Dariana González remembers walking through green fields of maize and agave surrounding her hometown in Guanajuato, Mexico, as a child with her father Dario González. Today, some of that landscape only remains in their memories. After moving to the United States in 2007, the González family saw their hometown shrink from a lovely farming town into a community ravaged by climate change with each visit.
Now Dariana is on her way to Harvard University to help save other communities, and the world as a whole, from suffering the same fate.
The 2021 East Mecklenburg High School grad will be just the second person in her family to attend college and the first to attend an Ivy League school. She plans to major in environmental science and public policy with a focus on agrarian communities in hopes of helping regions like the one she is from.
She recalled to Queen City Nerve what it was like to watch her hometown community become affected by climate change more and more with each trip.
“Every time we’d go home I’d hear people saying, ‘It doesn’t rain anymore … These rivers are drying up,'” González said.
Crops died and people moved out. Droughts became worse, and as the González family continued their summer visits, Guanajuato’s water shortages became longer lasting.
“We’d have to go to neighboring towns with big barrels and fill them up because we didn’t have any water where we were at,” González remembered.
Those with livestock, like González’s grandmother, would have to make multiple trips a day to get water. These hardships drove many people, including some of González’s uncles, to leave town and seek work elsewhere.
As a child, González didn’t understand the changes happening in her community, but when her family moved to the United States, her world shifted dramatically. Both of her parents, who had grown up working the land, found new prospects. Her father worked in construction and her mother, Rafaela, had a series of local factory jobs.
All of a sudden, the agriculture-centered life of their past was no longer. Despite their new hope, González’s parents saw that she and her siblings risked losing their connection to their rural roots.
As a way to encourage his children to maintain a respect for the earth, Dario brought nature into the home by playing wildlife documentaries on TV.
“This was my way of helping Dariana adjust to life in this country, as having a way of reconnecting with nature would help her transition from a rural place to a city,” he told Queen City Nerve, his remarks translated from Spanish. “More than anything, I wanted to teach her the importance of protecting our planet and the fact that it is our only home.”
Dariana’s interest in environmental science took off from there and continued to mount as she connected her experiences in Mexico with these documentaries and her own education.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really hear the words ‘climate change’ a lot,” she said. “I started realizing it when I got here — started learning about it in school and watched the wildlife documentaries. It was then that I realized that that was happening in my hometown.”
González applied her interest in environmentalism and climate change to academics. Through her International Baccalaureate Creativity, Action and Service project, she and her peers created a sustainability audit. In the audit, the students investigated how accessible the neighborhoods around East Meck High and along Monroe Road are for walking and public transportation, determining one important aspect of the community’s commitment to green living.
Heather Hays, who coordinates the IB program at East Meck, says González was an exceptional student whose work set her up for an exciting and meaningful future.
“Dariana is the kind of student teachers wish for,” Hays said. “She has such a determination and focus on her learning that we are all more than pleased to get to work with her. Looking at her future, it is so wide open. I can’t wait to see the kind of changes she helps bring to the world.”
Though her teachers may have seen her as a stand-out student right away, González says her acceptance into Harvard came as a complete shock.
“I wasn’t going to apply at all,” she said. “I didn’t even consider it a possibility.”
It was Michael Friedland, Dariana’s mentor from the nonprofit Friedland Foundation, who encouraged Dariana to apply.
“From the first time we met it was clear that, while only 13 years old, Dariana had a remarkable balance of intelligence and humility that could give her endless opportunities to learn and explore new avenues for her future,” Friedland said.
The Friedland Foundation gives scholarships to seventh-graders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools each year and helps mentor these students all the way through high school. The Friedland Foundation has supported González for five years.
“I have been working with high school students for over a decade and never met someone with the qualities, abilities and experiences that Dariana possessed,” Friedland said. “She deserved to apply to the top schools in the country.”
With Friedland’s help, González applied to prestigious universities with important biomedical and environmental programs, including the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University and Harvard. She was accepted into all three.
“I had a picnic with my friends to open what we thought would be our rejection letters,” González said. “My mom wanted me to wait until I got home to open my Harvard one because for some reason she was really confident in it.”
When she got home that day, her family all gathered in the dining room so they could open the letter together. Upon reading the word “Congratulations,” they erupted into cheers.
“We all started screaming,” González said.
“We reacted with great pleasure and pride,” her mother, whose remarks have been translated into English, told Queen City Nerve. “She never expected it, but we had a feeling that her efforts of all these years would go very far and they did.”
González will be fully supported at Harvard through financial aid and several scholarships. She will move in the fall and said she’s excited to explore the campus for the first time. She credits her academic success and passion for the environment to her family.
Her sister Rosa echoes the sentiment: “I feel forever grateful, thinking that [my parents’] sacrifices of leaving everything they knew and had behind to give us better opportunities have certainly paid off, although this will never be enough for us to thank them,” she said.
“Dariana is quiet and small, but her actions, ideas, work ethic and initiative are much bigger, and nothing is impossible for her,” Rosa continued. “She will continue to make us proud and pursue her dreams.”
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