SEMINOLE — Jamal Waked spoke no English when he arrived in Florida as a 4-year-old.
Now 18, the St. Petersburg High student has adapted so well that he was one of four Florida students recognized as a Horatio Alger National Scholar for his accomplishments in the face of adversity and his commitment to bettering the community. The $21,000 need-based scholarship will be given to him throughout four years.
Waked moved from Panama as a young child, and with the guidance and care of his stepfather, he has persevered. He traveled with his mother and siblings for a chance at a better life and a more solid financial position in the United States. Though he faced family struggles that left him in the care of his stepfather, he worked for a fresh start.
"He picked up English within a year," his stepfather, Benjamin Martin, said. "Ever since then, there's no looking back."
A graduating senior, the Seminole resident is in the International Baccalaureate program. To get to school as an underclassman, he woke by 5 a.m. to catch the bus making the 17-mile trek.
At the end of the day, because of extracurricular activities, Waked often navigated public transportation to make the trip home.
"I wanted to make my own name. I wanted to make my own life," Waked said. "I just always had the mindset. 'I'll show them. I'll be successful.' "
Waked's "extremely bright," his chemistry teacher, Laura Domanski said. He also looked at the big picture during high school and crafted a plan to achieve his goals.
"The scholarship is a perfect fit for him and I know he will make the very most of the opportunities it presents and will go on to be very successful," Domanski said.
Waked knows what he wants and will do what it takes to achieve his goals, said La'Tina Johnson, the teen's guidance counselor.
"Despite the challenges and adjustments he has had to face throughout his young life, Jamal never allowed himself to be negatively affected,'' Johnson said. "In fact, he turned these into positives by giving him the motivation to put 100 percent into everything he does."
He scored a 33 (out of 36) on the ACT and a 2,200 (out of 2,400) on the SAT. The ACT score landed Waked in the 99th percentile of test takers. A math whiz, Waked plans to attend the University of Florida to study astrophysics or engineering. He's been accepted into an honors program. Through a Horatio Alger Association connection, he has received free housing, as well.
The scholarship winners met in the nation's Capitol for three days last month. They participated in roundtable discussions with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, actor Tom Selleck, media personality Lou Dobbs and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
"It was just overwhelming and amazing. I couldn't believe it as it was happening," Waked said about the trip. "It was pretty awesome to see what this nation's built upon."
He was particularly motivated by Thomas, who lived with his grandparents for much of his youth. The discussion left Waked, who lives with his stepfather, emotional — and inspired. "He was very insightful," Waked said. "If he could do it, I could do it."
Waked felt moved to the point of calling his stepfather to thank him for his love and support. He realized how instrumental the relationship proved to be after rocky days.
It "really affected him emotionally and got to him more than any other speaker," Martin said.
From Martin's view, his stepson has excelled in everything he pursued.
"It makes me emotional," Martin added. "It's like living through him."
But it's the teen's heart that most encourages the man who raised him.
"He's always willing to help anybody," Martin said.
Waked is a member of the service organization Key Club, an affiliated dance team, National Honor Society and the Spanish National Honor Society. He's helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity. He tutors his classmates and serves on the Dance Marathon board. The board organized a 12-hour dance-a-thon, raising more than $7,000 for All Children's Hospital.
"I relate to the people in the community who need the help because I was in that situation myself," he said.
He isn't sure yet what he wants to do after college. He does know he wants to leave things better than he found them.
"I want to make a difference in the world somehow," Waked said.