive about Ella Nguyen.
Taking measure of the giant-sized tracks laid down by the Antioch High School senior and class valedictorian includes noting remarkable academic achievements that include mastering multiplication and division while still a preschooler, two weeks in kindergarten before jumping to first grade, bouncing past third grade and middle school entirely and landing at age 10 as a high school freshman with an IQ of 147.
While working her way to the top of the 2021 graduating class, Ella participated in Antioch High’s audio/video and anime clubs, created digital and traditional drawings, hung out with friends, read and reflected on books like “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka and listened to favorite band Radiohead’s 1997 album “OK Computer” “because I connect to it and it encapsulates many of my fears and thoughts,” she said.
Oh, and then there’s also the extracurriculars: Ella has completed college-level courses at Pittsburg’s Los Medanos College and before the pandemic volunteered for three years as a teacher’s assistant at Antioch’s Mission Elementary School, her alma matter. Antioch High Principal Louie Rocha was first impressed by Ella’s self-confidence and shortly thereafter by her academic eagerness.
“She stated that she has never been challenged academically and wanted to push herself to strive for excellence,” Rocha said. “She believed in her ability to meet the challenge and has demonstrated over the course of the past four years that she is well deserving as the valedictorian for the Class of 2021.”
Rocha recalls that by her third day on campus as a freshman, Ella told Vice Principal Mike Flosi that she no longer required an escort to class. Engineering Teacher Jason Ebner said Ella’s peers welcome her without reverence or hero worship.
“Four years ago, when Louie called to tell me about Ella coming to Antioch High, that she had chosen EDGE (the school’s Engineering and Designing a Green Environment program) as her academy of choice, I felt like we had won the lottery,” Ebner said. “As she graduates, I feel like we have truly witnessed the maturation process of someone special.”
English Teacher Samantha Lipisko joins the chorus of acknowledgement on a special note, remarking that Ella’s “quick quips,” kindness, dry wit and respect for her classmates softens the age difference. Even so, as a teacher she says, “Her ability to break down anything exceptionally complex is intense. The first time I saw her timed write “notes,” my English-teacher heart knew how unique and gifted she is. Honestly, I think she can break down anything thrown at her academically, not just through her natural gifts, but also her attitude that she will do what she needs to do no matter what.”
And it is in this attitude that Ella in a conversation casts the most notable image of a stable, fun-loving, intellectually curious and socially aware young girl moving toward adulthood at an admittedly rare and rapid pace. She says while tutoring young students at her former elementary school, she gained perspective that is empowering.
“You think of when you first learned something. (Tutoring) helps you reflect on those times and the impact it has on kids. Sometimes the way you explain something, they don’t get. You have to come up with a different way to present the information. Usually it was trying to approach it myself in different ways and then trying them until one fits what a student will do. It’s useful to connect it to other things they might know.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic and unable to interact directly with her peers, Ella found herself dwelling more often on internal thoughts.
“I do consider my year in quarantine to have both been the best and worst year of my (short) life so far,” she says. “It was easy to quickly ‘forget’ about the real-life external world and instead ‘trap’ myself in my own head with my thoughts. It was easier to get lost in self-reflection and endless mental tangents.” Asked if she felt “changed” by the experience, she says, “I can only leave it at this: The way I view and perceive things, as well as the way I think, feels like it has been fundamentally, irreversibly altered compared to the beginning of quarantine, for the better or worse.”
Exactly like people of any age coming out of the pandemic and looking to the future, Ella says the most common misperception about her, by people who know only of her academic history, is that she doesn’t really “have a life.” Instead, she says drawing, playing games, listening to music and spending time on the phone with friends are typical components of her daily life. Her father, Thanh Nguyen, says her self-confidence has increased during four years in high school and that as a parent, Ella’s well-being, safety and happiness have always been paramount to him.
“We have trust in her 100%,” he says.
That trust means it was Ella who made the decision to select predentistry as a major when she heads this fall to attend college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Her mother, Dr. Thao Tran, is a pharmacist, which Ella says was one of the factors influencing her career choice but that tutoring also had significant impact.
“I used to think I wanted to go into engineering, but now it’s dentistry. I did community service at my elementary school, and I wanted to directly help patients.”
Ella says she never felt pushed to accelerate through school by her parents.
“From my experience, it’s something that I am grateful for having been able to do. Of course from time to time I was temporarily concerned about it as being something that causes me to ‘lose five years of childhood.’ But ultimately everyone goes through the same things that I experience; I simply have the privilege of experiencing it earlier.”
If there is fear remaining in Ella’s life, it is the fear of growing complacent. Ten years from now, she hopes to have continued “fervor and passion” for pursuing fresh insights and discoveries.
“I don’t want to be sucked into the cog-in-the-wheel lifestyle of a job and family and that’s all you do. I want to always have something outside of that.”
For those who come to know Ella, there is little doubt she will proceed as planned.