Hectic schedule helps Suncoast valedictorian maintain balance

MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR: Jacqueline Chen, 18

For those high-schoolers who blame their schedules on why their grades might not be so great, check out what Jacqueline Chen does each and every day.

Chen is an 18-year-old who takes advanced classes at Suncoast Community High School and spends her nights studying as much as she can before she dozes off to sleep. She’s a dancer – experienced in ballet, jazz and Chinese dance, and is also a bit of a tae kwon do expert, having trained for five years. She voluntarily signed up for a public speaking class and she’s currently a cheerleader for the high school’s varsity basketball team. She’s also performing in Suncoast’s spring musical because she wanted to keep busy once cheer season ends.

Oh, and Chen is graduating the top of her class – a feat that she’s pretty proud of, considering that her schedule sounds more demanding then some adults’.

So how does she manage to squeeze all of this into her day and still manage to pull of being valedictorian of her graduating class?

“I always have to take lots of breaks because otherwise I’d probably breakdown,” Chen, of Wellington, said. “But (extracurricular activities) are stress relievers for me. When I do those things, it makes me want to finish my work.”

Chen is the daughter of Ming Chen, a soil chemist, and Donghui Shui Chen, who teaches Mandarin. She has two sisters – Rosaline, 6, and Catherine, 19. Catherine graduated valedictorian last year from the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach and now attends the University of Southern California.

Her older sister is her biggest hero, Chen said, because she’s a workaholic who is also creative, and Chen strives to be like her.

“If she was the average person, I would be considered lazy,” Chen said. “I learn faster than her, but she’s a hard worker. Chinese people have a proverb that says, ‘The clumsy bird flies first.’ I look up to her. She works so hard all the time.”

Though her big sister attended Dreyfoos, Chen decided to go to Suncoast because she felt it was more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) driven. An adult had told her at the time that it would be more difficult for Chen to graduate as one of the top students because Suncoast had so much competition.

Chen is happy that she proved that person wrong.

“I got to number one because I was reaching for the moon,” said Chen, who holds officer positions in all of the honor society clubs at Suncoast.

Chen is graduating with an unweighted GPA of 3.99, and she plans to become an architect so she can design buildings and homes that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Chen, who speaks fluent Mandarin, said there are times when she puts too much pressure on herself to succeed, and, when that happens, her parents encourage her to take breaks and enjoy the outdoors. She finds solace when she’s surrounded by nature, she said.

“Being outside helps calm me in a sense,” Chen said.

Her hard work has earned her multiple college entries, including to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Miami and University of Florida. She’s waiting to hear from Cornell University and Yale University and admitted that the more colleges she’s accepted to, the more difficult it is to make a decision on which one to choose.

But Chen seems to know what’s best for her and will likely choose the school that will allow her to continue her path of excelling not just in academics, but, simply, in life. Because that’s when she’s at her happiest.

“When there is an opportunity,” she said, “I take it.”

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