Alessandra Canta Image Credit: Aiza Castillo-Domingo

The student: Alessandra Canta, Brighton College, Abu Dhabi

Off to: Harvard University, Premedical program with a minor in Philosophy

A Level subjects: Maths, further maths, economics, chemistry and biology

When Alessandra Canta moved to Abu Dhabi from the Italian town of Boccea she had crossed international borders to open up her world. ‘I was really, really excited [to move], I was craving change and was looking forward to interacting with so many different people who weren’t Italian!’ But little did she know that language barriers – she didn’t speak English – would wall her in and make high school more challenging than it already was.

In the four years that Alessandra studied at Brighton College, she went from being ‘unable to construct proper sentences in English’ to becoming the head girl of the school, starting a medical society to debate ethics and conduct dissections and tutoring younger students ‘so they can feel the satisfaction she feels when good scores are achieved and give back to the community’.

Outside of the classroom, she was fencing at a competitive level, inspired by The Spiderwick Chronicles film, and enjoying the pressure the sport puts on making the right choices. To overcome homesickness, she baked prolifically, recreating her grandmas’ recipes.

Eventually, she mastered the English language with such proficiency that Harvard University’s admissions team, floored by her well-crafted essay that charted her struggles, welcomed her into their elite pre-med program.

She also wrote a 5,000-word university-level thesis – in English – on the effect of expectations for the placebo in Parkinson’s.

Nonetheless, Alessandra is still known as ‘the kid who didn’t speak English’. Does it bother her that her achievements are overshadowed by that aspect?

‘I mean, it is part of why I got into Harvard, so it doesn’t bother me. It’s one of the obstacles I had to overcome, it shaped me as a person because I learnt to fend for myself and it taught me that you can do literally anything, even learn a language in five to six months. Actually, I quite like it,’ she concludes with a hint of pride.

‘On the first day of school, I would try to talk to people and see them get bored of me easily,’ she jokes as she describes how a major part of her first year at Brighton College was lost in translation, converting all of her lessons to Italian, then trying to relearn the whole thing in English. ‘It was memorising,’ she shrugs.

Reading a lot of books and watching movies in English improved and added finesse to Alessandra’s writing skills. ‘But I always say it’s mainly survival instinct; it’s either you pick it up or you’re completely alone and you fail your classes.’

Impressively enough, Alessandra continued scoring straight As despite the language barrier, which also consolidated her love for maths and sciences: ‘in science and maths [classes] I wasn’t the kid who didn’t speak English – numbers and integrals and differentiation are the same everywhere.’

However, it’s ‘neurosurgery and human developmental and regenerative biology’ that she will pursue at Harvard, the school she’s dreamed of since she was 14, when she decided to become a doctor: ‘I went on a tour of American universities last year and didn’t go to Harvard because I would fall in love and I didn’t wanna [sic] be upset when I got rejected.’

When we meet, Alessandra has just returned from orientation week at Harvard and she gushes about the university the way some teens talk about boybands: ‘You meet the most incredible people – so accomplished yet not braggarts! There’s one guy who invented a [method] to recycle air in aeroplanes and he sold it to loads of companies.’

She’s already contacted a professor she wants to assist about research on stem cells. ‘I’ve had this fascination with the brain that can be traced back to when I read late neurosurgeon Dr Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air – a massive turning point – and I’m intrigued by diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and how chemical imbalances causes mental illnesses.

She has every reason to be thrilled and exuberant – sleepless nights, giving up on her social life and studying to the point of thinking her ‘head would explode’ have borne fruit and she doesn’t regret a minute of her uphill battle.

‘There’s an economics concept called opportunity cost and I’ve always looked at missing out on my teenagehood and not going to the mall every weekend as the price for my goals.

‘Ten years from now, I will be a surgical resident, doing a lot of night shifts. I’ll be one step closer to being able to provide Pro bono neurosurgical care because not a lot of people can afford it, I’ll be very sleep deprived but I’ll be in the operation theatre and that’s what is important.’

Until then, she intends to live vicariously through episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

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