Belen Cerda Luna has come a long way from the student who was struggling to keep up as an English learner in her first grade classroom. In the last four years, the 2020 Liberty Ranch High School graduate took almost a dozen AP classes, was voted president of several school clubs, and graduated sixth in the overall class ranking. Now she is headed to Harvard on a full ride scholarship.
“I’m a first generation college student,” Cerda Luna said. “My mom wanted to go to school, but she had to work since she was little so she only went through sixth grade. My dad stopped in second grade in Mexico.”
While Cerda Luna remembers passing countless hours at the library and reading constantly, she initially had a hard time transitioning from speaking Spanish at home to English at school.
“In first grade, my teacher wanted me to get held back because I was still an English learner,” she said. “I remember she had a meeting with my mom and my mom came out crying, saying the teacher wanted to hold me back, but that really drove me to want to prove her wrong. I wanted to prove to my mom that I was smart, even if I was a little behind.”
Come high school, there was no doubt of that. Not only does Cerda Luna speak both Spanish and English fluently, she also took German throughout high school and earned the Seal of Biliteracy. On top of her linguistic accomplishments, she played tennis all four years of high school and was active in several clubs.
“This year I was National Honor Society President, California Scholarship Federation President, German Club President, and Latinos Unidos Club Advisor,” she said. “I was also historian for CSF junior year.”
But when asked how she balanced sports, clubs and academics, Cerda Luna said it was a question of determination and time management.
“It was really hard. I had seven AP classes this year,” she said, adding later that she had also taken a class at Cosumnes River College her last semester of high school. “So how did I do it? I don’t know. I would wake up early to do the club agendas or do them the night before and devote an hour during the week to each club meeting. Then my homework, I just had to take full advantage of my time.”
All that hard work paid off when the college acceptance letters started rolling in.
“I applied to a lot of universities: Pepperdine, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC LA, UC Santa Cruz. And I applied to Harvard, Cornell, Yale and Stanford just wondering if I would get in. Of those four, I only got into Harvard,” she said casually, “but I got into the other schools as well.”
She went on to explain that, once she saw that she hadn’t gotten into Yale and Cornell, she forced herself to let go of the idea of attending Harvard.
“But then I opened it, and I saw ‘congratulations’ and I was incredulous,” she recalled.
From there, the choice was down to UC Berkeley or Harvard. On the one hand, Berkeley had the nutrition program she was looking for. On the other, Harvard promised an opportunity to expand her horizons, be part of an international student body, and study psychology at one of the top universities in the world.
“Harvard is really diverse demographically, so there’s a lot of international students and students from every state,” she said. “I wanted to try to gain perspective, and I saw that with school like Berkeley the majority of students were from California.”
With the promise of a full ride scholarship to Harvard, the last hurdle for Cerda Luna was to convince her parents to let her move to the other side of the country. With the help of her school guidance counselor, she got them on board with the idea and is now mapping out the next 10 years of her education.
After earning her bachelor’s in psychology from Harvard, she plans to enroll in a two-year program to become a registered dietician and then follow that with grad school.
“I’m interested in nutritional counseling,” Cerda Luna explained. “So, I’m still debating between opening my own private practice in which I can do nutritional counseling or working at an eating disorder clinic in which I could use my skills as a psychologist to counsel the patients. And then, as a dietician, I could also make their meal plans.”