HOMESTEAD (CBSMiami) – Seventeen Norberto Orellana scored the highest in his class on his recent organic chemistry exam at Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus — and he’s still in high school.
“My plan is to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, that’s really the ticket out of poverty for me,” said Orellana. “But in that same respect, it’s really not about the money for me. It’s a job that I would do, even if it was minimum wage, because it’s my passion and I really want to help people. That’s my goal.”
His determination and academic achievements are astounding on any level, but it’s the challenges he continues to overcome to realize his dream of becoming a doctor that so impressed his mentor, and organic chemistry professor, Dr. James Ley.
You wouldn’t know it from the lab coat he wears over his suit and tie, but Orellana is homeless. While the rest of his family sleeps in a shelter, he stays with a family member so he can use the Internet and focus on his studies. At one point last summer, he took two buses and a train to get to Dr. Ley’s class every day, waking up at 4 a.m. and sometimes not returning home until after midnight.
“You look at how hard he’s trying, you look at how much potential he has and it’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Ley, who has taught Orellana in several classes.
There is a reason Orellana is so passionate about becoming a pediatric surgeon. He was born with cerebral palsy, a disease that left him with one leg shorter than the other. The teenager has been through countless surgeries and medical procedures.
“All the surgeries and what I’ve been through, each have added to that drive that I’ve always had,” said Orellana.
Ley saw in him a shining light. He bought Orellana the molecular models he needed to study when he couldn’t afford them, and jumped through hoops to allow his star student to continue to take more of his classes. Ley also volunteers his time to work with Orellana and other students in a research lab.
“This won’t be the end of his story,” said Ley. “He’s going somewhere else, and this way, he won’t go there with empty hands. He’ll say, ‘Look, I’ve used this equipment. I’ve presented at conferences. I’ve written up abstracts and papers.’”
Orellana says Ley has helped guide him on his journey, and is always there to offer support.
“He’s almost like a parental figure to me,” said Orellana. “He watches over me, and the work that I do, and it’s clear that his goal is to make me a great chemist.”
Orellana’s remarkable story led to him giving an inspirational TedXYouth talk in Miami. Ley was in the audience.
“I know I have the power to do extraordinary things,” Orellana told the audience. “I know there is nothing that can stop me.”
Orellana paces the stage, his lab coat bright under the lights.
“Explore your possibilities,” he urges the crowd. “Chase your dreams. Kindle your passions. And always know, that no matter the circumstances, you can and will always find the path to new heights of achievement.”
Orellana has already been accepted to Colorado College on full scholarship. He says he plans to stay in touch with Ley long after he has finished his studies and achieved his dream.
Ley says Orellana’s story highlights the issue of homelessness. And he says he has a place on his “Wall of Fame” for his star pupil.
“He has tremendous obstacles he has overcome,” said Ley. “I’ve never seen anyone overcome the obstacles he’s had to overcome. It’s just absolutely phenomenal.”