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Immigrant Background Propelled Lakewood High Valedictorian’s Rise To Top Of Class

Four students stand together in graduation caps and gowns
Pinellas County Schools
From left, Lakewood High School traditional studies Valedictorian Shadine Henry stands with Center for Advanced Technologies Salutatorian Stefan Mason, CAT Valedictorian Nathan Hamilton, and Lakewood High traditional studies salutatorian Camila Romero

Wearing a black cap and gown, with a golden stole around her shoulders, Shadine Henry walked to the microphone at the Tropicana Field stage on May 25, 2019, and talked of battle.

"It's all or nothing at this point. And everything thrown at you is aiming for the throat. You feel beaten. Tired. Is it over yet? And yet somehow, you don't want it to end," she told the crowd in her commencement speech.

Woman speaks at lectern
Credit Hillsborough County Schools
Shadine Henry talked about war, battle, and fighting -- all metaphors for her struggle to be the best -- in her commencement speech on May 25, 2019 at Tropicana Field.

Shadine was this year's valedictorian in traditional studies at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg. She earned the highest grades in her class, with a 4.17 GPA. But school wasn't always easy for her.

"I was born in Jamaica and so was like every member of my family. I immigrated with my mom and some siblings when I was about eight," she said.

She's the youngest of five. Her mom works as a caregiving aide at an assisted living home. Her father works in the laundry room at a hotel.

They came to America because they wanted a better life. They had family here to sponsor their visas. And in time, they became citizens. 

But in the early days, Shadine says the transition from Jamaica to America was rough.

"I went from good grades in Jamaica to bad grades. Then, in middle school I kind of picked things up."

Shadine is the only black valedictorian this year in Pinellas County, home to around 30,000 high school students.

She says she didn't see her race as an obstacle, especially at Lakewood High, with its diverse student body.

"I didn't feel like anything was against me when it comes to my race. A good amount of the school is the same skin color as me so I was in an environment where it was up to me to put my academics first. There was no one against me, no one really telling me I couldn't or could do something. Really, it was just up to me."

Her best subjects were Social Studies and English. Her worst? Math. It gave her a hard time the first three years of high school.

Sometimes, she'd ask her mom for help with her studies. But her mom didn't understand the complex material, and would tell her to just keep trying. She'd figure it out. 

High school graduates walk to stage
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Shadine Henry, Pinellas County's only black valedictorian this year, walks to the stage at Tropicana Field on May 25, 2019

"There were some struggles. But I had some good teachers who helped me along, so that was really good. And I had some friends who were there if I was struggling on certain questions. We kind of helped each other through it."

Soon, she was earning As in math, like in everything else.

Shadine says she wanted her commencement speech to serve as a metaphor for struggle. For fighting to be the best one can be.

"Some people become lazy really quickly and just kind of like shrug off everything with studies and you become okay with the Cs and the Bs but I wasn't really ok with that."

She learned her work ethic from her parents and grandparents.

"They wanted to bring us here for like opportunity and all that, and I am glad I didn't waste opportunity that my mom and dad and all of them worked really hard for," she said.

According to Lakewood High Principal Erin Savage, Shadine's experience as an immigrant shaped her.

"If I had to say the secret to her success? She is not American-born so I think she has a tenacity to want to succeed and to move forward," she said.

Shadine Henry smiles on stage at her graduation ceremony, May 25, 2019
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Shadine Henry smiles on stage at her graduation ceremony, May 25, 2019

Shadine closed her graduation speech with good wishes for her fellow classmates who "fought" through the high school years alongside her, whether their challenges were personal, academic, or otherwise.

"All sitting here today have won the war. You’ve all made it and earned it, Congratulations, Class of 2019. May all your future battles be as successful, if not more, as this one," she said.

Shadine plans to attend the University of North Florida in the fall, and wants to become a diplomat.

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