Positive attitude, inner drive propels Blackfoot graduates

Claudia Maldonado and Jesse Nieto will be among an estimated 246 Blackfoot High School students who will receive their diplomas at the school’s 7 p.m. commencement ceremony Friday. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh of eight articles previewing soon-to-be graduates from the Post Register’s coverage area.

About 246 students will graduate from Blackfoot High School on Friday at the school’s 7 p.m. commencement. The ceremony will take place in the performing arts center with overflow seating in the gym.

The following are profiles of two graduating seniors handpicked by school staff.

Jesse Nieto

Maneuvering through Blackfoot High School’s winding, crowded hallways takes a bit more planning, practice and skill for Jesse Nieto than for most students.

The 17-year-old has spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the embryonic neural tube doesn’t close or develop properly. (The neural tube eventually develops into the brain, spinal cord and tissues that enclose them.) As a result of his disorder, Nieto needs mobility assistance to get around.

“Basically, a bone fragment is missing from my spinal cord,” Nieto said. “I’m not able to walk straight or do most stuff without a wheelchair or crutches … I have to do things differently — I don’t have the same range as everyone else.”

At school, Nieto most often is seen in a wheelchair, but you’d hardly notice he even thinks twice about it. He expertly weaves around students as he moves through the building. His positive attitude is a choice, he said.

“If you have a bad attitude, it’s not really going to help you in anyway,” he said. “You’re just going to be bummed about everything and you won’t even try to see what you can do to make things (better). Whereas, if you’re positive about it, you’ll usually have a clear mind and you can think of ways to overcome things.”

Holly Kartchner, Nieto’s junior year history teacher, said he always was eager to participate in classroom discussions and brought a unique insight to the class.

“I don’t think he ever perceived himself as not being able to do everything everyone else can,” she said. “Even though he may have some physical limitations, he always talked about all the things he can do and all the things he wants to do … intellectually and as far as his capability, I think he can do anything he wants to do.”

Nieto hasn’t quite decided on his post-graduation plans. But he is entertaining the idea of attending college at some point. He would study either accounting or engineering to design wheelchair parts.

His advice to students facing hardships is simple:

“Having challenges definitely makes you stronger,” he said. “It makes you think to overcome them. I’d say, stay positive in your way of thinking (and) don’t be down all the time. You’re not going to think too much with an, ‘Oh this is hard’ or ‘Oh I can’t do this’ sort of attitude.”

Claudia Maldonado

When Claudia Maldonado steps foot onto a college campus in the fall, she’ll be the first in her family to do so.

The 17-year-old’s parents came to the U.S. from Mexico. Neither went to college, but they’ve pushed Maldonado throughout her life to do so.

“They would tell me, ‘it’s really important,’ I really have to maintain good grades and (college) was always a goal we had been focused on,” she said. “They realized it was a very important factor in life.”

In turn, Maldonado’s excelled academically. She’s maintained a high grade-point average, she’s been involved in art club, symphonic band and concert band. In addition, she was a state qualifier for the Business Professionals of America, as well as a member of the high school’s “We the People” team that recently received a national award.

Next year, she plans on attending either Idaho State University or Boise State University and studying political science. She hopes to continue on to law school, either at Stanford University or Brigham Young University.

That doesn’t surprise Kartchner, who advised the high school’s “We the People” team.

As a Hispanic student, Maldonado has made a point of defying the odds, Kartchner said.

“She’s dedicated, motivated, hardworking, honest and intellectually curious,” Kartchner said. “She’s really willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. She’ll do whatever she needs to do to achieve her goal.”

Things haven’t always been easy for Maldonado. When she was 12, her mother was applying for American citizenship, but due to an issue that arose with the family’s attorney, her mother was unable to become a citizen. As a result, Maldonado’s mother was forced to return to Mexico while the family worked with a different attorney. In all, Maldonado was separated from her mother for a year.

Mother and daughter stayed in touch by talking over the phone almost every night.

“It was really tough,” Maldonado said. “I was young, but it kind of just pushed me to mature at a younger age than a lot of people. And I really learned, life isn’t fair … school became something to focus on. It really gave me something to lean on and gave me purpose.”

Even through the family hardships, Maldonado said her parents urged her to continue her studies.

Today, having achieved success, Maldonado advises anyone going through similar struggles to find something positive to focus on.

“It’s worth it, I would say, to push through something,” she said. “It’s tough, but at the end of the day, trials are going to happen. It’s really our choice to determine how it’s going to end up. If something knocks you down, you can still make something good out of it.”

Reporter Kirsten Johnson can be reached at 542-6757.