Girl Wonder: My Unforgettable (And Intimidating) Conversation With An 11-Year-Old High School Valedictorian

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“Inspiration motivates you to reach your destination.” In the middle of our casual chat, this beautifully profound statement so effortlessly rolled off her tongue that, after reminding myself I was speaking with an 11-year-old, and then picking my jaw up off the floor, I had to ask her to repeat herself. Apparently, I had just experienced one of the proverbial Ria-isms that her proud mom Sunitha gave me a heads-up about. But nothing Mrs. Cheruvu shared quite prepared me for how awed I would be by this extraordinary girl whose remarkable intelligence is equally matched in the wonderment department by her sincere humility and kindness.

Like most tweens her age, Ria Cheruvu loves her parents, reads books, plays sports, as well as a musical instrument, and rides bikes with her friends. But that’s where the similarities end, as this 11-year-old from Gilbert, Arizona is teaching her mom biology, reads 800 pages in 48 hours, and considers the physics of her swing in relation to obstacles on the golf course, while mathematically calculating the trajectory of the ball before she drives. She is also an accomplished pianist, who cites Beethoven and Chopin as two of her favorite composers, and “A minor” as her favorite chord. She writes her own musical compositions, sings, is a published poet, and admires “the humanist ideal of the Renaissance.”

Oh, and one other not so little detail about Ria… she just graduated valedictorian of her high school, and will be spending the summer taking two college courses – Neurobiology and Artificial Intelligence – through the Harvard Extension School… yes, THAT Harvard.


Just last week, Ria, the daughter of immigrants who came to the U.S. from India 17 years ago, graduated from the Arizona Connections Academy (ACA), a tuition-free, full-time online public school serving students in grades K-12 throughout Arizona. She was first enrolled in the school at the urging of her public elementary school teacher, who recognized that a student of Ria’s intellect would be better served in a highly specialized program. She was just 6 years old when she entered 5th grade with ACA, and continued on to each grade sequentially until the 2014-2015 school year, Ria’s last, during which she completed the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades simultaneously.

Ria’s father, Sunil, who has a masters degree in computer programming, and her mother, who has her masters in information systems, both knew from an early age – around 9 months old – that their daughter was gifted. I asked Sunitha what they noticed as being different about Ria. “It was the way she looked at things when I would take her on walks. It was her excitement whenever she heard a new word.” She added, “It was clear she wanted to learn, and just absorbed things at a greater capacity.” That was the start of what would be an amazing journey for the Cheruvus.

Ria was placed in her local public school’s pre-K program at age two and a half, and made it very loud and clear that she wasn’t happy in a way only toddlers can. Recognizing that Ria’s issues might be stemming from boredom, her teacher moved her to a gifted class, and did something unexpected… she handed her a pencil. Almost immediately, her fuss and tears gave way to a bright-eyed smile, and Ria quickly went on to master multiplication by age 3. At four years old, she spent a whole school year in kindergarten, but was learning at a 3rd grade level. By age 5, Ria tested all the way through to 6th grade. It was becoming increasingly evident to her teachers and parents that a public school education might not be enough for this girl.

“She defines speed. To keep up with her pace is exhausting.”

Year after year, the decisions to accelerate Ria academically, and ultimately, to enroll her in ACA’s online school were not easy ones for Sunil and Sunitha. There were questions from their extended family, unfounded judgements cast by friends, and, of course, their own internal fears about making the best choices for their daughter. But, in speaking about it, Sunitha made it very clear to me that Ria’s teachers, a number of them, played an important role in the difficult process and offered invaluable guidance, especially in working to balance Ria’s academic levels with her levels of socialization. “They held my hand and were supporting me. It was teamwork for which we are grateful.”

Despite her very gracious “Go Team Ria!” cheers for everyone involved, it is Sunitha who has been by her daughter’s side every step of the way, keeping a watchful eye as Ria spends 4 to 5 hours a day studying a range of curricula, in addition to staying up into the wee hours of the night to teach herself certain subjects, so she won’t fall behind her daughter. “She defines speed,” Sunitha told me of Ria and her capacity to learn. “To keep up with her pace is exhausting.” Nonetheless, the doting mom maintains a great attitude and sense of humor about it. “As her ‘learning coach,’ I cannot sleep.”

That’s why downtime is such an important part of this equation for student and coach, and it kicks off after 6pm on weekdays and runs all weekend. “Once dad comes home, it’s all play,” Sunitha quipped. But keep in mind that “play” in the Cheruvu house, while well-rounded and diverse, is also not so typical. Case in point, Ria and her dad love to code together… for fun.


Sunitha and Ria

Now a bona fide high school grad, the fun-relishing 11-year-old already has college on her mind, and on June 22 will begin working toward her undergraduate degree in computer science through the Harvard Extension School, one of 13 degree-granting institutions at Harvard University. While Ria has already passed the school’s rigorous entrance exam, she is required to take three online courses before she is fully admitted to the program. So she’ll tackle two from home this summer – Neurobiology and Artificial Intelligence – and complete the third (English) in the fall, all of which will apply toward her undergrad degree should she choose to pursue the next phase of study.

But moving full steam ahead with a degree from Harvard comes with a full course load and the very strong possibility of Ria needing to physically be on Harvard’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus, as some of her advanced courses will require. It also means having to take classes with young adults, students who are nearly 10 years older than Ria, biologically and socially. So this is not a decision her family is prepared to make at this point, as they want Ria, who’s not even a teenager yet, to have time to adjust to this new experience and college level study load from home.

Playing my hunch about this headstrong girl who told me earlier in our conversation, “Even though graduating from high school at eleven is a milestone, I want to keep moving forward,” I asked Sunitha what the plan will be if Ria decides to pursue her Harvard degree beyond these first three online courses, and ends up being called to Boston. Without missing a beat, she said, “I will be right outside of her classroom, or in the back row, if the professor will let me.”

“I want to be one of the pioneers in neural cryptography.” – Ria Cheruvu

And that brings me to one of the most unforgettable (and intimidating) parts of my delightful phone conversation with Ria. It was the moment I asked her about her end game goal, which admittedly is a strange question to be asking a girl who’s barely even started her life. But I already knew Ria was completely fascinated with the brain and how it works, down to the most micro functions like “how thoughts are formed,” along with “its evolutionary patterns,” and my curiosity got the best of me. She indulged me by revealing her master plan. “I want to be one of the pioneers in neural cryptography,” declared the 11-year-old.

I stayed silent for longer than I probably should have, and then embarrassingly asked, “I’m sorry… neural what?” With a humble giggle, Ria kindly broke it down in simpler terms for her completely clueless, 43-year-old interviewer. She explained, “It’s a new field of study that fuses neuroscience, or the study of the brain, and cryptography, which involves coding and decoding skills.” So, using technology, which she aptly pointed out is “all around us,” Ria wants to unlock the secrets of the human brain, on her way to helping to prevent and find alternative cures for debilitating and horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s, which claimed my own grandmother’s life. All I could muster in response was, “Wow!” In fact, I think I said that A LOT over the course of our call. Do you blame me?

On her noble quest to “help the world,” and provide all of her services “for free,” Ria also intends to start a charitable organization with her beloved mom, who, incidentally, is the muse for most of her poetry. She plans to call it Cosmic Mother.

These are all lofty and amazing goals for an 11-year-old to have, but do you know why I have zero doubt that Ria will achieve anything and everything she sets out to do? Because she very confidently concluded our conversation by telling me her formula for success. “I believe in myself. I know I will do great things.” Need I (or she) say more?

As I placed the phone back in its cradle, attempting to process the conversation I just had, my mind went back to one night in October 2013 when I had the incredible privilege of hearing Malala Yousafzai speak in New York City. Of that experience, I wrote in a piece for WYSK, “To say I was in the presence of greatness, feels like an understatement. I was overwhelmed, I was inspired, and I was awed as I sat before this mild mannered 16-year-old girl who not only has the desire, but the ability to affect such profound change on the entire world, across borders, cultures and religions.”

Though they say lightning never strikes twice, I had that very same Malala-esque feeling after speaking with Ria Cheruvu. I just knew I was, once again, in the presence of greatness, and had met another girl wonder who will surely leave an indelible mark on our world, driven with purpose by the power of her brain and the kindness in her heart.

About the author: Jen Jones is Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Women You Should Know