But the 15-year-old Taveras spoke no English, and struggled to fit in at her new school, Flushing International.
"I didn't speak the language, and since I went to a high school that only taught English, it was very hard for me," Taveras said. "I was used to living in a community where everyone knew each other, and now I was living in a place where I didn't even know my neighbors."
Now 22, Taveras — whose father is a restaurant worker and mom is a babysitter — will be the first person in her family to graduate from college. She also works as a science explainer at the New York Hall of Science.
Last month, she received the museum's first annual "Top of the Ladder Award," given to the person who has made the most outstanding contribution to the museum.
"Maria is a young woman who likes to challenge herself," said Hall of Science President and CEO Dr. Margaret Honey. "That is a gift and an attribute we should always cherish. Frankly, I don't see enough of that this day and age."
Taveras first heard about the New York Hall of Science in 2010, when she says she was still in her shell. She had picked up English within her first year in the country, but was still shy speaking around others, afraid of how she sounded.
Initially interested in history, a high school chemistry teacher recognized her abilities and encouraged her to pursue science. She told her about the Hall, and told her she should join.
"One of my science teachers was an explainer. She used to tell me her stories," Taveras said. "I wanted to see what it was like to interact with people on a daily basis."
Explainers walk the floor of the museum interacting with visitors by showing the exhibits, explaining scientific concepts and performing live demonstrations.
It was here that Taveras began to show her true talents, Honey said.
"She is absolutely extraordinary," Honey said. "She's just got a real gift for teaching younger people, and also for teaching and engaging her peers."
As she began to interact with people from different backgrounds, Taveras said she started to become more comfortable with her communication skills. Now she performs demonstrations in front of large audiences and teaches at the museum's "After School Science Club," an after-school program where children in first- through eighth-grades come to the museum to learn about science from one of the museum's explainers.
That experience should help her in the future, as she will soon graduate from the City College of New York with a degree in science education. She hopes to work as an explainer for at least one more year before getting a teaching job, hopefully at her old high school, Taveras said. And before leaving the New York Hall of Science, she hopes to teach at least a few more lessons.
"All the things I've learned," Taveras said, "I hope to pass them on to other people."