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From dishwasher to NASA researcher, immigrant's inspirational story of success comes full circle

Dr. Benafan immigrated to America 15 years ago
Posted at 4:35 PM, Jan 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-11 20:29:01-05

It’s a saying you’ve likely heard many times throughout your life — if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.

Dr. Othmane Benafan is proof of that.

The 34-year-old is a materials and mechanical engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, recently earning an R&D 100 award with his team for their breakthrough innovation with shape memory alloys used to break apart rocks on the moon and Mars.

The honor is even more poignant, because it was given to Dr. Benafan at the same hotel where he held his very first job in the United States - as a dishwasher.

Several of his co-workers from more than a decade ago cheered him on in the audience.

“Some of them, they surprisingly said, ‘I knew you’ll make it,’” he said, blushing.

Benafan immigrated to America from Morocco with his brother at 19 years old, straight out of high school with little grasp of the English language.

“Suddenly, we’re here, 6,000 miles from Morocco to Orlando,” Benafan said. “Our target was always laser-focused. It was, we are going to go to school to get higher education — period. No matter what it takes.”

It took a lot.

“Ten doors close on you, you have to open one somehow,” he said.

Benafan got a job at the Walt Disney World Swan Resort as a dishwasher, working 14-hour shifts during the days and earning an education in the evenings. He started off taking a year of English classes, then went to a community college, got an undergraduate degree and then went on to earn his Ph.D. at University of Central Florida.

In 2011, he was hired on as a researcher at NASA Glenn where he would work on developing tools for space exploration research.

“Reaching for the stars, that’s right, that’s my goal. Literally, at NASA,” Benafan said, laughing.