Gates Millennium Scholarship Winners Escape Violence to Pursue Education


From escaping gang violence, to enduring a 10 year journey before obtaining a green card, two very special 2016 USC TRIO graduates exemplify academic excellence.  They also happen to be Gates Millennium Scholarship receipts.

For Kelly Acevedo gangs had a major impact on her life, even though she wasn’t a member.  Her older sister was, so the family moved to Mexico to escape harm.  In contrast, Kelly has always been a self-professed “nerd” who longed to return to America for better educational and financial opportunities.

Kelly eventually returned to the United States at the age of 14, alone.  Forced to stay with abusive relatives in cramped quarters, Kelly often slept on the floor and used a small flashlight to study late at night. Instead of being encouraged and praised for her responsible and studious ways, she was ridiculed and harassed.  Shortly after turning 18, she was asked to leave the home where she had endured so much emotional abuse and move in with friends.    

Originally from Los Angeles, Kelly attended Manual Arts High School and enrolled in the USC Upward Bound Program in the ninth grade. Expected to graduate as class salutatorian, Kelly has thrived with the help of mentors whom she now considers family. 

Kelly is bound for Wesleyan University where she will pursue double majors in government and studio art.  She hopes to eventually work in the entertainment industry in creative advertising. 

Before Maria Jose Solorzano was a Gates Millennium Scholar, she was a struggling immigrant from El Salvador.  At the age of one, her parents moved to the United States to flee violence and poverty. Maria was left behind with her grandparents. 

Maria was four years old when she too left her homeland accompanied by her grandparents. The photo on the temporary visa was that of a little girl who was ready to reunite with her parents, and overcome obstacles along the way.  After six months, the visa expired. Officially undocumented at the time, her family’s struggles mounted.  In addition to financial challenges, Maria and her younger brother often went without proper healthcare. To make matters worse, her father suffered from alcoholism for many years before successfully becoming sober. 

Despite her personal struggles, Maria moved forward doing well in school and eventually securing an official green card 10 years after arriving in the United States. 

A soon to be graduate from Belmont High School, Maria first heard of the USC Upward Bound Math-Science Program from a cousin, whose own cousin was already in the program. Through the program, Maria was able to sharpen her natural affinity for math and science.  Aside from academics, Maria has also been an active community volunteer having served the homeless at local soup kitchens and delivering care packages on Skid Row.

Maria plans to attend Princeton University in the fall to major in molecular biology.  She hopes to eventually become a heart surgeon.