Calexico Teen Sets Eyes on Johns Hopkins

Mariana Ledesma, 18, looks to her own experiences as fuel to become a pediatric surgeon

CALEXICO — As traumatic as repeated emergency room and hospital visits can be for youngsters, they can at times prove inspirational, as the case was with Calexico resident Mariana Ledesma.

Mariana Ledesma, 18, a senior at Calexico High School, winds up to throw the discus. Ledesma, who was accepted to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., is a member of the Bulldogs track and field team. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

The current Calexico High School senior said that during her sophomore year she had developed debilitating chronic migraines that required trips to the emergency room about every other week.

The frequent episodes also prompted referrals to Rady’s Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where she was further examined by a neurologist and a neurosurgeon.   

But what stood out the most about the anxious experience for Mariana was the dedication and compassion that the tireless pediatric doctors directed toward their young and vulnerable patients.

“I feel like that was really life changing for me,” the 18-year-old said. “I wanted to do that if I could.”

Today, she finds herself closer to her dream of becoming a pediatric surgeon, after having been accepted in February to attend Johns Hopkins University, which had always been her top choice.

Yet the prestigious university wasn’t her only option. Ledesma had also applied, and was accepted to, a number of University of California, California State University, and Ivy League campuses.

The selling point for Johns Hopkins University was its generous financial aid package which, combined with her federal financial aid, will lower her annual tuition from about $79,000 to about $4,000.

“It was good, so I ended up committing,” Ledesma said.

Humble Beginnings, Rapid Growth

Ledesma had arrived in Calexico as a 1-year-old after her family immigrated from Mexicali, where she and her two older siblings were born.   

Mariana Ledesma (second from left), 18, a senior at Calexico High School who has been accepted to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., is accompanied by her father, Fernando Ledesma Sr. (from left), little sister, Alexandra, and mother, Emmanuela Ledesma. Not pictured are her elder siblings, Jazmin and Fernando Jr. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

The transition initially proved challenging for Ledesma in elementary school, where a language barrier often made it difficult for teachers to understand her or provide her an opportunity to prove herself.

However, the situation only served to motivate her even more. Her elementary school days were also when Ledesma said she first got an inkling that she wanted to pursue a career in the medical field.

At the time, she and her mother would often visit her ailing grandfather in the hospital, where she not only took note of the professional care he received but the importance of medical professionals, as well.  

“That was very meaningful to me at a very young age, and it impacted my life a lot,” Ledesma said.

Back then, her newfound interest in the medical profession did not include dreams of becoming a pediatrician, since Ledesma said that she initially felt that it would likely be too emotionally taxing for her to treat ailing children.

With her eyes then set on a career in the medical profession and in anticipation of the demands and rigors of medical school, Ledesma threw herself even more into her studies.

In time, she found herself enrolled in honors English while at William Moreno Junior High, as well as advanced mathematics. Ledesma also earned the distinction of being named the Calexico Unified School District’s highest-achieving student during her seventh- and eighth-grade years.

Her current path was also heavily influenced by her older sister, Jazmin, who as a Calexico High freshman began talking to her younger sibling about medical schools when Mariana was still in junior high.

Jazmin Ledesma, who graduated Calexico High in 2019, is currently attending UC Davis and is majoring in Spanish literature and art history, with a minor in Portuguese, Mariana said.

Big brother, Fernando Jr., also deserves credit for helping steer his younger sister toward competitive sports. Mariana said she often found herself on the sidelines cheering on Fernando whenever he competed in the long jump and triple jump while he attended Calexico High.

Fernando Ledesma Jr. has since graduated from Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus, where he studied criminal justice in the hopes of pursuing a career in law enforcement, Mariana said.

Since her freshman year, Mariana has competed in the discus and shot-put events for the Calexico High track and field team and has often placed first among her teammates and competitors during meets.

Her debut year, Mariana placed first in the 2018 Imperial Valley League Division I discus finals and fourth in Division I shot put finals.

“Honestly, it was my brother who really pushed me to it and allowed me to deliver a really good passion for throwing and track and field in general,” Mariana said.

She also credits her parents for placing an emphasis on education in the household and providing the support that has allowed her and her siblings to excel in and out of the classroom.

“Their main goal was for us to have as many opportunities as we could,” Mariana said. “They always provided us with everything we needed.”

To round out her extracurricular activities, Mariana signed up to serve as a junior volunteer at El Centro Regional Medical Center. Though she was accepted into the program in November 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to her volunteering shortly after.

She said she is hoping to resume the program now that she is fully vaccinated and plans to request to be placed in the hospital’s maternity ward.

Pride of the Family

That Mariana has been able to accomplish everything that she has set her heart to do, all while dealing with a chronic medical condition, is not lost on her parents, Emmanuela and Fernando Ledesma Sr.

Mariana’s commitment to obtaining her goals has never wavered, her mother said. That commitment often involved waking up hours before the start of school to participate in extracurricular activities or enrolling in summer classes at Imperial Valley College.

Both had decided to immigrate to the United States to provide their children with opportunities that they likely otherwise would not have had in Mexico, Emmanuela said. Once stateside, Fernando Sr. started the long process of having his wife and children become naturalized citizens.

“He did everything that he was able to do to bring them a better future,” Emmanuela said in Spanish.

Sending Mariana off to attend Johns Hopkins University, which is located in Baltimore, Md., does present a slight difficulty for her parents, who would rather have her closer to home. Though their eldest daughter Jazmin is currently attending UC Davis, they see each other on a fairly frequent basis. In addition to Jazmin and Fernando Jr., there is a younger sister, Alexandra.

Such regular interaction will likely prove more difficult once Mariana relocates to the East Coast.

“We’re all a little worried,” Emmanuela said. “But it’s her future and where she wants to study. We can’t cut short her future or her dreams.”

While at Johns Hopkins, Mariana will be studying molecular and cellular biology. Her plans call for enrolling in the university’s School of Medicine following the completion of her undergraduate studies.

“She fought so much to get here,” Emmanuela said. “And in reality, she deserves it.”

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