For Diana Quintanilla, 2020 alumna of Alamance Community College, the road to making her mark as a Georgetown University freshman this fall was a journey few students have to face. As an individual who didn’t speak a word of English until age four and for whom the immigrant experience was not always greeted with smiles, Diana now finds the world at her feet as she maneuvers through her first semester online as a Georgetown Hoya.
“The adjustment everyone had to make to remote learning via Zoom was difficult, but my Georgetown professors have been so supportive and my classes are so engaging,” says Diana, who was the 2020 valedictorian at Cummings High School in Burlington. “It would have been a big change to move to D.C. altogether, so I am thankful to be with my family in these difficult times. Yet there is still a part of me that wants to be there on campus. Maybe [not being on campus yet] is why I struggle to believe that I am truly a Georgetown student.”
But Diana Quintanilla is, indeed, a freshman at the highly selective private university in our nation’s capital where she is studying Global Health. Although she has lived in the United States since age two, she nevertheless found it hard to believe that she had been accepted to Georgetown earlier this year.
“I sat by my phone all day and waited for it to ring to hear some news,” says Diana. “Then on March 21, I woke up from a late afternoon nap and learned I had the acceptance letter in my email. It did not start with congratulations, it started with ‘Dear Diana, it gives me great pleasure to inform you…’ In my half-awake mind, I thought I had not been accepted because I expected to see the word ‘congratulations.’ I forwarded it to my high school’s college advisor who confirmed the news. Even now sometimes, I still cannot believe it.”
Diana is the latest among several Alamance Community College graduates who have been accepted to prestigious higher institutions in the past few years, including Duke University, M.I.T., and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Why did Diana find her acceptance to Georgetown so hard to believe? Because, she said, people like her living in Alamance County, NC are not representative of a typical Georgetown freshman. Or so she thought.
Diana Quintanilla, an El Salvador native, rarely heard any English spoken until she was four and a half years old because she spent most of her time with her mother who was not bilingual.
By the time she began school at R. Homer Andrews Elementary, she still only spoke her native language. Fortunately, her teacher had previously taught her older brother and was able to help assimilate Diana as she slowly began to learn English.
Her journey has not been easy. “I liked school and I loved learning, but I spent the majority of elementary school struggling with reading and writing English. I was never in the AIG classes, and that kind of embarrassed me for a long time. I never felt smart enough. When I got to Broadview Middle School, I surrounded myself with smart and sincere people, and that opened my mind to new ideas. I began reading more, and that really improved my linguistic skills.”
Sixth grade was a time for Diana to reinvent herself. She loved the teachers who challenged her and she joined the school orchestra where she learned to play the viola. Most importantly, she met whom she describes as her “stable” friends. She was starting to fit in. By seventh grade, Diana was finally placed in advanced classes, she fell in love with reading, and discovered her writing skills.
“Until this point I had been discouraged from attending college because it seemed so complicated to accomplish. But I now believed in myself and knew that I was capable. I finished middle school on the honor roll for three years in a row, and went into high school with a determined mission,” she says.
When Donald Trump was elected president her freshman year of high school, Diana witnessed the birth of a new type of fear which she came to call ‘a loss of hope.’
“I have always lived in a society where I am constantly considered a statistic rather than an individual, and I didn’t want to be that anymore,” says Diana. “I wanted to be the exception to the rule, the outlier. I wanted to skew the data. I wanted to show the world something different. So I knew that I needed to stand out in my college application.”
One ‘silver slipper’ opportunity that fit her foot was her acceptance to the Elon Academy summer program, the selective college access program for academically promising students who are underrepresented on a college campus.
“I gained this new family that would support me in ways I didn’t think imaginable,” she says. “It was through Elon Academy that I truly became a leader.”
Within the walls of Cummings High School, Diana became a leader: a College Ambassador via Elon Academy, a National Honor Society scholar, and the president of multiple high school clubs.
Then Diana discovered Alamance Community College and its unique and cost-cutting Career and College Promise program.
Career and College Promise (CCP) is a free initiative courtesy of the NC Community College System that allows high school students to earn multiple hours of college credit by taking courses at the local community college while still matriculating through high school.
“I decided to take CCP classes at ACC due to the academic competitiveness among my top ten peers,” she explains. “I saw ACC as a good opportunity to take more classes and boost my grade point average.”
At ACC, Diana took English 111 & 112, American Literature, British Literature, American History 1 & 2, Public Speaking, Intro to Jazz, and General Biology. She also continued taking advantage of classes offered through Elon Academy.
And then came the idea of a Georgetown University education.
While at Elon Academy, Diana was mentored by an individual with a similar ethnic background who was attending Georgetown. Confident about her grades–she ultimately graduated Cummings with a GPA of 4.546–she researched the possibility of attending Georgetown and found that the university offered her ideal course of study, Global Health, a program housed in the School of Nursing & Human Science (NHS).
Once she got over the shock of actually being accepted there, Diana knew her family would worry about paying for college and Georgetown in particular. Fortunately, Georgetown met her need 100 percent. She also received the Community Scholars Program and the Georgetown Scholars Program, both dedicated to serving low income and first generation college students.
Like most other college campuses this fall, the pandemic prevented Diana from starting her academic career physically on the Georgetown campus, but she is still enjoying her studies this fall as a member of the Georgetown class of 2024.
“In the long run, I would like to attend graduate school and work for a non-profit,” says Diana. “All with the mindset of paying it forward and making those who have supported me–family, teachers, mentors, and friends–very proud and making my mother’s sacrifice worth it. Because as my mother likes to say, “Todo sacrificio tiene su recompensa,” which means Every sacrifice has its reward.”