WESTCHASE — A year ago, around this time, Ayushe Misra admitted getting a bit emotional. After all, Christmas was a time for family, and hers had tragically been taken from her.
Her mother, Anshul Misra, was killed during a family vacation in their native India just months earlier. And her father, Ganesh Dutt, was arrested there in connection with the crime.
Facing an uncertain future, Ayushe and her younger sister returned home to Tampa as wards of the state. But over the course of the past year, the two were helped by a small network of people, including a caseworker, legal advocate and some family friends.
Ayushe also kept her ordeal largely a secret at Alonso High School, where she was a senior and in line to be valedictorian. Only a few teachers, counselors, administrators and her closest friends knew.
In June, she graduated at the top of her class, with a handful of scholarships and college acceptances under her belt. She chose Columbia University in New York, where she recently completed her first semester.
"After the first month, I was a little unsure of my decision. I wasn't sure if being away from all the people who were my support system for the last year was for me," said Ayushe, 18. "But soon after, everything fell into place. I absolutely love Columbia."
She still draws on her Tampa support system, getting advice about classes from her Alonso High counselor, Brian Delacey. She also talks to her sister, now a sixth-grader at Benito Middle School in New Tampa, every day.
She has heard from her father a couple of times, through correspondence with the U.S. Embassy. But nothing much has changed with his case, she said.
Scholarships have allowed Ayushe to focus solely on her schoolwork, which is a far cry from her senior year of high school, where she worked several jobs to have money for things like clothes for her and her sister.
"I don't have to worry about a whole lot, which is such a relief," she said.
Ayushe returned home to Tampa a few days before Christmas and will return to school in a few weeks.
She has been hanging out with her sister, now 11, who is living with family friends in New Tampa. And she spent Christmas Day with Carey DiPompo, her senior class adviser at Alonso.
"We had a wonderful time, spending the day together, exchanging gifts," she said. "Christmas was fantastic."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.