Age is just a number to Suncoast High valedictorian

While most 16-year-olds will be going back to high school as juniors this fall, Rachel Cherelstein is off to college.

Yes, you read that right.

Cherelstein, who is the valedictorian of Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, is heading to Washington to attend Georgetown University.

Cherelstein’s parents — mother, Yang and father, Stan — recognized their daughter, who was born in Stuart, was “advanced” when the couple saw her reading chapter books at age 3.

SEE MORE: Previous profiles of Palm Beach County’s top grads

After taking a recommendation to get Cherelstein’s IQ tested, her results suggested she enter first grade at 4, rather than pre-K. So the family packed up and moved to West Palm Beach, where Cherelstein would go to The Weiss School, an institution that best suited her intelligence at such a young age.

Following eighth grade at The Weiss School, Suncoast became the most appealing high school for many reasons. Foremost, because of its strong math department, which would allow her to continue on the academic level she’d already established, the next math class being precalculus.

She was 12 when she entered ninth grade.

At Suncoast, Cherelstein fit right in with the other students, even though they were two years older. “No one really knew the difference” because, she said, “I learned to be a lot more mature at a younger age.”

She went into high school with the preconception that it would be competitive, especially entering as a student in the IB program, and admits she thought, “Wow, it’d be really cool to be in the top 10.” Although that vision never wavered, becoming valedictorian wasn’t a top priority for Cherelstein either, who finishes at the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA and 5.49 HPA. “It just kind of happened,” she said. “I didn’t really think about it as a numbers game.”

And it’s true — because Cherelstein’s time spent outside of school and inside the pool can vouch for it. She’s been swimming competitively with the North Palm Beach Swim Club for the past six years, and brought her skills to the high school team to balance the stress of academics. She capped her four years competing for the Suncoast by being named team captain.

Cherelstein took up water polo at Suncoast in January after the swim season ended, as it was difficult to give up the sport she’d known and excelled at for so many years to go to Georgetown, where she plans to focus on academics and a full college life.

Cherelstein, who’s a National Merit Scholarship Finalist and nominated for The Palm Beach Post’s Pathfinder High School Scholarship Award in the category of Academic Excellence, “really wanted to go out of state” and applied to only two schools: the University of North Carolina and Georgetown. She said her online application to Georgetown was initially rejected because she was too young. “When I typed in 2001 (for her birthday), they didn’t accept it because it was past 2000,” she laughed. “I had to call them so they could fix it for me.”

She ultimately chose Georgetown because it has the location and major she wants — biology of global health, which strives to understand how biology affects the population of the world. 

Cherelstein likes the major because it’s interdisciplinary, and helping one person at a time as a doctor wouldn’t be enough for her to feel like she is truly making a difference. By broadening her field to a larger scale, she sees it as an opportunity to help underdeveloped communities across the world, where she feels she’ll make the most impact.

And if you asked her what her five-year plan is, she’d tell you the next step after college is to attend Johns Hopkins University for medical school, because it has a “big focus” on helping communities on a global scale with its reputation as the No. 1 public health school in the world.

For now, she’s looking to become the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ next intern in D.C., and hopes to study abroad in Argentina as part of the Translational Health Science Internship, a program that studies respiratory diseases in infants and children.

Cherelstein is proud to be the valedictorian of Suncoast, and many will be shocked to learn “I am the first to be an IB valedictorian in 10 years,” which she’ll surely include in the graduation speech she is preparing.

“I never stressed about rank a lot … You have to stay true to yourself,” she said. “Don’t stress too much about academics and find an escape.”


What are your hobbies?

I spend most of my time outside of school at swim or water polo.

What would you do if you were invisible for a day?

I would sneak into the front row of a Beyoncé concert.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?

Sara Josephine Baker, because she was the first woman to receive a doctorate in public health and went on to revolutionize American health care.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Explore life and be adventurous.

What event in history would you have liked to have witnessed?

When Alan Turing finally cracked Enigma.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

The first time my family and I hiked up to the very top of Mohawk Lakes in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Who is your hero, someone who inspires you?

(Swimmer) Maya DiRado is my biggest inspiration because even at the peak of her athletic career, she was able to walk away knowing that what she had done was enough.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I think pie is better than cake.

What three things would you bring with you if you were stuck on a desert island?

A first aid kit, a hammock and a boat.


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