By Elizabeth Cook

BERKELEY (KPIX) — While all Students Rising Above scholars are amazingly resilient and inspirational, Yendi Rebollo shows us all what it truly means to shine brightly, even in life’s darkest moments.

The 21-year-old UC Berkeley senior recently moved into their very first apartment. The experience has been truly joyful.

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“I got it entirely on my own,” Rebollo — who prefers to use “they” and “their” as pronouns — said with pride. “It’s only in my name on the lease, on the PG&E, Wi-Fi, everything. Honestly it gave me so much peace getting my own place.”

Rebollo’s new living space is a place of peace and safety for a young person who’s been on their own for years. At age 17, Rebollo left their family’s home. At issue was their choice of colleges and their identification and sexuality.

Rebollo identifies as LGBTQ+. Both were sources of conflict Rebollo says made them a target for abuse.

“I was kicked out/given the choice to leave, and I left,” recalled Rebollo. “I was now homeless, undocumented, LGBTQ, working at Starbucks, doing cross country, taking 4 AP classes, trying to survive. I remember at one point I made a chip bag last an entire week because I couldn’t afford food.”

Their decision took courage, but it also left the young teen homeless, sleeping most nights in a friend’s car, and struggling daily through classes on just 3 hours of sleep during their senior year at LPS Richmond High School.

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“Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, so I would go to school with like a Trenta iced coffee,” said Rebollo. “I am pretty sure all my high school teachers who may watch this, they’re like, ‘Yup, that is her!'”

Fueled by coffee and determination, school and work kept Rebollo afloat. They graduated with AP courses and headed to Cal, where they hit a wall. Classes were tough and seeing peers lean on their parents for support broke Rebollo’s heart.

“I didn’t have that agency to be like, ‘Hey mom and dad! I am struggling through college. I don’t feel like I am good enough,’ and have them, like, say anything encouraging,” explained Rebollo. “So it hurt. It hurt a lot.”

Rebollo says that hurt has never completely gone away, but blogging about their experiences has helped. They’re now in their fourth year at Cal, eyeing Harvard for graduate school, loving their new home and leaning into life on their own terms.

“It was definitely something that I am grateful that I went through. I think a lot of people, when I share my story, they look at me as if it’s something I should be ashamed of. And I don’t think so,” said Rebollo. “Quite the contrary. I think it makes me so much more of a person because I went through all of that and I am still nice, I am still empathic. I’m still kind. I’m still doing what I need to do.”

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Rebollo’s also a college advisor, who loves helping other young people achieve their goals and dreams. Rebollo also wants to be an educator after graduate school.

Elizabeth Cook