Sophomore Omar Garcia thought he may not go to college until he opened the white envelope labeled “Hispanic Scholarship Fund.” Now a chemical engineering major at USC, Garcia dedicated much of his high school career toward fostering a passion for STEM subjects in his high school and local community, a passion that earned him a Gates Millennium Scholarship and the opportunity to attend USC.
Last week, he was one of 10 students honored as a Scholar of the Year finalist for recipients of Hispanic Scholarship Fund awards, which provide Hispanic-American students with the resources they need to obtain a higher education.
“I remember when I got [the scholarship] I was so happy,” Garcia said. “I was screaming outside by my mailbox, calling my mom and yelling ‘I’m going to college.’ Before that moment, I had gotten into college, but since the cost of going to university is so high, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go.”
Garcia spent his senior year of high school tutoring students in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program. For one hour each school day, he led a class, helping his peers in subjects ranging from chemistry to calculus.
“I have always been passionate about education and I want to bring other minority students into higher education, specifically in STEM subjects,” Garcia said.
Shortly after arriving at USC, Garcia joined SCout, an organization designed to promote scientific literacy on campus and in the local area. SCout volunteers visit nearby elementary schools to enhance their science curriculum by introducing supplemental instruction that fosters greater interest in the sciences, motivating students to consider careers as engineers, doctors, educators and scientists.
“Our motto in SCout is ‘To teach kids, you’ve got to be a kid,’” Garcia said. “To me, this means that sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone to make sure the kids are having fun and being inspired to pursue their dreams.”
This year, Garcia served as SCout’s experiment manager — creating lesson plans, purchasing and distributing SCout’s material inventory among three elementary schools and keeping a comprehensive science journal each semester. Next year, Garcia will take on an even greater role — that of club president.
SCout’s current president, Kristen Zung, said that she believes Garcia will be a perfect fit for this position, citing his leadership qualities as evidence of his potential.
“Omar possesses that charisma that makes you want to listen to what he has to say,” Zung said. “He also has a personable, easy-going energy about him that makes him very approachable. When Omar talks, you want to listen.”
In addition to playing an active role in SCout, Garcia is also the co-director of volunteering for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, an organization that he says has provided him with a strong sense of community and support, especially when outside pressures began to overwhelm him.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Latinos to do well because we are so underrepresented on college campuses,” Garcia said. “Everyone in SHPE wants to excel, not just academically but professionally as well. We know that a lot of people in the Latino community look up to us, so we feel that it is our job to make our families and community proud.”
Fellow SHPE member and chemical engineering major Cecilia Quintana Baez praised Garcia’s dedication to service, noting that he is an inspiration to Hispanic students at USC and in the local community.
“Omar is dedicated to supporting younger members of the Latino community through different outreach programs, especially when it comes to STEM,” Baez said. “He continues to raise the bar for all students, but specifically for Latinos and Hispanics at USC. He serves as an exemplary leader who balances academic excellence with community involvement, all while maintaining a positive outlook and bringing smiles to all who have the pleasure to meet him.”
As a result of his involvement in various service and leadership-oriented programs, Garcia was invited to a dinner hosted by the Hispanic Scholarship Fund last Wednesday at the JW Marriott Los Angeles.
“The dinner was amazing because I was surrounded by this group of ambitious students who all had desires to make a positive impact on society,” Garcia said. “I know all the attendees are going to change the world in some way and I hope I can join them in that endeavor.”