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Gates Scholarship winner from Mt. Diablo HS in 2023 offers advice after first year at USC

Gates Scholarship winner from Mt. Diablo HS in 2023 offers advice after first year at USC

A year after graduating from Mt. Diablo HS with a prestigious Gates Scholarship and heading to their dream school USC to study math with a goal of becoming a teacher, Solaris Umaña Almaráz is still charting their own path and continuing to advocate for themself and other students who come from low-income, Latinx backgrounds and Title I schools. Known as "Tori" when they attended Mt. Diablo HS, Solaris (who goes by the pronouns "they" and them") changed their name at the beginning of their Freshman year. "I changed my name because I no longer want to be associated with my birth name as I am transgender," Solaris said. "I started going by Solaris/Sol when I started going to USC and told my parents officially at the end of the fall semester."

After speaking at their own graduation from Mt. Diablo HS in 2023, Solaris said they were very impressed when they attended this year's graduation and heard the Class of 2024 speakers, including their former classmate Josemit Rodriguez, who earned a Gates Scholarship this year and is headed to UC Berkeley. Solaris hopes to meet up with Josemit during the Gates Scholar Conference in Arizona at the end of June, where they will be a "squad leader" for the new Gates Scholars such as Josemit. 

Like Josemit, Solaris encourages other MDUSD students to consider applying for the Gates Scholarship as well as other scholarship opportunities and to not wait until the last minute to submit college applications. Solaris applied to 19 colleges and universities, including "reach" schools, but narrowed down their list by researching and visiting campuses, then weighing their pros and cons based on their own personal preferences and goals. Solaris also highly recommends talking to high school counselors and college and career advisors to ask questions about the application process, scholarship options and ask them to read application essays and give feedback. In addition, Solaris recommends taking AP or dual enrollment classes to earn college credits while in high school, and exploring career pathway options to help figure out what interests you and what you're good at. "The more college credit you get now, the less actual college you have to do, so there's less debt," they said. Solaris is happy that the Gates Scholarship pays for tuition and room and board, but said other expenses must be reimbursed, which means they have to pay out of pocket for some things such as transportation. Time management is a skill Solaris is still working on, but says it really starts in high school. Once you get into college, nobody reminds you about assignment deadlines or test dates. "Now, you're free, but that means you have to start taking care of yourself more," they said, adding that this is especially true if you move away from home because you can't rely on your parents as much as you do when you live with them. 

Although Solaris has not left the state, they said Southern California still feels far away and they enjoyed becoming more independent, while also having opportunities to come home during breaks, or to invite their parents to visit during Family Weekend. So far, Solaris said they are sticking to their goal of becoming a math teacher, but they are also open to exploring other options, which they said is like being open to trying new things in life, such as foods. "I'd rather do something I'm good at, but not amazing at, but that I love, than to do something I'm amazing at but I hate," Solaris said, adding that it's important to prioritize yourself. Solaris said they are good at math and want to be a teacher to help others who fear it, but they also sometimes struggle and have found that studying with other students and sharing ideas and challenges can help to overcome obstacles.

Persevering through challenges was also a theme at the Mt. Diablo HS graduation, Solaris said, noting that many speakers said that no matter where you come from, you can succeed. Solaris said they were proud of all the graduates, especially since Solaris has experienced negative bias that some people have toward Title I schools such as Mt. Diablo HS. One person, Solaris said, expressed surprise that a Mt. Diablo HS graduate was attending USC, and Solaris said they knew some students in high school who thought they didn't have to try very hard because of low expectations from other people and themselves. "Even if it's not explicit, racism and classism is still very much a thing," Solaris said. "It's very clear to see why people don't want to talk about these issues because it makes them uncomfortable, but you need to talk about it." The Gates Scholarship has brought Solaris together with other students from similar schools who have overcome barriers and are now forging new paths at top universities around the country. Like Josemit, Solaris hopes that more Mt. Diablo HS students will apply for and earn Gates or other scholarships, showing the Mt. Diablo HS community and students who come after them that they can achieve their dreams.

Solaris Umaña Almaráz


  • Gates Scholar
  • Mt. Diablo HS