Eye On ’Cuse: Diana Quesada

By Jiaman (Maggie) Peng

A Scholar, a daughter, a dreamer

Diana Quesada is a sophomore architecture student and a  Posse Scholar , receiving a full-tuition leadership scholarship from the Posse Foundation. Photo by  Jiaman (Maggie) Peng .

Diana Quesada is a sophomore architecture student and a Posse Scholar, receiving a full-tuition leadership scholarship from the Posse Foundation. Photo by Jiaman (Maggie) Peng.

For her 20th birthday in October last year, Diana Quesada’s mother came to Syracuse and brought her a present from Miami, Florida. Unveiled by sheets and sheets of paper was Quesada’s U.S. passport, proving her U.S. citizenship. She broke into tears.

Quesada is a sophomore architecture student and a Posse Scholar, receiving a full-tuition leadership scholarship from the Posse Foundation. She and her mom moved from Escazu, Costa Rica to Miami when she was five in search of better opportunities.

Quesada loves the culture hub she sees Miami as.

“Even though you're in a new country, it feels like you're at home in a way,” she said. Owing to the huge population of immigrants there, many people have a common ground, that shared experience of leaving their country, coming to a new place and adjusting to a new language.

She remembers stories of getting bullied because she couldn’t speak English. On the first day of kindergarten, Quesada knew only how to say her name and count to 10. When she introduced herself at a table, all the girls laughed at her accent and left her by herself. One African-American girl saw that happen, came over and introduced herself to Quesada, and they became best friends.

At every step of the way, Quesada’s mom has been her biggest support.

“It's just been us two since I can remember,” she said, “I was born and raised with the same values [that] my mom was born and raised [with].”

Quesada identifies with the American Dream in terms of coming here for better opportunities, taking advantage of everything that comes in her way, and witnessing the struggles and obstacles that her mom overcame for her.

“She prioritizes me before her own health in many situations,” Quesada said. Her mom has always had serious back problems but she had neither money nor time to invest in herself. She worked five jobs simultaneously at one point, and they once lived in one room with a tiny bathroom.They slept on the floor for the first few weeks because they didn’t have beds.

“Then little by little, we worked our way up from that,” Quesada said, “That’s why she’s like my everything today.” This past Thanksgiving break, Quesada didn’t go home, working instead to save up money. Part of her Christmas present to her mom was paying for her to see a chiropractor.

“I remember when I took her [to the doctor], she started crying because she's like, no one's ever looked out for me like this,” said Quesada.

She told her mom that she’s the only thing she has and that she wants to take care of her because she’s done so much for her.

“She says her best present for every birthday, for every Christmas is just me,” Quesada said.

Quesada and her mom were permanent residents and didn’t want to risk anything before they both became U.S. citizens. Her mom received citizenship, but due to some complications, the process was delayed for Quesada, so they haven’t returned to Costa Rica in 15 years.

She’s remained close with her cousins and family in Costa Rica even though she can’t physically hug them. She and her mom celebrate New Year twice because the time in Miami is two hours ahead of Costa Rica. They would Skype her grandpa, her mom’s dad, and count down to the New Year again with him.

“It's very hard to find Costa Ricans anywhere really,” said Quesada. There is a church in Miami that celebrates Costa Rica’s day of the Virgin Mary and she learned the folkloric dance, “Bailes Típicos.”

Quesada only knows one Costa Rican student at SU. At the School of Architecture’s Dean’s Welcome during her freshman year, students were asked to pin their hometown on a world map, and she said someone must have seen her pin and told the only other Costa Rican about it, who is now in his fourth year of Architecture program.

In Quesada’s senior year of high school, she genuinely thought she wasn’t going to college. At Miami Palmetto Senior High, where there were many Jewish-Americans and upper-middle-class students, it was common to pay for tutors and private college application advisors. No one in her family was familiar with the U.S. college application process and she had to learn it on her own, writing her essays and renting books in the library to study for the SATs on her own.

Since there aren’t many Costa Ricans on campus, Quesada goes to events held by different Hispanic student organizations to meet different people. Photo by  Jiaman (Maggie) Peng .

Since there aren’t many Costa Ricans on campus, Quesada goes to events held by different Hispanic student organizations to meet different people. Photo by Jiaman (Maggie) Peng.

“Everyone was like, ‘who's your private tutor,’ I was like, ‘I don't have that money,’” Quesada recalled. She felt like everyone around her told her that she had to have money to get into college. It was a huge shock for her.

She didn’t consider any schools outside of Florida since that would mean more expenses and she couldn’t do that to her mom. She didn’t know about scholarships and financial aid until she sat down with the school’s college counselor and cried saying, “I'm worried because I want to get higher education, but it sounds to me like I can't do that unless I have money.”

Her counselor told her about other options, including the Posse Scholarship. The Posse Foundation visited different high schools and told students about what they do, but Quesada hadn’t even attended because she thought it wasn’t an option for her.

Nevertheless, she opted in. It started off with 1300 applicants and Quesada moved through three stages of interviews to the final pool of 20 students at the end. In the process, she was asked to rank her top choices out of the six Posse partner schools, though there was a pool of other colleges that Posse worked with as well. The only two that offered the architecture major were Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s liberal arts college, and Syracuse University, which Quesada chose as her first choice.

During the last interview, Posse brought faculty from SU including Bea González, Dean and Special Assistant to the Chancellor, and Shelley Crawford, Assistant Director of POSSE, HEOP, SSSP and other programs at the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Programs. The interview took place from afternoon to around 8 p.m., and Quesada was told that she would hear from them about their final decision in 24 hours.

When she got home, she put her phone away to charge and went to brush her teeth. When she checked her phone again, she saw a missed call from the office.

“I recognized the number because I had called so many times for questions,” said Quesada. She called back immediately. They asked if her name was Diana and told her they’ll call back in a second.

She sat by her phone praying. When they finally called her back, she remembered them asking about her day and creating conversation before getting to the question — an offer, really — that would change her life.

“So, how would you like to start studying architecture with us here at Syracuse?”

Quesada started screaming and crying on speaker.

Her mom rushed to her room thinking something bad had happened, then she fell to her knees and they both started crying. She knew Quesada had been applying to the Posse Foundation and had already said, “no matter how much it hurts me, how you're going to be so far away from me, it's your dream and I'm not gonna stop you from chasing your dreams.”

Diana Quesada performed the song “Popular” from  Wicked  during the 2019 PossePlus Retreat in February in Rochester, NY. Photo by  Jiaman (Maggie) Peng .

Diana Quesada performed the song “Popular” from Wicked during the 2019 PossePlus Retreat in February in Rochester, NY. Photo by Jiaman (Maggie) Peng.

Quesada loved art and mathematics, and architecture combines the two very well. She said the major is more demanding than she thought it would be and her coming to Syracuse was a huge adjustment.

“There's barely any people who speak Spanish as in comparison to Miami, where everywhere you go it's Spanglish (Spanish and English),” she said.

When asked if she thinks she’s found her community, she said yes and no. Through the Posse Foundation, she’s met scholars from other cities and years with whom she connects well and does feel at home with.

“But then in terms of like Syracuse, I have yet to find my community, I have yet to find, I think, a place where I can say I feel like I belong here,” said Quesada.

She acknowledges that architecture is a very diverse major with many international students, especially Asian. She says there are very few Hispanic students like herself, though.

Although Posse pays for full tuition, it doesn’t cover other costs like room and board. Quesada is here on six or seven different scholarships. She said that some students don’t even know what scholarships are.

“It's all like the group of people I hang out with talk about, ‘oh, have you heard of this scholarship,’ ‘oh have you heard of this opportunity,’” she said. It’s been very eye-opening for Quesada, coming to Syracuse and being surrounded by people have had such different experiences, backgrounds and struggles.

What happened to her in kindergarten is still happening to her now. “When I walk around and when I'm speaking Spanish, I do get looks, I do feel that,” she said, “I overlook it, and I don’t say anything or brush it off to the side because I can't let little things like that affect me.” Quesada said that she’s had professors who made assumptions about where she comes from. In one class, something in Spanish came up in a PowerPoint, and the professor called her out along the lines of, “oh Diana, you can just talk about this right? Because you can read that.”

“It's just the fact that he just assumed, even if he knew, for whatever reason that I was Hispanic or whether I looked Hispanic,” Quesada recalled that instance, “I think if you would have just been like ‘anyone in the class would like to translate,’ but the fact that you’re just calling a student out like that, making an assumption that they know Spanish. It was pretty shocking.”

Now in her second year of the five-year architecture program, Quesada is noticing the ubiquity of its application. From homes, schools to hospitals and hotels, everything is strategically planned, she said. She wants to change the stigma that architecture is only for the wealthy, people who want to build a fancy home. “Architecture is meant to help everybody and help society,” she said.

Quesada is looking into architecture and activism, how to use sustainable design and rebuild rundown communities instead of tearing them down.

“The role of an architect is to be a service provider, to help your community, to understand what's going on in your society, in their community and help resolve those issues through design,” said Quesada.

Quesada was brought to America for better opportunities, and she said that her mom is proud of her for everything she’s accomplished so far. “I do it mostly for my family, for my mom and for my cousins because I want to show that it is possible, to come out of nothing and come out on top,” she said.

Now that they both have U.S. passports, Quesada and her mom are planning on going back to Costa Rica for the first time in 15 years. She said something always came up when they were planning, be it costs and bills they need to prioritize before the trip, or crimes happening in Costa Rica.

For now, they’re hoping to go back during the summer or winter break.

“I'm really excited. I’m gonna cry a lot, I know I’m gonna cry a lot,” said Quesada.

“I think when I get off the plane, when we land, have you ever seen a Pope get out of the plane? He kisses the ground,” said Quesada, “That’s literally gonna be me. I'm getting out of the plane, kissing the ground like ‘I'm here, this is my land. I was born here.’”

There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.