How this senior attracted $1 million plus in college offers to pursue dreams

SHARE How this senior attracted $1 million plus in college offers to pursue dreams

Darlene Diaz, 17, is pictured at Kennedy High School in the Southwest Side Garfield Ridge neighborhood. Darlene won more than $1 million in combined academic scholarships. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

A year and a half ago, Darlene Diaz’s mother sat her down to explain that despite her good grades, her parents would be unable to afford a college education for their daughter.

“I realized I needed to figure out on my own how I was going to get to college, because it’s so expensive. I had to come up with a plan,” the 17-year-old Chicago Public Schools student said.

That plan, which included applying and getting into two programs for low-income youth, Chicago Scholars and QuestBridge, along with intensive monthly coaching on college applications and financial aid, worked for the Latina youth.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she’s joined an elite league of graduating seniors nationwide boasting college scholarship offers exceeding $1 million, typically from more schools than you can count on both hands.

The straight-A student — with a 5.3 GPA in the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Kennedy High School — was accepted into 10 colleges and was wait-listed at two. She’d applied to 19.

“I was worried she wouldn’t be able to go to college, and would probably end up going to a community college close to home,” said her mother, Maria Diaz, who immigrated here in her late teens.

Diaz and her husband married here, and have three children. She works for a janitorial service; her husband’s a forklift operator.

“My dad was worried that I would have to skip college and end up at a low-wage job when they wanted more for me,” said Darlene, who would be the first in her extended family to go to college.

Darlene Diaz and her mother Maria shown this week outside Kennedy High School. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Darlene Diaz and her mother Maria shown this week outside Kennedy High School. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Around this time of year, the nation takes note of low-income, minority students like Darlene, beating the odds. Among those in recent headlines:

• Michael Brown, of Houston, who applied to 20 colleges — and was accepted to all 20, with full rides. After his video went viral, Fox News anchors Holly Morris and Sarah Fraser drew national backlash for calling the youth “obnoxious” for applying to so many schools.

• Darrin Francois, of New Orleans, who was accepted at over 80 colleges, with more than $3 million in scholarships. President of his school’s National Honor Society, he’d applied to 100 schools.

Darrin’s principal noted his success — like Darlene’s — is evidence high schools do not need to be selective to produce great student outcomes. Kennedy is a Garfield Ridge neighborhood school.

Its principal, George Szkapiak, said: “I have known Darlene since the first day she set foot at Kennedy. She has developed into the kindest, most passionate, and tremendously talented student our school could possibly imagine producing. As a father of three daughters, I hope my girls grow up to become just like Darlene.”

Darlene, whose extracurriculars range from National Honor Society to theater, will attend Davidson College in North Carolina, for biochemistry, on a pre-med track.

Her reaction when the offers rolled in? “So happy! I felt like, ‘Wow, I can actually go to college.’ Those really hard IB courses paid off.”

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