Like his classmates at Nogales High School, Issac Valenzuela has seen his last year of high school turned upside down as classes and year-end ceremonies were cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic.
But while he’s currently stuck at home studying for an advanced placement calculus exam that he’ll have to take online, the high achiever has started to see accolades roll in over the last few months and is now starting to look ahead to plans to go to college in California.
In January, NHS announced that Valenzuela would be the valedictorian of the Class of 2020, after he maintained a 4.88 weighted grade point average in high school. And in March, he was admitted to Stanford University, which he said was his “dream school.”
Valenzuela has been putting in hard work for years. When he started at NHS, he set goals for himself to earn an International Baccalaureate bilingual diploma and complete the toughest math classes that the school offers, since he wants to study engineering in college.
In his junior year, it looked like that plan might get derailed when he found out that a Spanish course he needed for the IB diploma would conflict with AP Calculus 1. He didn’t want to skip either.
“I was looking for ways to still take (both classes), because I knew I wanted to keep on track with my plans,” he said.
Eventually, his teachers approved a plan for Valenzuela to take calculus through the online learning program Edgenuity. He stayed after school every day, working on his own from 3-4 p.m.
“You do have a deadline to finish the semester in, but the pace that you take the work at is your own pace,” he said. “But I don’t think it was ever difficult to find motivation to do the class, especially because it was something that I knew I wanted to do for myself, I wasn’t obligated by anyone.”
Still, most of his learning has been in the classroom, and Valenzuela pointed to two instructors that he was grateful to study with during his senior year: physics teacher Vincent Dober and calculus teacher Jennifer Valenzuela.
“I like the way he teaches, it’s very efficient,” he said of Dober. “I understand the lesson. If I have questions, he’ll clear them up. He’ll make thinking simpler and I appreciate that.”
Valenzuela has also been an active presence for NHS outside of the classroom, competing in tournaments with the chess team and representing Nogales on the Governor’s Youth Commission.
He said the GYC is “a great chance to show a lot of good parts of Nogales” to students from other parts of the state. “A lot of the good parts that come with being in Nogales that you might not be able to see until you’re actually living there and experiencing it.”
But most important, Valenzuela said, was his time as a member and president of the local Future Business Leaders of America club.
The club organizes activities around Nogales, such as volunteering at the senior center and cleaning up a local cemetery. They also participate in competitions on subjects including accounting and management decision-making.
“FBLA leaves you well-rounded and helps you get skilled in many areas,” he said. “That allows you to be versatile with your learning.”
It’s also provided Valenzuela an opportunity to work with his mother Marcia Mendoza, who has been the FBLA club advisor at NHS for several years.
He laughed as he described the experience of working with his mom: “It can be more frustrating, because we do have that close relationship that allows us to be more expressive with our disagreements. But I just remember, I’m not really seeing her as a parent, it’s more of my advisor.”
In recent weeks, the two have had plenty of time together, as Valenzuela has hunkered down at home studying for the advanced placement exam.
The good news about college acceptances has brightened the mood.
“It was hard to believe,” he said about being admitted to several schools including, on March 27, Stanford. “I had hoped that I had a chance of getting in because of the work I’ve done in high school, but I never really imagined it becoming a reality.”
As he gets ready for college next year, Valenzuela is also preparing to leave Nogales, where he’s enjoyed a close relationship with his mom and his older brother, who is currently a student at the University of Arizona.
“I know leaving home is kind of the sad part of it,” he reflected, “but that’s all part of it, right?”