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Passion for biology connects Havana student to Harvard University

Lucas Cocco completed the IB Diploma Programme (DP) at the International School of Havana in 2015 and now attends Harvard University. He speaks with us about applying to universities in the United States, his academic goals, and the skills he gained while he was an IB diploma student.

Why did you originally decide to pursue an IB diploma at the International School of Havana?

My parents always believed an education in English would be key to my future and thus made the decision to enroll their 2-year-old son in Cuba’s only school fully in English, The International School of Havana (ISH). I was completely immersed in a community that represented over 60 nations of the world and gave me a well-rounded education as I built my personality. After completing tenth grade, I was given the option to enroll in ISH’s IB Diploma Programme or to complete the school’s own program with lower demands than the IB. Naturally, I was intrigued by what the IB meant and represented and ultimately decided to become part of it due to its high standards and integrated nature.

The biggest appeal for me was the possibility of engaging in the study of subjects from many disciplines. I decided to pursue the IB diploma because it allowed me to study my academic passions at a higher level and at the same time allowed me to think about how the Bible relates to literature or to challenge different schools of thought in TOK. This notion of a multidisciplinary approach to teaching gave me the tools that I would later realize were the key to success in a liberal arts college in the United States such as Harvard, where I am now a rising sophomore.

Lucas Cocco is a graduate of the International School of Havana.

Did the Extended Essay, TOK, or CAS prepare you for university?

I think one of the key things that makes an IB education different from any other kind of education is the Core. Through my Extended Essay and Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) project I learnt very valuable skills that have helped me through my first year of university. The freedom to research any topic in-depth through my Extended Essay allowed me to venture into my interests and to attempt to find the answers to my own questions. This exercise helped me develop the tools to find a focused thesis and how to support it with the appropriate arguments and sources. Little did I know, these skills would later prove central in university-level writing. So far at Harvard, I’ve taken classes that range from philosophy to molecular biology, and in all of them I’ve discovered myself going back to my own experience with my EE.

I found CAS to be a central part of my IB years. Through this program I had the opportunity to lead a volunteer initiative that focused on cheering up children at the oncology ward of an underprivileged hospital in Havana, had the chance to tutor science after school and enrolled in piano lessons. From service to others to serving my own soul, the CAS component bolstered my passion for extracurricular endeavors. Currently, I’m involved in several service groups that include HIV/AIDS activism and serving my community as an emergency medical technician (EMT). IB is not about the content that you amass in two years of academic work, it is about all these core principles that are instilled in you as a student.

Tell us about your home in Cuba. How is it changing?

Being Cuban is fundamental to my personality and character. I’m from the island’s capital, Havana, where I learnt the value of human solidarity and how to enjoy a sunny day by the beach. There are many things that my country could improve upon, but despite any shortcomings there are many more things that I love and treasure. Cuban people are definitely on the top of the list. If you ever visit, you’ll realize how social, loving and humane Cubans are.

Growing up with these values has made me enjoy life much more, for the success of my friends is my success and our losses are mourned by everyone. My friends back home are more than just friends, they’re my chosen siblings, and I am glad we got to explore the wonders of Cuban landscape and authenticity together. I’m very proud of my roots and believe that my unique upbringing sets me aside from my peers at Harvard. Recently, the restart of diplomatic relationships with the US and the possibilities this has brought are the beginning of a long overdue change in our island – and I’m excited to be witnessing all of this history.

You mentioned you are studying Molecular and Cellular Biology?

Ever since I was 12, I discovered my passion for biology. I was drawn into the field by my science teacher at the time. She was the first one of my teachers to believe in me and inspired me to go into science to attempt to understand how life works at its molecular core. I’m fascinated by the questions asked in the field of molecular and cellular biology (MCB) and I’m honored and humbled to attend a leading university in the study of life sciences.

In the United States, those interested in medicine must first complete an undergraduate degree before enrolling in medical school. So while I’m currently studying molecular and cellular biology, my ultimate goal is to become a physician in the United States. Next to all the fluctuations and uncertainties in my life, this has been the only constant. So my aspiration by studying MCB is to forge a career as a medical scientist focused on preventing disease from its molecular core.

Was it difficult to apply to Harvard from Cuba?

The most difficult part about applying to Harvard was not knowing what was required of me. I didn’t really understand what the application process entailed until I entered IB and received guidance. I don’t think being from Cuba made it more difficult. There were some hoops I had to jump through due to my country’s political status and the lack of reliable access to the internet. But none of these things stopped me from pursuing my dream. I had been obsessed with attending college in the United States and ever since I visited Harvard in 2013 I knew that was the place I wanted to spend my college years. But wanting and actually getting there took a lot of work. It was not an easy process to navigate, especially given that fact that I’m the first person in my family to attend university. However, without my family’s endless support, I could have never achieved my dream.

What was your reaction when you received your admissions letter?

The day I opened my admissions letter remains one of the most special days of my life thus far. In essence, my reaction can be described in one word: sobbing. My friends actually feared dehydration as I cried and cried endlessly after reading “Congratulations.” That evening I felt like all my hard work and effort had been recognized. Yet, soon after I was accepted, I redirected my efforts to inspire those that came next and spent many hours giving talks and support to other students back home. My goal is that the people of Cuba realize that attending schools like mine can be something attainable for anyone who has enough determination and passion.

What advice do you have for current IB students applying to universities?

I focused my list of prospective colleges to 20 schools in the United States. Yet, I only ended up applying to Harvard. This sounds very bold, but it actually isn’t. For many US universities you can choose to apply early and as a result, you are given an admissions decision earlier. After I received my letter from Harvard I decided not to submit my other applications as I believe that by doing so I might be taking up room from someone who dreams of attending that school. To explain why I think I was selected I would have to guess, because there’s no concrete formula or list or reasons why they accept students each year. I worked really hard to achieve this, but there are always thousands of applicants who might be as or more qualified that do not get in due to space and some believe, luck.

If you are interested in pursuing university in the US, my advice is that you focus on what you are passionate about. Write an EE in a topic that you love, spend your CAS hours helping causes that you care about and take subjects that you find interesting. By engaging with activities that you have an interest for you are more likely to shine in the eyes of college admissions officers.

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