High school senior overcomes homelessness, COVID-19 to win $40,000 scholarship

Published: May. 18, 2021 at 12:57 AM CDT
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DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. (KESQ) - A high school senior in California is one of just 30 seniors to get a $40,000 scholarship to pursue a STEM education. He overcame homelessness and the coronavirus to win the high honor.

Omar Bahena is one of 30 high school seniors from Southern California to be named a 2021 Edison Scholar. He will use his $40,000 scholarship to study electrical engineering at UCLA, starting in the fall.

The senior had to overcome challenging circumstances to win the award. Bahena says his family lost their home in January 2020 after his father was injured while working at his job, leaving the family unable to make payments.

The family then moved around from various hotels to RVs to trailers.

“We were moving from hotel to hotel, kind of begging them not to kick us out,” Bahena said. “We even had to sleep outside sometimes.”

Juggling homelessness, applying to colleges and scholarships and still maintaining good grades, Bahena says it was “the lowest point” of his life. His stress was made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, as he tried to keep up with distance learning.

“We didn’t know this, but he was in a corner in the RV trying to do his work,” said Tyler Williams, Bahena’s guidance counselor at Desert Hot Springs High School. “If you looked at his transcript, you would never think he’s been through what he’s been through.”

Circumstances only got harder for Bahena and his family when they all tested positive for COVID-19 last fall. He had to take care of his parents and two younger sisters through it all.

“My mom was actually on the verge of passing away, so I thank God for everything that he’s given me,” Bahena said.

But Bahena never lost sight of his dream to become an engineer, and his hard work and resilience are paying off. In addition to his upcoming studies at UCLA, he’s been accepted to a program with NASA.

“Get a great job, give everything to my family,” he said. “When anyone ever feels like they’re at the lowest point of their life, always remember why they started.”

Bahena says he also hopes to return to Desert Hot Springs one day to help lift up others.

“To create an organization here that also supports first generation, low income students that don’t have the resources,” he said.

Copyright 2021 KESQ via CNN Newsource. All rights reserved.