LANCASTER — SOAR High School seniors America Luna Herrera, Rachel Mobaraka and Anthony Nuñez will attend college this fall at three prestigious California universities.
Luna Herrera is headed to the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, on a full-ride scholarship from QuestBridge, a national nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto that helps the nation’s most exceptional low-income youth gain admission and full four-year scholarships to some of the nation’s most selective schools.
Luna Herrera will study mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace. As a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, major, Luna Herrera was intrigued by Caltech’s proximity to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She hopes to work there some day, perhaps as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which includes the 2020 Mars mission with its Perseverance rover.
“It’s a decade plan, and so a decade, that’s definitely time for me to be able to contribute,” Luna Herrera said during an outdoor group interview with Mobaraka and Nuñez. “I want to work in the space industry.”
Caltech was Luna Herrera’s dream school. She did not realize how difficult it is to get into Caltech — the university had a 6.4% acceptance rate in 2020 — until after she was accepted.
“I think it ended up helping me because I felt like my voice was really heard in my application, because I wasn’t nervous or trying to put up any kind of front,” she said. “So my Caltech application was sincere.”
Luna Herrera serves as historian for Antelope Valley College’s STEM club. She is also president and founder of SOAR’s SWENext Club, the Society of Women Engineers Next Generation.
Mobaraka was accepted to the University of California campuses at Los Angeles and Berkeley with full financial aid and merit-based scholarships. She will major in political science and eventually go down the pre-law path. She will specialize in criminal or immigration law. She also might minor in Arabic and global studies.
Mobaraka serves as president of SOAR High’s Associated Student Body. Her older sister, who graduated from UC Berkeley last year, helped Mobaraka with her college application,
“I think that one was one of the main reasons I was even able to complete it,” she said.
Mobaraka is a first-generation college student. Her parents did not graduate from high school.
“Just the application process of college was a barrier in itself,” Mobaraka said.
Because Mobaraka was excited to pursue a higher education, her chosen career — law — and her long-term goals, that made the application easy, she said.
“I really poured my heart and soul into supplements,” she said. “I feel as though it was kind of like little pieces of the puzzle that made Rachel, and so every single supplement I tried to reflect on a different part of myself.”
Those include her passion for history, in particular World War II. She is a middle child, with a younger sister and older sister. She is the daughter of immigrants. Her parents are from Syria. She also wrote about her struggles with mental health and trying overcoming that and growing into a leader.
The deadline to make her decision was Friday. Mobaraka said Thursday that she would most likely choose UCLA.
Nuñez will attend Stanford University, also on a full-ride scholarship. He applied through QuestBridge. He did not get the QuestBridge National College Match. He was accepted through the regular decision process.
“I thought it was the best way to communicate my story and my life; it was the best way to get across what I wanted to get across,” he said of the QuestBridge application.
Stanford was Nunez’s second choice. He ranked Caltech No. 1.
“I was excited to go there,” Nuñez said of Stanford.
He chose Stanford due to its computer science program. At the time, he was taking computer science classes at Antelope Valley College.
Nuñez read his acceptance letter in silence because he expected to be rejected. When he saw that he was accepted, he jumped out of his chair screaming.
“I was like, ‘Ma, I got into Stanford,’ ” Nuñez said. “She doesn’t really know what they are. She immigrated here from Mexico and she doesn’t speak English. … She was like, ‘What is Stanford?’ ”
Nuñez does not know what he will major in. Stanford gives students until their junior year to declare a major.
SOAR High is an early college program of Antelope Valley Union High School District on the Antelope Valley College campus. Students take high school and college classes. All students also take the Advancement via Individual Determination, or AVID, classes. Students have to apply to the school.
Luna Herrera, Mobaraka and Nuñez each have their own story how they got to SOAR.
Nuñez found out about SOAR at the end of eighth grade year when a former teacher recommended it.
“It was sort of like, ‘Hey, trust me. This is what’s best for you. You’ll love what you do here, it will be a great opportunity and make something for you self,’ ” he said.
Nuñez will graduate with two associate’s degrees in addition to his high school diploma.
“You have so much support and so much aid from your counselors. I was really nurtured throughout the process,” he said.
Luna Herrera found out about SOAR High when she was in fifth grade. One of her teachers had a son who went through the application process to SOAR. Luna Herrera was practical about it.
:”I knew my parents couldn’t afford college for me so that would be two years that I could get ahead of, and they wouldn’t have to pay because SOAR is free,” she said.
Luna Herrera almost backed out after she attended an informational meeting because of how scared she was. Her mother encouraged her to press on.
“I’m glad I did; I love SOAR,” she said.
Luna Herrera thanked her parents for their support.
“I definitely had a difficult childhood, and if it wasn’t’ for my dad always setting an example that you have to be a hard worker, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” she said.
Mobaraka did not want to attend SOAR. Her parents made her apply. She wanted to attend Highland High School due to its Law and Government Academy, and because she wanted to stay close to her friends.
“I eventually gave up because I just didn’t want to fight them anymore. And boy am I glad I went to SOAR,” she said. “The experience that I’ve had, I think it’s’ irreplaceable.”
Mobaraka disagrees with those who say only the smartest students attend SOAR.
“I just think we have the most passionate kids,” Mobaraka said. “Every single person you meet at SOAR is super-pumped and so ready to take on the challenge. They’re there for one thing and one thing only, it’s to get an education and to do whatever it takes to get to college.”
She added the competitive nature at SOAR is a plus.
“If it wasn’t for my peers like America and Anthony, I don’t think I’d be doing half as great as I am now,” said Mobaraka, who will graduate with three associate’s degrees. “I’m so glad I came to SOAR. I recommend it for everyone.”
SOAR teacher Staci Jefferson had praise for all three students. She served as Nuñez’s robotics adviser for the past two years.
“He has a keen interest in and impressive talent in math and science that has impacted our program in immeasurable ways,” Jefferson wrote in an email. “As one of the most experienced builders on the team, he listens to and incorporates his teammates’ ideas into designs that have propelled our robots to state competition. There is no replacing him on our team but we hope to make him proud as we continue the legacy of teamwork and cooperation he embodied.”
“To say I admire Rachel is an understatement,” Jefferson wrote. “She has a level of maturity that exceeds her age and a commitment to her friends, family, school and community that makes each better because of her involvement. She has made such a positive impact on my life that it has helped me be a better teacher. I absolutely adore her.”
Jefferson said Caltech is lucky to count Luna Herrera among its freshman class.
“She is phenomenal in so many ways,” Jefferson wrote. “She is a talented writer who can code or play piano. She can tutor in any subject one might need help in because she is strong across the board. If she is interested in something, she will teach herself that skill until she has mastered it. Her creativity knows no bounds and is frequently looked to in the clubs she actively participates in. This includes yearbook. As one of only two seniors in this class America created a voice for the 103 seniors who attend SOAR through the photos, copy and layout she designed for several pages. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.”