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She’s 18 with a high school diploma and 3 degrees

Vyvian Nguyen in the Central New Mexico Community College library earlier this week in anticipation of her big day today. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Vyvian Nguyen in the Central New Mexico Community College library earlier this week in anticipation of her big day today. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Vyvian Nguyen graduates from high school today.

But that’s not half the story. At noon, the 18-year-old is also graduating from CNM – with three separate associate of arts degrees.

“I really had to push myself,” Nguyen explains. “I went to school for two years straight with no breaks. I didn’t stop.”

Not only did she attend classes during the fall and spring semesters, she also went to summer school and took courses during the winter and spring breaks. Along the way, she racked up 76 college credits.

As a freshman and sophomore, Nguyen attended La Cueva High School. She then switched to College & Career High School, Albuquerque Public Schools’ A-rated dual-credit school on the main campus of Central New Mexico Community College that allows students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and a two-year college degree, certificate or credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Nguyen is one of 39 College & Career graduating seniors. Together, they completed 424 CNM courses, a total of 1,273 credit hours. They join 691 (of a total of 2,231) CNM graduates walking in today’s Tingley Coliseum ceremony.

Nguyen also has fond memories of La Cueva, where she stayed involved in track and Marines ROTC.

Suspected a scam

In the summer of 2013, after taking a math class at CNM, she received an email inviting her to apply at College & Career.

“Earn college credits,” is how she recalls the email. “No worries about books or tuition.”

At first, Nguyen thought it was some sort of scam, but she checked with a teacher and found it to be the real deal. Still, she was a bit worried about giving up her extracurricular activities – ROTC during La Cueva’s 6:30 a.m. zero hour, and track – to say nothing of the friendships she had formed.

That was two years ago. As of today, she has associate’s degrees in criminology, sociology and liberal arts to go with her high school diploma. She also managed to keep up with sports and, especially, ROTC. Next week, she will be in San Diego for a national ROTC competition.

All through high school, Nguyen has been involved in volunteer programs through the Key Club, a Kiwanis International service program for high school students. She has helped out in the Special Olympics, the Roadrunner Food Bank and a wheelchair drive, among others.

An ‘awesome’ person

Karen Krall, dean of college and high school relations at College & Career High School, calls Nguyen “awesome.” She is especially in awe of her former student’s volunteer activities – something Nguyen seems to downplay. In one year, she racked up more than 100 volunteer hours, Krall says.

Last year, while volunteering at the Balloon Fiesta, Nguyen worked from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. all week, then went directly to class.

Nguyen was born in Albuquerque, years after her parents escaped by boat from the war in Vietnam. Vietnamese was her first language. Her parents didn’t go to college, she says with an ever-so-slight accent, and they may not fully understand her educational pursuits. She laughs when she says she hopes they are proud of her.

“My ultimate goal is to be a Marine Corps officer,” Nguyen says. She has submitted enlistment papers with the Marines, but for some reason isn’t sure if she will be accepted. She hopes to go to Officer Candidate School, then spend “at least 30 years” in the Corps. “I have a strong passion for the Marines,” she says. “I think they’re so strong in what they do. I like that. I want to be a part of that.”

A Marine commitment

This year, she went back to La Cueva to take one more class – a college prep course taught by her ROTC commander, 1st Sgt. Albert Griego.

He, too, finds her awesome.

“Keep in mind,” he says, “that she attended ROTC at 6:30 in the morning for three years, without missing a beat. That takes dedication. After her classes at CNM, she’d come back to La Cueva because she is a member of the ROTC drill team, the color guard team – she’s the commander of the female team – the physical fitness team and the cyber patriots team.”

Griego says he would sit down with Nguyen every year to discuss her options. In his view, “the smart move” would be to finish her bachelor’s work at UNM, then join the Marines as a commissioned officer.

“She is an amazing young lady,” he says. “She hasn’t let anything stop her from accomplishing her goals.

She’s also very nice. She’s a good friend and mentor to junior students. They know they can come to her with questions and problems and that they can trust her and confide in her.”

If the Marines don’t accept her right away, she plans to follow Griego’s advice and get her bachelor’s degree from UNM, studying criminology and social work. Eventually, she hopes to earn a master’s in social work, but is also considering pharmacy.

Post career plans

After a career in the military, Nguyen would like to open a shelter and school for children.

In her “spare time,” she likes to listen to music, all kinds, but especially rap and particularly Nicki Minaj and the more inspirational songs of singers such as B.o.B. and Drake. She also plays the piano, jogs, and works out with Marines at the local recruiting station.

“She works very hard,” Krall says. “She works almost every waking minute. … She has an amazing ability to set a goal and then maintain that goal with ferocity.”