Madison seniors share secrets of their success

Amanda Vu and Rhett Jensen graduated from Madison High School on Thursday at the Brigham Young University-Idaho Center in Rexburg. Both Vu and Jensen plan to attend college in the fall. Pat Sutphin /

Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a series previewing 2014 high school graduates from the Post Register’s coverage area.

A total of 330 graduating seniors at Madison High School received their diplomas Thursday at the Brigham Young University-Idaho Center in Rexburg.

Following are profiles of two graduating seniors handpicked by school administrators.

Amanda Vu

Five years ago, Amanda Vu was new to the United States and struggling to learn English.

But that didn’t stop Vu from earning her diploma. The 17-year-old was Madison High School’s salutatorian, graduating second in her class.

So, what was the secret behind her academic success?

Her attitude and willingness to work hard.

That work ethic impressed Madison High School counselor Elisa Gee.

“She came into the counselor’s office after she started school here and asked us to put her in any advanced or honors classes that were available,” Gee said. “Amanda is a hard worker and has been very proactive with her education.”

When Vu was 12, her parents left Vietnam for the U.S. Vu’s knowledge of English was limited at best.

“In Vietnam, I took some English classes, but I wasn’t fluent,” Vu said. “I only knew really basic things, like ‘Hello,’ and ‘How are you?’ — I couldn’t really carry on a conversation.”

Although Vu studied English four hours a day, she said it took her two years before she considered herself fluent.

“My parents signed me up for English classes when we moved to the U.S., but I learned a lot on my own,” Vu said. “I really had to learn to speak English if I wanted to be able to socialize with anyone.”

Vu said she also was motivated by the atmosphere that Advanced Placement classes offer.

“When I’m in AP classes, I’m surrounded by smart kids,” she said. “When I see them doing well on assignments, or learning a new concept, it makes me want to push myself harder.”

In addition to acclimating to a new country, and learning a new language, Gee said Vu had to overcome another obstacle.

“She had to deal with some family issues last year that caused her to miss some school,” Gee said. “Her mom lives in California, and last year, Amanda had to go stay with her for a while. During that time, she was emailing with teachers and submitting assignments online. She took the initiative in staying on top of things.”

And Vu plans to continue her education this fall.

“I’m going to attend the University of Idaho,” she said. “I want to major in chemical engineering and minor in math. After college, I’d really like to spend some time doing volunteer work in developing countries.”

Rhett Jensen

As most of his classmates were making summer vacation plans last year, Rhett Jensen was planning a battle strategy — to beat cancer.

The 18-year-old was diagnosed with the disease in May 2013. Despite some absences from school to undergo treatment, Jensen managed to graduate with his Madison High School classmates Thursday.

“I was diagnosed with a form of cancer called osteosarcoma, ” Jensen said. “Doctors found a peach-sized tumor in the bone on my right knee. I was undergoing treatment until January of this year.”

For eight months, Jensen made regular trips to Utah, undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy and a surgery. Doctors had to replace Jensen’s diseased knee with an artificial one.

“For a while, I didn’t think I was going to be able to graduate on time,” Jensen said. “One day, I told myself ‘No, I’m going to make it. I’m going to graduate this year.’ Teachers and counselors at school were willing to work with me to help me make it.”

Throughout the surgery and treatment process, Jensen’s mother, Sundee Jensen, said her son kept a positive attitude.

“When the doctors told us they thought it was cancer, Rhett looked at me and said ‘Regardless of whether this is cancer or not, it’s not going to change my life. I’m still going to live my life and everything will be OK.’ Sundee Jensen said. “That really set the precedent for his attitude during all of this. Early on, emotionally I was a mess. But Rhett kept a good outlook through it all.”

Today, four months after finishing his chemotherapy, Jensen said things are looking good.

“I still go for checkups every few months,” he said. “All of my scans are looking good, the cancer hasn’t come back. I’m still a little low on my energy levels, but besides that, everything is good.”

Jensen plans to work on his family’s farm until August, when he will begin college.

“I’m going to go to Idaho State University,” Jensen said. “I don’t know what I’ll major in yet. If things are still looking good after my first year at ISU, I’m going to go on an LDS mission.”