Nadisha Hunter, Staff Reporter
Shanice Thompson of Spot Valley High School grew up in violence-ravaged Flankers, St James where she was sometimes deprived of her schooling as gunshots rang out in the volatile community.
The periods of bloodletting, which significantly lowered her school attendance, were exacerbated by the financial strain affecting her household.
But Thompson's determination to excel resulted in her beating the odds with high academic achievements which have resulted in her being named overall outstanding performer under the United States Ambassador's Academic Achievement Awards (AAAA) programme.
The scholar was awarded at the Montego Bay Convention Centre in St James on March 14, along with Donisha McDermot, a 17-year-old grade-11 student at Cedric Titus High School, who got the first runner-up award.
During an interview last Thursday at the US Embassy, where the awardees met with US Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, Thompson told The Gleaner she was humbled and thankful for the prestigious award.
"Flankers has been deemed a violent community but, nevertheless, I don't let that get me down," she said. "Also, only my father works so it posed a problem for my education sometimes."
Thompson added: "We met struggles with my education and my parents sought outside help to assist me in my schooling, including my school which helped me to pay for my subjects and at a later date my parents repaid them."
The lower sixth-form student, who has been successful in 10 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC), seven with distinctions, will also be sitting four subjects in the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examiniation.
Top position maintained
In addition to the AAAA, Thompson, who is head girl at her school, has received the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools Award for Academic Excellence, maintained top position in her class from first to sixth form and was awarded the principal's award for outstanding student at her graduation ceremony.
She also represented her school at the Denbigh Agricultural Show, where her presentation was on 'Instrumental Insemination of the Bee'.
Thompson praised her family and the school community for their contribution to her success.
"My parents and the school community have played a significant part in my achievements. They have worked hard in getting me to reach where I am today and I will continue to work hard," she pledged.
Instead of hindering her progress, Thompson said the several challenges she has endured have also played a major part in her successes.
"Sometimes I use struggles to motivate me. I had problems with the violence in my community, I was doing 10 subjects so it was very difficult to hand in the SBAs (school-based assessments) and I had to find time to help other students with their work," she said.
"I tried to balance all this in my time because, by doing this, it built my character and helped me to be more responsible at the end of the day," Thompson said.
She thanked the US Embassy for the award and at the same time encouraged other students to work hard so that they can achieve big rewards.
"I want to let people know that the struggles will be there but they should not give up. Do it one step at a time and by whatever means it takes to achieve, take it, even if it means giving up your free time and entertainment - you will reach your goals in life," she continued.
It was no different for McDermot, of Daniel Town, Trelawny, who has struggled financially but continues to maintain a high scholarly standard and has stayed at the top of her class since grade seven.
The fifth-form student, who is the head girl at Cedric Titus, will sit eight CSEC subjects this year.
She said the AAAA motivates her to work harder and focus on her career goal of becoming a medical doctor.
"A lot of students do well, but, because they don't get the support and no one recognises them, they sometimes get demotivated and lose focus. So this award means a lot to me. It is good to know that I am recognised and I am very grateful to the Ambassador. She is doing a good thing and I really appreciate it," she said.
Agent of change
McDermot has pledged to use the opportunity to be an agent of change for her peers in her rural community.
"In my community, you don't have a lot of girls who are of high academic standards so I think I can be a role model for them and I can also motivate them to do their best in their schools," she added.
Thompson's strong Christian mother Carol Thompson, had prayed to God to bless her daughter, despite her living in one of the country's toughest community; and that prayer appears to have been answered.
"It is not an easy road. When she is gone to school I have to be on my knees praying for her to be back home safe. I always tell her to hold up her head to go forward because the more she does that it will be better for her," McDermot's mother said.
"My role in her achievement is to pray, because whatever she received is not because of her, it is because of God. When I go to God, I pray for Him to help her and I know it is He who is doing the job," she added.
More than 208 high-school students have been awarded under the AAAA programme since it started in June of last year.
Public affairs officer at the US Embassy Yolanda Kerney said the programme, which targets students from schools across the island, has been successful so far.
She said the initiative is intended to encourage students who have achieved academic excellence and to underscore the commitment of the United States Ambassador to education in Jamaica.
"Ambassador Bridgewater is very keen on education and she understands very well the challenges of the Jamaican education system, and she wanted to do something that would in some way recognise the challenges that many of these children face and overcome to excel," Kerney said.