This story is part of a series of graduate profiles ahead of Commencement ceremonies.
As a middle schooler, Ilinca Mazureac knew two things for certain — she was going to be a scientist, and she was gay. Both of those things would not be easy in her home country of Moldova, a small Balkan nation formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Moldova declared its independence in 1991. So for many young Moldovans like Mazureac, change has been a constant throughout their lives. Economic challenges and corruption in business and government have continued to hamper all aspects of life, including the nation’s higher education system, and social change happens slowly in the predominantly Orthodox Christian nation.
But Mazureac’s persistence, along with a love of learning and a chance encounter with an American Peace Corps volunteer, would help set her on a path away from the personal and academic challenges of her homeland.
Mazureac, a senior with a concentration in molecular and cellular biology, said she first became interested in science through school “Olympiads” in which students compete to answer questions about Earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering.
“So I did all the biology Olympiads and did international biology Olympiads and just really wanted to be a scientist,” she said.
Mazureac met Peace Corps volunteer Mina Gomez at a youth empowerment event during her first year of high school. Like Mazureac, Gomez, who had immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador as a child, was trying to follow her own star.
She was working in higher education in 2014 when she decided to quit her job and join the Peace Corps, where she hoped she could make a difference. The organization sent her on a two-year stint to Eastern Europe, where she knew virtually nothing about the language, or the people.
“When I first met Ilinca, what was really interesting is that we’re having a conversation in English. And in Moldova, it’s unusual to find young people that speak as good English as she did at the time,” Gomez said. “And so I asked her, ‘What grade are you in?’ She said. ‘First year,’ and in my mind, I honestly thought that she was a college student.”
Gomez was blown away by the girl’s intelligence, curiosity, and “hunger for knowledge.”
“She would show me the things she was reading, and there were scholarly articles about biology,” she said. “It’s been amazing to see her growth … it’s incredible.”
Gomez urged Mazureac to take the SATs, and she earned high scores. Gomez then helped her apply to the Yale Young Global Scholars program during her sophomore year, which allowed her to travel to the U.S. to study. She said the trip helped boost her confidence and set her sights on the Ivy League.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is not that hard. Maybe it is worth applying to Harvard,’ because obviously, I wanted to be realistic about my chances,” Mazureac said.
Mazureac came from a supportive family whose dreams had been blunted by life under Soviet rule. Her mother was born in the same village as her mother. Mazureac’s grandmother wanted to go to college but couldn’t. She did ensure that her daughter could, and did. And the family was prevented from venturing farther afield than the capital city of Chișinău, where they still reside.
When it came time to apply to colleges, Gomez helped Mazureac write her admissions essay, drafts of which explored life in Moldova, and the personal hurdles she faced in the conservative post-Soviet country.
According to 2019 census estimates, 90 percent of Moldovans are Orthodox Christians — a group that historically has been opposed to LGBTQ rights. The nation passed a major antidiscrimination law in 2012, but problems remained.
For years after, Mazureac said, pride parades in Chișinău, her hometown, were disrupted by religious counterprotesters shouting slurs, throwing eggs, splashing holy water, and police evacuating parade participants in buses to avoid direct clashes. The first successful parade finally took place in 2018 while Mazureac was in high school.
Before leaving for college Mazureac was politically active, pushing for more progressive reforms in Moldova. She said she never necessarily hid who she was, but wasn’t open about it either.
“And then once I got here, I remember I lived in Pennypacker and like, half of the people on my floor were queer. And I was like, ‘Wow this is so easy,’” she said.
Her identity led to involvement as a “QuIntern” at the University’s Office of BGLTQ Student Life. There she focuses on creating community for queer international students like herself.
“It’s harder for people who didn’t grow up somewhere else to understand what it’s like. So I think it’s really important that we have this space where people can come and people can talk to students who have the same experience or the same struggle, so that they can form friendships and form communities,” Mazureac said.
Outside of the “QuOffice” she also remains tied to her community through Harvard’s Romanian Association, which meets weekly for brunch, and through her favorite Moldovan restaurant — Moldova in Newton. The spot, known for its placintas, or cheese pies, is also where Mazureac has stayed politically active from afar.
In 2020, the Moldovan presidential election saw the election of the country’s first female leader and the first from the liberal Party of Action and Solidarity. Mazureac, alongside the restaurant’s owners, helped run a polling station out of one of the backrooms of Moldova.
Asked whether she plans to return to Moldova full-time after graduation, she said it’s not likely.
“I feel like I’m very optimistic about the things that are happening back home. So I definitely think the country that I grew up in is not the same country Moldova is right now. And it’s not the same country that Moldova will be in 10 years. But whether I’ll ever move back home, I don’t know.”
Mazureac said she has accepted a research associate position at the Broad Institute in the Nehme Lab, which studies neuropsychiatric disorders at the cellular level. Her mother, brother, and his wife will come to Cambridge to watch Mazureac accept her diploma this spring. And her friend and mentor Gomez, who lives in Baltimore, promises she will also be there.