In a few weeks, Rita Elizabeth Preciado will be leaving the warm comfort and security of home, family, church and friends to begin a new adventure: her first year at prestigious Barnard College in New York City.
She is approaching this major life transition with the usual good humor and unbridled energy she is known for. Rita is one of those girls who virtually levitate in front of you. Everything about her is buoyant and electric. She is an animated talker who converses at such a fast clip that you really need to pay attention to keep up. But, when you do, it’s well worth the effort.
Rita is 18 and a recent graduate of Mission College Prep in San Luis Obispo. She and her mother, Kathy Preciado, have lived in Cambria since Rita was 5. They are as close as close can be—and that’s the one wrinkle in this story — the part where they have to say good-by.
“I’m not thinking too much about that right now,” Rita says. “It’s too hard.”
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Rita was born June 23, 1994, in the industrial city of Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, China. Her birth date is known because of a note left with her when she was found abandoned as an infant. “I guess I was crying. Someone picked me up and took me to an orphanage.”
Kathy Preciado adopted Rita when she was 6 months old. At the time, Kathy worked in Arlington, Va., as a museum editor and indexer. Her husband, who was Chinese, died in an accident before Rita was born. Adopting a baby girl from China brought new life to Kathy and her family who traveled to China together to bring Rita home to America.
Young Rita has thrived ever since.
She attended Cambria Grammar School through fifth grade and St. Rose School in Paso Robles for middle school before going to Mission Prep, where she excelled in math and science. Rita was the electrical specialist of the school’s underwater robotics team, competing at regional and international levels. She was chosen to attend the National Student Leadership Program on Engineering at UC Berkeley. And after taking three years of Latin, she “begged” her teacher to offer Advanced Placement Latin during her senior year. Understandably, it
was a very small class— just seven students—and very difficult. “Whatever,” Rita says. “We survived.”
She also “survived” four years on the girls’ tennis team. Self-proclaimed “always last to be picked,” Rita went out for tennis after her mom insisted she choose a sport, any sport. True to form, Rita was named most improved player her senior year.
Music also plays a big role for Rita. She has played the piano since she was 4 and has sung with the Central Coast Children’s Choir since seventh grade. She was also her school’s vocal coordinator.
Rita graduated from Mission with a 4.41 GPA and was awarded several college scholarships, including one from Barnard. The Vera Joseph Scholarship is awarded to only five first-year students who are academically talented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It helps ease the financial burden of college, but there’s a lot more to it, says Rita. The program takes students out of the classroom and introduces them to space exploration, the arts, architecture and a world of opportunities in New York City.
“The professors use the city as a teaching tool,” she says. “That is so neat and exciting.”
Barnard is a liberal arts college for women affiliated with Columbia University. Rita chose it because of its storied liberal arts reputation and for access to engineering classes at Columbia. She wants to explore different disciplines in liberal arts, including Chinese, but her primary focus is a major in biomedical engineering.
Rita is also interested in studying abroad, possibly in China. She has visited the country — including the city of her birth—several times and loved the experience. “There is so much history and culture. It is so different from here.”
What she really loved best, Rita says, was the food. She had no trouble sampling exotics like snake with peppers, cow stomach, chicken feet and a wide variety of unusual vegetables, including sprouts found only in China.
She stayed with a Chinese family whose daughter, Yang Yang, was an AFS student at Coast Union and lived with the Preciados until graduation in 2008. Once during Rita’s visit, Yang Yang’s mother came home with a bag full of live eels. “She was so excited to find them,” Rita laughs. “She kept them in a pot of water for days to clean out the mud. They kept jumping out of the pot. That was definitely an experience.”
For all her successes and the wonderful turn her life has taken since the dark early days in China, Rita gives the most credit to her faith in God and the “family of believers who love and support me” at Santa Rosa Catholic Church. She grew up in the church and recalls leading a procession when she was 5 and reading scripture from the altar at 6. She was an alter server for many years and is a member of the church choir, her lovely alto voice providing beautiful harmony.
“I love going to church and knowing everyone,” she says. “And I know I will miss the small-town feel of Cambria. It’s a beautiful place to grow up.”
Susan McDonald’s monthly “Someone to Know” column is special to The Cambrian. Email comments and suggestions to email@example.com..