TAMPA — In the years when many teens are trying to find ways to "fit in," 18-year-old Academy of the Holy Names senior Yasmina Decamp has always stood out.
As a first generation immigrant, the child of a single mother, and one of few black students in her class, she is accustomed to knowing her background is different from that of her peers. But Decamp embraces "difference" as the beginning of understanding and respecting other people's views.
"Sometimes we judge people on what we 'think' their background is like," Decamp said. "We start to view our own experiences as universal and are less open to other people's experience.
"Coming from the background of being a first generation immigrant, it's shaped the way I view the world around me."
The world Decamp shares with her mother shapes her life, a life in which mother and daughter's differences from peer families were never viewed as impediments.
Decamp was born in Chicago and spent her early years in her mother's native Haiti. They moved to Tampa when Decamp was still a toddler, without family or friends. While Millien worked multiple jobs to support her daughter, Decamp spent long hours at after school care or often on her own.
"I was always by myself because my mom was working," Decamp said.
She learned self-sufficiency by necessity. She has been cooking for herself and taking care of household chores like cleaning and laundry since an early age. She even participated in her mother's own pursuit of education, joining Millien at night classes at Hillsborough Community College. Millien recalls a 7-year-old Decamp frequently raising her hand to ask questions during those classes, confidently participating alongside the adult students.
It is not surprising that such experiences give Decamp unusual poise and self-confidence for her age.
"I've always grown up with adults," said Decamp, who at age 13 cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal, watching a PBS show to learn how to brine a turkey.
"I feel I am able to communicate more effectively with adults than my own peers."
But Decamp describes her "happy" childhood as neither lonely or difficult. The mother-daughter bond, made closer by the need to depend on each other, forms a strong base for Decamp.
"[My mom] was the only person I could talk to about our experiences," she said.
In their home, structure and education come from both mother and daughter. Millien insists on minimal television and lots of books. Decamp is also strict with herself, limiting screen time and making sure her mother always knows her activities.
"She is my boss! She is the mom," Millien said.
After attending St. Joseph's Catholic School kindergarten through eighth grade, Decamp received a full scholarship to attend Academy of the Holy Names through its LINK Scholars program. She has thrived at the school, participating in speech and debate and in robotics. Her favorite studies are biology and anatomy, an area she plans to pursue further in college. She has also volunteered in the hospitals where her mother has worked.
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Decamp will attend Berea College in Kentucky this fall. She plans a career in medicine, focusing specifically on neurology as she has been so intrigued watching the rapid developments in treatment of her Bell's Palsy nerve disorder.
Though college will introduce her to a more diverse and varied world than she has experienced so far, Decamp plans to carry with her the interest in understanding other people's perspectives that she sees as her greatest gift as a student at Academy and as a person.
"I hope I've brought kindness and being open [to those she meets]," Decamp said. "You don't know what's going on with a person unless you make an effort to be kind."
While she credits her upbringing for her positive spirit, her mother believes it comes from Decamp herself.
"She was able to find the difference between good and bad and stay on the path," Millien said. "I look at her and I think, 'You did a good job.' She will be missed."
Contact Emily L. Hay Hinsdale at email@example.com