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Students Rising Above: Oakland Scholar Finds Peace of Mind in Nature

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- For many people, being outside in nature can be a calming experience during tough times. That is also true for Students Rising Above scholar America Cadena, who has found her peace at a very special East Bay farm.

On a recent morning, the 18-year-old moved through the farm and orchard at Castlemont High School, touching the leaves of nearly every plant and flower she saw.

Cadena's gesture was born out of both curiosity and calm.

"It's a place for me to forget everything," said Cadena. "The garden is my peace. The farm, the plants...I don't feel stressed. I don't feel overwhelmed. It's a place where I feel in peace."

Cadena is a transplant herself. She moved to California from Utah -- where she was born -- with her mother, siblings and grandparents. The immigrant family is originally from Mexico. They struggled financially in the Bay Area.

"Things were not as easy when [we] came from Utah to California," recalled Cadena. "We struggled as a family. It was really hard for my mom and my grandparents to find a job."

The family made ends meet by selling homemade doughnuts in their East Oakland neighborhood. Cadena, then a grade schooler, helped every day.

"I remember going to school and coming from school and just going straight to work selling doughnuts," recalled Cadena. "It was hard for me, because it was like school, then work, and then come from work and then go straight to doing my homework."

Studying became a haven. And when Cadena came to Oakland's Castlemont High School, she found peace and purpose at the school's farm, first as a student volunteer and now as a paid intern.

During her high school years, Cadena was awarded student of the month. She made the honor roll and graduated as her school's salutatorian, fulfilling her family's dream.

"They moved from Mexico to the United States to give us a better life and have a better future," Cadena said of her family. "I just feel proud of myself for making it this far, and I am going to continue making them happy."

Now Cadena is headed to UC Davis this fall where she plans on studying landscape architecture. She will be the first in her family to go to college.

With a first name she says often brings one question to mind: is she named after the country, America?

"I wasn't named after the country," said Cadena with a laugh. "That's what a lot of people believe and no that's not true! I was actually named after a professional soccer team in Mexico. My mom was a huge fan of that team and she said, 'When I have a daughter, I am going to name her America.' So here I am! My name is America."

America for the outside world, but at home?

"They don't call me America at home," revealed Cadena. "They call me 'Flower.'"

It's a perfect nickname for one so at home amongst the blooms.

"I love being at the garden and being at the farm," said Cadena. "Yeah, there's a connection."

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