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With help of Opportunity Scholarship, man goes from homeless to UW master’s degree program

SEATTLE — The economy is booming in Seattle right now thanks to high-tech jobs, and one local program is making sure those are filled with graduates from right here in Washington.

Leaders from major employers like Boeing, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines and Costco attended a fundraising breakfast at the downtown Sheraton for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.

However, it was Mark Bennett’s story that left everyone empowered. At 18, Bennett was homeless in Seattle, battling addiction and without custody of his son.

“Everything I had fit into one green duffel bag,” he told a packed room of about 900 people. Bennett sometimes stayed in the shelter near the UW.

“When I was out there drinking, I was full of guilt and shame of not being a good father, of not being the person I want to be,” he said.

Now, he’s getting a master’s degree in mathematics from the UW and teaching other students.

He first enrolled at Seattle Central Community College and then received the Opportunity Scholarship.

“Because they were there for me and they helped guide me in the right direction, it just eventually started to happen. It was like, wow, this is happening,” said Bennett.

Now, he is raising his son and epitomizing grit.

Mark is one of 6,800 students awarded the scholarship since the program started five years ago. The nonprofit private-public partnership is fundraising to pay tuition costs for another 3,100 students this year in science, technology engineering and math or STEM to drive homegrown students into those jobs first.

“When we have our students graduate from our program, we find that while their family made about $36,000 of income for a family of four, when they graduate, a majority of them are making between 40- and 70-thousand dollars,” said Executive Director Naria Santa Lucia.

Their goal for the breakfast was to raise $1 million.

“The WSOS program is important to me because that was me. I grew up poor.  I didn`t have an opportunity to go to college,” said board member Gary Rubens.

The philanthropist and angel investor matched every donation, which was then matched by the state.

“This helps them break the cycle of poverty in their family and then they'll go help their siblings go to college, navigate the system,” said Rubens.

Fifty-nine percent of the scholarship recipients are the first in their family to go to college.

“The scholarship validated me at a time when I really needed that,” said Bennett.

For more information on the program, go to https://www.waopportunityscholarship.org/