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Grad Week Feature: Academy cadet, naturalized citizen one step closer to aviation dream

Cadet 1st Class Rodrigo Orellana

Cadet 1st Class Rodrigo Orellana. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadet 1st Class Rodrigo Orellana

Cadet 1st Class Rodrigo Orellana (center, blue beret), was born in Honduras. He’s scheduled to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy May 30, 2019 and later attend pilot training school. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Rodrigo Orellana, an Air Force Academy senior, knew as a boy he wanted to fly.

He was born and raised in Tegucigalpa, the densely-packed capital of Honduras, a Central American country as beautiful as it is poor. It was, by his account, a country with generous people who had little but shared everything, and a place where the threat of violence was commonplace and basic resources were sometimes scarce.

Orellana’s father immigrated to the U.S. when Orellana was young. His father worked his way from bag handler to a senior security management position at an airline. The extra income funded Rodrigo’s education at a bilingual private school, but the family struggled.

“I was the man of the house at a young age,” he said.  “My mom worked two jobs, so I would come back from school and take care of my little sister. Sometimes we had water, sometimes not. I remember having to walk a long way to fill buckets of water for the house.”

At 17, Orellana joined his father in Florida. He felt at the time the move would make it easier for him to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot.

He learned about the Academy through a friend who was an enlisted Airman.

“I owe a lot to my dad. I probably wouldn’t be here without him,” he said. “I told my dad about the Academy, and asked if we could take a tour, and he said, ‘let’s go next week.’”

The tour convinced Orellana to apply, although he was rejected after his initial application due to his citizenship status. U.S. citizenship was an Academy requirement. Orellana was undeterred.  He attended community college in Florida while he waded through the citizenship process, and one year later, applied again and was accepted.

“If you put in the work, if you really want it, there’s nothing that can stop you. It’s real. Especially more real for me and how I came here, but the American dream is not a cliché,” he said. “It’s out there for people who want it.”

As a cadet, he took advantage of leadership opportunities, worked hard to meet standards, and carried his sense of graciousness and hospitality from his birth country into his squadrons.

“Rodrigo has such a positive, influential personality,” said Maj. Benjamin Fowler, Cadet Squadron 5 commander. “He is the kind of person who walks into the room and makes the room feel at ease. He always carries himself with class, and any organization will be blessed to have him as part of their team.”

Orellana learned he had earned a pilot training slot during his semester abroad in Spain when the Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria presented his wings to him.

“It was a great feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “Going back to your room by yourself, looking at the wings the superintendent just gave you. There were some tears. I can’t wait to start.”

Graduation, he said, will a special day for he and his family -- something akin to his naturalization ceremony.

“I’m thankful and blessed. Sometimes I still wake up, and I can’t believe it, I’m about to graduate,” he said. “I would have never pictured a future like this for myself.”