Photo by Paul Takizawa

Rivka Schusterman: A dream of generations realized in a call from Harvard


AGE: 18
HIGH SCHOOL: Valley Torah High School
GAP YEAR: Midreshet HaRova in Jerusalem
GOING TO: Harvard University

Under Soviet rule in Odessa, Rivka Schusterman’s grandfather was barred from attending college. Instead, he educated himself, staying up nights, reading. One morning, after a long night of studying, he arrived at his job late — and was thrown in prison for four years.

So when the call came from Harvard that Schusterman had been accepted, it wasn’t just her dream but a dream of three generations coming true.

“My family didn’t even dream of Harvard,” she said. “I don’t know — they thought I would go to still a great university. But they couldn’t even have imagined Harvard.”

From her freshman year at Valley Torah High School, Schusterman applied herself to cultivating the grades and extracurricular accomplishments she knew she needed to get into a superb four-year college.

“ ‘Education is the most important thing,’ ” her parents told her, she said. “ ‘Once you get your degree, then you can worry about anything else.’ I’ve always been intrinsically motivated because of them.”

Among her outside activities, she played on the soccer team, participated in debate and mock trial, founded a recycling club and volunteered at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

Somewhere along the line, her college ambitions took a back seat to a passion for community service. During a five-week volunteer trip to Israel in 2015 with the youth group NCSY, once known as National Conference of Synagogue Youth, she realized that she wanted to spend a career helping others in the most impactful way she could.

Becoming a doctor, she thought, “would be the most incredible community service — every single day.”

At Harvard, she plans to major in human, developmental and regenerative biology with a goal of becoming a neonatologist and healing babies before they’re born. “Honestly, I just love babies,” she said.

But first, she’ll take a year to study at Midreshet HaRova, a two-minute walk from the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“I want to set the path for the Jew I want to be, through medical school, through residency,” she said. “I know that after Israel, I’m going to stay committed to my religion, and I think that’s really going to help me when things get tough.”

And when things get tough, Schusterman will have her active high school experience to draw on.

Asked what advice she would give a freshman entering high school, she said, “Just know where you’re headed. Follow through with your passions and what you’re interested in and what you’re studying. Study hard, and know that your hard work will pay off at the end of the day.”

As it did for Schusterman. On March 10, three weeks before she expected to hear from Harvard, she got a phone call from the admissions office there. An administrator called her home. Schusterman was at school working on a volunteer project. Her father forwarded the call. The voice on the other end said they were notifying her early that she would be accepted as a member of the Class of 2021.

“I went crazy and I started crying,” she said. “It was just a euphoric feeling — that everything I worked four years for came true.”

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