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Leto High School valedictorian gets $120,000 in scholarships

TAMPA — In his speech today, the Leto High School valedictorian will share how he obsessed over his grades, bordering on unhealthy. He will urge his classmates to dream big, to soar like falcons to mountaintops. And he will thank God, his sister and his parents.

Daniel Ospina, 18, graduates with a 7.04 grade point average and scholarships totaling $120,000.

It's an auspicious achievement considering his start.

He was born two months early, weighing just 3 pounds, but otherwise healthy. His parents were relieved. Months earlier, doctors told them he would have Down syndrome and advised them to terminate the pregnancy.

His sister, Estefania, was just 9 months old when Daniel was born. They moved to Tampa before they could remember a home in New Jersey.

They settled in Town 'N Country and joined a church on Howard Avenue, La Senda Antigua, where Daniel began preaching in Spanish when he was 7. His family traveled to Hispanic churches from Miami to Tallahassee, booking Daniel to preach and Estefania to sing.

When Daniel was in third grade, his parents told him he should be more like his sister. Estefania was an A student. His grades were average and his teachers complained that he talked too much.

His parents told him how they left Colombia. How his mother had wanted to be a teacher there and had started college. His father wanted to be a professional cyclist. But Colombia was no place for dreaming.

In America, a boy could be anything if he had an education, they said.

"That's when I started taking my grades seriously," said Daniel.

Since then, he has earned straight A's.

His parents told him the story of his birth. They told him instead of Down syndrome, he had come with Holy Spirit syndrome. He felt the frailty of his life and the burden of its gift. He would not squander his opportunities.

At Webb Middle School, he found a focus. His sixth-grade science teacher introduced him to nanotechnology.

"I became truly inspired," he said.

Then he learned about nuclear fusion. These ideas formed the basis of his daydreams, where he builds a factory that makes products using nanotechnology and fusion. He envisions cost-effective fusion reactors and nanobots that can circulate through the body zapping bacteria and viruses.

"Ultimately, I'll make the world a better place," he said.

While he studied, his father, Carlos Ospina, worked in construction, installing appliances, and now, at a bicycle shop. Sometimes, between jobs, the family struggled to make ends meet. His mother, Alexandra, is a homemaker who doesn't speak English. At one point, an accident left them without a car for nearly a year. They depended on friends and public transportation to get groceries and to attend church.

His parents weren't able to help him with his homework, but they taught him to be straight with people and with God. When Daniel was in seventh grade, the family moved to Miami to find work and they stayed two years. It was a lonely time for Daniel.

Back in Tampa at Leto High School, he worked hard. He didn't go to parties or have a girlfriend.

In an essay for a college application, Daniel wrote about his high school, which he said has a poor reputation to many.

"Minorities are the majority. (It's) infamous for gangs, violence, and drugs. The scores for standardized tests are one of the lowest in (the) county."

But Daniel set his own standards, he explained. He founded the school's Science Honors Society and served as president. He competed in a countywide science competition and won, beating out students in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

In his senior year, he applied to his dream school, MIT, and several other prestigious universities.

When he found out he didn't get in, it was too late for many other schools. So his first semester this fall will be at Hillsborough Community College. Then he's heading to Georgia Tech.

He is one of four Hispanic students across the country to receive a $100,000 scholarship from Ronald McDonald House Charities. He also will get $20,000 from the Bailey Family Foundation.

Maybe he will go to MIT for grad school, he said.

And he daydreams of the days when he will be able to give back to his parents.

His mother dreams of traveling the world.

"I want to make that dream come true," he said.

Today, as he walks onto the stage to give his speech, he may be a little nervous, he said. It will be memorable, he said. And his parents will be proud.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Leto High School valedictorian gets $120,000 in scholarships 06/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 2:20pm]
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