Iselle Diaz | Class of 2020 Salutatorian

I reached out to Iselle Diaz, Hostos Lincoln Academy’s Class of 2020’s Salutatorian, to see if she could spare some time to share a bit of her wisdom as a brilliant young philosopher.

She is a Quest Bridge Scholar, she was a Posse finalist – and she is a brilliant young woman who radiates all the goodness in life. She is strong, confident, and an absolute joy to be in the presence of. While I regret that I will not have the time to get to catch up with her in person this semester – I am grateful for the opportunity to get her to write her thoughts down – because now I am not the only one who can benefit from the expertise that can only come from experience. 

Enjoy!

Introduce yourself to people who don’t already know you. 

My name is Iselle Diaz, and I am a seventeen-year-old Afro-Latina. I was born in Washington Heights, my little Dominican Republic, but was raised by a single mother in the Bronx, where I still live today. 

What is Questbridge? 

QuestBridge is an organization that introduces the nation’s highest performing low-income students to the nation’s greatest institutions of higher education. This way, low-income students can have the chance to attend the nation’s best university for a discounted price. I heard about this scholarship in the 9th-grade from my college-prep program, SEO Scholars. They helped me every step of the process, from consistent feedback on my essays to helping me find financial documents to pushing me to make my best choice when I had to decide between QuestBridge and Posse. 

What was the application process like? 

The application process was intensive. I started my application (officially) in August. It had been less than a month since I had come back from Italy and I was still on my summer break, but that held no weight. While my friends were all enjoying their last few weeks of summer, I was at LIU Brooklyn with my fellow SEO Scholars and Staff starting the college process. The QB application asked for a bunch of financial documents; information about my household; my transcript, schedule, test scores; extracurriculars, work experience, and academic/career interests; a recommendation from two teachers; and nine short responses, along with two essay prompts. It was a college application within itself, all of which was due September 26. 

QuestBridge is partners with about 40 institutions and I had the opportunity to choose 12; I chose 2. I knew I had to complete supplements, applications, and fill out financial aid forms for all my QB schools starting from September 26 until the deadline, November 1st. But during this time, since QB wasn’t guaranteed, I also had to start my application process for 19 other schools, a combinations of CUNY, SUNY, and privates. So after many all-nighters and early mornings, November 1st finally came. Now I had to wait until December 2nd to find out if I was matched with any of the schools on my list. During this time, I finished up all my other applications, ready to submit them on 12/2 just in case I didn’t get matched. But I did. And it felt amazing to finally be done.

Why University of Chicago? 

Believe it or not, the University of Chicago wasn’t my first choice. My heart was set on Wesleyan University since the 10th grade. I visited the campus on a tour and immediately fell in love with its aura, and I even visited again a few weeks before I found out if I was matched. I wasn’t.

My heart was broken for like a day or two. Wesleyan was safe. It was close to home, only 2 hours away driving, and it was a small campus, just like I was used to. But UCHICAGO?! It was the complete opposite! A big, city school 14 hours away driving!! Once I came to my senses, I realized I had put the school on my list for a reason. So I started researching more and more about it because of course, I was already committed to it and it was only December of my senior year. The more and more I researched, the more and more I fell in love. The gorgeous campus, that’s filled with things you wouldn’t even think to find on a city campus like a pond, a park, a lake, and beautiful big trees. I fell in love with the poetry/spoken-word scene in the city. I fell in love with the city, herself. She’s filled with culture, history, and passion. I fell in love with how motivated every Maroon looked; they were all working towards the same goal: making a change. I knew that being surrounded by like-minded, yet staggeringly different people would open up my mind even more. And that’s UChicago. Being apart of that community is a privilege, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. And now I finally have the chance to.

What does being a Quest Scholar mean to you? 

To me, being a Quest Scholar is proof that I have not let the cards I’ve been dealt hinder me from overcoming the effects of intergenerational trauma and poverty. I now have the chance to meet tons of intelligent, well-connected people from all over the world. As a Quest Scholar, I am considered to be an Odyssey Scholar in UChicago, thus I have to maintain a good academic standing, like a certain GPA, probably a 3.0. Being an Odyssey Scholar reaps amazing benefits in UChicago. I have an extensive network filled with other scholars and professionals ready to offer me advice in my career, finances, and academics. I have a guaranteed internship, funding for my future endeavors abroad, and healthcare coverage. I am extremely proud to be a Quest Scholar in UChicago because of the prestige it brings, but I am more proud that I managed to get in this position, even through all my hardships. I am a first-generation Dominican life-long student, and I have this network of people willing and able to help me further my education, start my career, and provide me all the support I need to do said things.  

What is your proudest moment at Hostos Lincoln Academy? 

My proudest moment in high school was when I found out I was going to be the salutatorian for my class. I was salutatorian for my 8th grade, so after that graduation I set a goal for myself. I had to push myself, not to be the best, but to be the best version of myself. I worked tirelessly since the beginning of 9th grade and I have not stopped even though we are in this situation now. Seeing the fruits of labor come to light is such a beautiful sight. 

What is your biggest accomplishment? 

My biggest accomplishment is becoming a QuestBridge finalist. My dream has always been to attend college with the least amount of loans as possible. I knew my mother wouldn’t be able to pay any fraction of my cost of attendance, and none of my family members would be willing to help. I had to take matters into my own hands, and the results were outstanding. Not only did I become a QuestBridge Match Recipient, but I was also a finalist for the Posse Scholarship. 

What are you most looking forward to?

I am really looking forward to all the opportunities I will seize in my future, especially in Chicago. All the internships, the interesting classes, the many coffee shops, the traveling abroad, and most importantly, the amazing people I will meet. I know that these next four years of my life are bound to bring me hardships, but those are just bumps in my path when I think about all the blessings. 

What will you miss most about Hostos Lincoln Academy? 

I will miss how small and close the Hostos community is. It doesn’t matter if you’re not  friends with someone or if you don’t really know them, we all bring each other up when we’re down. It’s like a small family. We lean on each other for support, praise, and the most important of all, advice. 

What is your advice to future applicants to Questbridge? Advice to Juniors? 8th graders, etc? 

To the future QuestBridge applicants: do not take this application as a joke! It is long and calls for a lot of work, so please start it in August. Have an English teacher read over your short responses and essays because they all have word limits, and I cannot stress how important it is for you to shine in those limited words. Thousands of seniors apply to QuestBridge and only a little over 1,000 get matched.

You must remain focused and motivated! Continue with your other applications, while applying to QB. You don’t want to be behind on those if you find out you don’t get matched in December, or even if you don’t become a finalist in October. Don’t let yourself slack or get discouraged. I was told by many people that I wouldn’t get this scholarship, that it was impossible. But look at me. I am the first HLA student to ever attend UChicago, and the first HLA student that has received the scholarship since about 8 years ago. Nothing is impossible. 

Juniors. 

I know you thought that junior year was the hardest year of all. Well prepared to get proven wrong. I know, crazy right? But, senior year is TOUGH. You have no opportunity to slack because you have so many deadlines for CUNY and SUNY applications, for your Common App ( which you should start in August), and all your financial aid applications (TAP, HEOP, EOP, QB, Posse, and so many other ones). But once May 1st finally comes you’ll feel relieved. You’ll be looking at multiple college acceptances (or one, the number doesn’t matter), and you’ll be ready to choose where you’ll spend the rest of your four years.

Apply to schools YOU want to attend not schools your parents, your counselor, or your friends want you to attend. That being said, of course do not ignore good advice. Get your college list looked over. Look at all the schools and think about all the factors: setting, location, academic interest, and financial. Is it in the part of the country that you want to be in (South, Northeast, West, Mid-west, etc)? Is it in a suburban, urban, or rural setting? Does it offer your major(s), and other opportunities you want to partake in (clubs, sports, Greek Life, study abroad, etc)? Can you afford to go there? Do they offer scholarships, or are they 100% demonstrated need met? There are a lot of factors that come into play, but at the end of the day, this is YOUR future, YOUR education, and YOUR four-years. 

8th graders. 

You have a journey ahead of you. Don’t get so intimidated by high school. It’s not as bad as it seems. Take these four years to make many friends, create great study habits, learn to organize your work, challenge yourself academically and physically, join a sport or a club, get a job. There are so many things you can do in high school. It is so important you cherish every good moment and remember them when the bad ones take over. Work hard in your classes and find out what you’re interested in (maybe you’ll find your future major, but it’s okay if you don’t). SEIZE EVERY OPPORTUNITY. Because nothing will ever be handed to you, especially where we come from. The people in power rarely ever think about the low-income Black and Brown kids, who go to school in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where they lack the resources their counterparts are served on a silver platter. We have to work TWICE AS HARD to get to where we want to be, to prove to them and ourselves that we are more than what meets the eye. The South Bronx isn’t riddled with violence and garbage; it is our home and it is filled with culture and people from all walks of life. Our school may not offer the same opportunities as schools in the city, but you seize all the opportunities they put in your path. So to all my future doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, police officers, army men/women, firefighters, teachers, and other professionals, the world is yours. Go get it!

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