Norberto Orellana remembers all the times he had to study by flashlight or carry textbooks with him everywhere to prevent them from being stolen. But he focuses more on his future than his turbulent past.
Not only did Orellana, 18, persevere through homelessness and cerebral palsy to become the first person in his family to earn a high school diploma, he also graduated with honors on June 9 from Miami’s rigorous School for Advanced Studies and earned a full college scholarship.
“It was definitely a struggle," Orellana told NBC News. “For me it was about ignoring the situation at hand and diving into your work and involving yourself so much you forget about the circumstances you’re in.”
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When Orellana was in ninth grade at Medical Academy for Science and Technology in Homestead, Florida, his father lost his job due to health issues stemming from diabetes, and his mother was unemployed. The family lost their apartment, which began a four-year odyssey of Orellana and his younger sister, Catherine, 9, living with an aunt, in a shelter, and in various short-term apartments.
Orellana often used his bed as a desk, and he was afraid to let his books out of sight while they were living in the shelter because of his fear of them being stolen.
“I closed up more and just became more silent and introverted," he said.
Orellana transferred to School for Advanced Studies on the campus of Miami Dade College for his last two years, where his classmates and teachers had no idea about his struggles until he spoke about them during a TEDx lecture.
“He showed up every day with a lab coat, tie and dress coat," School for Advanced Studies principal Dr. Omar Monteagudo told NBC News. “You wouldn't know it's someone going through the type of hardship he was going through economically and physically, but that’s how he wanted to be seen. The most remarkable thing was how low-key he was when it came to what he was overcoming.”
Last summer, he commuted two hours each way by bus and by train to downtown Miami to take classes.
“Instead of finishing work, I was worrying about when to sleep or have time to eat," Orellana said. “I always rearranged my schedule so my work and studies would come first.”
Born with cerebral palsy, Orellana also managed his condition, which once required him to attend elementary school in a wheelchair, as his family searched for a stable home. He underwent successful surgery in August 2015 to insert a metal plate in his leg, which he says is the last surgery he will need.
His frequent visits to hospitals in New York and Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami for the five surgeries he has undergone since being born have inspired him to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
“The experiences I had in the hospital were all pretty much positive," he said. “I knew I was always in safe hands, so instead of making me hate hospitals, if anything, it had the opposite effect. I enjoy being in that setting where children are getting help.”
He also is currently an intern at Miami Dade College’s research laboratory, working on synthesizing different compounds related to medical marijuana. Orellana has received a full scholarship to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, through the California-based, non-profit QuestBridge program that helps low-income students attend college.
“The school was his sanctuary, and he threw all his energy and effort into thriving academically because he knew that would be his ticket out of the lifestyle of poverty he was exposed to,’’ Monteagudo said. “I have no doubt that he will achieve his American dream.”
“I’m just very happy that others can look at my story, see what I accomplished and see that they’re capable of doing the same thing if they have similar circumstances,’’ Orellana said.
His family recently secured an apartment, and he said his father has a hearing in July to see if he qualifies for federal disability coverage. Orellana is looking forward to having a stable living situation in Colorado, and continuing on the road to his dream of becoming a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
“It feels like I’ve been through it all," he said. “Whatever I face in the future, I can look back and say I made it through something equally as bad, if not worse. There is nothing that is going to impede me if I put my mind to it.”