Fil-Am girl among top 20 US students

- Ann Corvera () - June 19, 2005 - 12:00am
A Filipino-American who says she is descended from national hero Dr. Jose Rizal has been named one of the Top 20 students in this year’s All-USA High School Team by the newspaper USA Today.

Rachel Elise Rizal, 18, was chosen among more than 1,600 nominees from all over the United States. Judges considered their academic standing, leadership skills, and how the nominees used their intellectual abilities beyond the classroom.

The names of the winners were published in the newspaper’s May 12 issue.

Rachel is proud to claim blood ties with the Philippines’ national hero. "I love being related to Jose Rizal. He was an incredible man," she told The STAR by telephone.

Like the national hero, Rachel aspires to be a doctor someday. She is graduating next year as valedictorian of Gretchen Whitney High School, the highest-rated public school in California, and hopes to become a cardiovascular surgeon.

Rachel wants to give something back to her native land as Rizal did, and plans to do volunteer work in the field of medicine.

"I’m proud to be a Rizal and a Filipino. I have to use my talents to help my countrymen, too," she said.

Rachel is the eldest daughter of Renato Rizal and Emerly Aquino-Rizal, both in their 40s. The family migrated to the US when Rachel was four. She has an eight-year-old brother and a four-year-old sister.

Renato, who hails from the national hero’s native province of Laguna, said he is the great-grandson of Tarciano Rizal, said to be an undocumented younger brother of the national hero. Other stories, however, mention Tarciano as a grandson of Jose Rizal.

The national hero has only one known brother, Paciano.

Renato introduced Rachel to Rizal’s life and works. She learned more about the national hero through his literary work and from visits to the Philippines, which she said her family tries to do regularly.

It has been four years since Rachel last visited the country. She is returning this August for a three-week visit.

Rachel said she will miss her siblings when she goes to prestigious Princeton University where she will take pre-medicine studies. She chose Princeton over Yale and Stanford.

"I’m interested in doing clinical research studies and hospital administration," she said. While Rachel has always been interested in medicine, she is considering taking up a master’s degree in business administration "because I love business, too."

As a "student government leader" and straight-A student, Rachel was mainly cited for having organized last year a foreign exchange student program with Australia’s James Ruse Agricultural High School that USA Today said serves as "a model (program) for other international schools" to emulate.

"This was my main academic endeavor outside the classroom that helped me make to the USA Today All-Academic High School First Team," she said.

Rachel said the program was "so fun," and that she was able to learn about Australian culture and "hosted a couple of students at my house, too."

She added that the first year of Whitney’s foreign exchange program was such a "tremendous success," that the school plans to continue the program this schoolyear, which starts in September.

Outside school, Rachel said her "biggest project" involved cancer and genetic research at the University of California that made her a semi-finalist at the Intel Science Talent Search.

"I discovered that certain combinations of p73 and p53, a gene found mutated in over 50 percent of all human cancers, can inhibit or promote tumor suppression. This can help find therapeutic cancer treatments in the future," she said.

Despite her achievements, Rachel considers herself a typical teenager, "as most of the kids (selected by) USA Today are," and a typical day for her "consists of hanging out with friends and just relaxing."

On busy days, Rachel goes to soccer practice after school and then taekwondo until 7 p.m. She is a two-time taekwondo gold medalist in the National Junior Olympics.

Having taken piano lessons since the age of five, Rachel has won in numerous piano competitions such as the Bach and Chopin festivals. Such was her interest in music that she founded Music from the Heart, a group that performs in centers for the elderly.

While she is busy on weekdays, Rachel leaves her weekends free to go clubbing with her friends, watch movies or play her favorite Monopoly game. She also loves to cook, go on food trips with friends, and enjoy the sun at the beach.

One of her hobbies, according to Rachel, is making scrapbooks because she loves "preserving great memories."

As for the dating game, Rachel said that while she can go head-to-head with a boy during a soccer game, she has a "girly side" and that she has "quite an interesting personality."

"Come and discover what I have to offer," is Rachel’s message to the opposite sex.

Rewarding Experience

Rachel found out she was included in USA Today’s program while she was in French class, when her principal pulled her out of class to receive a call in his office.

When a woman on the other end of the line congratulated her for making the first team, Rachel said she "stood in amazement and my jaw dropped!" She did not expect to "make first team. I applied, hoping I would make third team. This was definitely rewarding."

Apart from being featured in USA Today, the winners received a $2,500 cash award. Forty more students were named to the second and third teams.

Many students who made it to the first team have Asian roots, a phenomenon Rachel attributed to Asians having a deep sense of "family values with emphasis on education."

Two weeks ago, Rachel and another first team winner, Theodoros Milonopoulos, were invited to guest on the Tavis Smiley talk show on national television.

Rachel said she is "driven to be the best that I can be. I never compare myself to anybody else or to what anybody else does. I always keep my eyes and ears open to new opportunities out there."

She said she simply "strives to be the best person that I can be" and that she has no specific "idol." She added that she hopes to make an "impact in some regard," like what her forefather did.

"At least set a mark and make a change for the better in this world," Rachel said.

Despite her diverse accomplishments, Rachel admitted that she was "pretty devastated" when she lost the first time she ran in the school elections during her sophomore year. She then recalled the advice a friend of her had given her: "The harder you fall, the higher you have to bounce back."

"When faced with adversity, whether in his or her personal or academic life, a leader and a strong person will always have to recover and try to beat the odds. I think a great leader is also somebody who has a vision and then takes action to reach his or her goals," she said.

Rachel advised other teenagers, particularly Filipinos, to "stay out of trouble and education is the key to success. If you study and read, you can acquire any type of knowledge in the world."

"As a teenager, sometimes we don’t think of the long-term consequences or don’t think about the future at all. I think we should keep in mind how our actions can affect ourselves and other people," she added.

Rachel also advised her fellow teens to follow their passion since "there’s no point in wasting your time to do activities that you could care less for or because somebody wants you to become a certain person. Be who you want to be, and the best that you can be. You don’t always have to beat somebody else."

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