When East High senior Viridiana Martinez was 9, her mother, Maria Teresa Lopez Olay, made the difficult decision to leave her husband. After years of domestic abuse, homelessness became a better choice than helplessness.
Another East High student, senior Stefan Kapetanovic, was going through his own struggles. Nina Stefan moved her family to Utah from Bosnia and Herzegovina when Stefan was 3. Soon after, she left her husband and had to raise two children on her own.
The two students have a lot in common. Both looked to their older sisters for guidance and both are at the top of their class. Stefan and Viridiana have 4.0 and 3.9 GPAs, respectively.
And now, they can claim one more commonality. Each was awarded the Horatio Alger State Scholarship, a $5,000 award toward a bachelor’s degree.
The works of writer Horatio Alger share a common theme — impoverished youth rising up to become leaders of society. Like Alger’s protagonists, Stefan and Viridiana could be heroes of their own novels.
Stefan never felt that his life was that difficult.
“I never let excuses hold me back,” he said. “I’m never been the type of person to say I’ve been at a disadvantage. Maybe I didn’t have the money or resources, but my desire to succeed was worth more than that.”
Viridiana found the same desire, albeit through different circumstances. Her family was homeless for six years, staying at the YWCA and the Road Home until she was 15.
She recalls when her sister underwent knee surgery. In rehab, a hospital worker encouraged her to walk — the sooner she walked, the sooner she could go home. Her sister burst into tears. There wasn’t a home to walk to.
“I didn’t want that for the rest of my life,” Viridiana said. “I saw things when I was homeless that children shouldn’t see. That’s when I decided I needed to get into college.”
To help his mother, Stefan works at the Sorenson Multicultural Center, a job he’s had since he was 15. Viridiana spends most of her free time volunteering, splitting hours among Salt Lake Peer Court, the VA hospital and Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
The hard work has paid off. Along with the Horatio Alger Award, Viridiana has been granted a full-ride scholarship at Westminster College, where she’ll major in biology. Stefan will take his talents to the University of Utah, choosing engineering as his course of study.
Stefan looks to his mother, a case worker for other Utah immigrants, as an inspiration.
“My passion in life comes from my mom,” he said. “If there’s something I want to achieve, I commit to it 100 percent. I got that from her.”
Viridiana, who is considering a minor in environmental studies as well, hopes that others can learn from her experience.
“I want to tell other homeless kids to never give up,” she said. “Even though the journey seems dark and there are obstacles right now, it’s going to get better.”
At a glance
The Horatio Alger Association was founded in 1947 to dispel the belief that the American Dream was no longer attainable.
Since the inception of the state scholarship program in 1984, the association has awarded more than $70 million in college scholarships.
Twenty-nine states participate in the State Scholars program, with award amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,500.