Defying the odds to build a brighter future

Fedelene Camille is interning this summer in a research lab at the Miller School of Medicine. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami 

By Maya Bell

Fedelene Camille is interning this summer in a research lab at the Miller School of Medicine. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami 

Defying the odds to build a brighter future

By Maya Bell
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake shattered Fedelene Camille’s hip and, she thought, her dreams. Nearly a decade later, the rising senior reflects on the opportunities that led her to the University of Miami.

With her hip shattered and her entire world in ruins, Fedelene Camille bargained with God while lying in the field where children used to play. “If you save me,” she cried amid the moans of the living and the stench of the dead, “I’ll give my life to service.”

Just 12 years old when Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of people, including her uncle, Camille didn’t know then how she would keep her promise. But last month, the rising University of Miami senior who plans to be a pediatric oncologist stood on stage at Miami Dade College (MDC) as a shining example of the students the two institutions hope to help with their new agreement.

Signed by Jeffrey Duerk, UM’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, and Lenore Rodicio, MDC’s executive vice president and provost, the agreement paves the way for hundreds of eligible graduates of MDC’s Honors College to transfer to UM’s College of Arts and Sciences to complete their bachelor’s degrees on merit-based scholarships.

“Fedeline is exactly the kind of student the agreement was designed for,” Duerk said after meeting the biochemistry and molecular biology major who is interning in a Miller School of Medicine research lab this summer. “She has seized many opportunities to overcome tremendous adversity in her life, and her determination and commitment to further her education and help others will be a great benefit to South Florida.”

Now the MDC graduate who transferred to UM on a prestigious scholarship last year will have the opportunity to help the expected surge of Honors College students like herself make the transition to UM. When classes resume in August, she will serve as a student transfer assistant for the Department of Orientation and Commuter Student Involvement, a position she coincidentally learned about after her recent induction into the University’s newly chartered chapter of Tau Sigma, an honor society for transfer students.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Camille said. “My broken hip was a ticket to a better future.”

Reflecting on her journey, Camille can hardly believe the articulate young woman who shared her story on the MDC stage was the same little girl who, after 15 agonizing days waiting for medical treatment in that field of horrors,  was airlifted to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in nearby Hollywood. There Camille finally underwent the surgery that would save her right leg from amputation but permanently separate her and her mother, who accompanied her to South Florida, from her two little sisters.

It was during her months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, when caring nurses and doctors always managed “to put a smile on my face,” that Camille knew she would dedicate her life to making a difference in the lives of others. At the time, that didn’t mean becoming a doctor—that goal evolved later—but “to be someone who could help people through their worst, most vulnerable moments.”  

She had plenty of role models. As she and her mother, both of whom had received temporary immigration status, began their new lives in South Florida, a host of teachers, counselors, and other advocates stepped up to fill that very role for Camille.

They recognized her academic potential despite that she had missed a year of middle school and did not speak English well. They guided her to the William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, where she discovered her interest in health care in its Academy of Medical Sciences, scored a perfect 100 in algebra in the state assessment test, and, with a 4.6 GPA, set out to become the first college graduate in her family, a legacy denied her uncle. Her family never would recover his body from the wreckage of the university where he was a student.

Her high school mentors also encouraged her to apply to MDC’s Honors College, which covered the cost of her associate of arts degree in biology, and helped her blossom as a student scholar, researcher, leader, and role model to other students.

Not only did she begin her work testing compounds to suppress the growth of a rare childhood cancer in the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center lab of Regina Graham, research assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery, she served as treasurer of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, vice president of the Haitian student organization Haitian Boukan, and president of MDC’s Modelle International, a modeling club she founded to stage fashion shows that raised money for cancer cures and build self-esteem and confidence.

“My real education began at Miami Dade College,” Camille said. “I gained a family of faculty, staff, and students who fostered my personal and professional growth, who inspired me to aim high. They helped me become the person I am.”

Her Honors Colleges mentors also pushed her to apply for an undergraduate transfer scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which helps exceptionally promising students in need of financial aid go to college. When she learned the foundation had awarded her $40,000 a year to complete a bachelor’s degree, she never considered going anywhere but UM. Here, she says, she found another nurturing home and many more unexpected opportunities—thanks in part to the required Cognates Program that encourages students to make connections across disciplines.

“I picked UM because I wanted to stay in Miami. I didn’t want to leave my mother by herself, but I found another supportive, inclusive community that made me feel like I belong,” she said. “And although I came here with the sole purpose of obtaining a degree in biochemistry, the Cognates Program helped me discover my Health Sector Management and Policy minor.”

While working on the Miller School campus, Camille only recently learned about UM’s extraordinary response to the 7.0 magnitude temblor that changed the course of her life. She had just come home from seventh grade that January afternoon and was playing with friends on the rooftop of her apartment building when it began violently twisting, as if a giant had wrenched it from its foundation and twirled it in his grasp.

Running down the stairs, Camille slipped and fell awkwardly on her hip as the building collapsed. She thought the world was ending and her life was over when a neighbor pulled her from the rubble. But by the time she was carried to the field near her home and reunited with her mother and sisters, Barth Green, then the chairman of neurological surgery who, as co-founder of Project Medishare, had worked in Haiti for years, already had begun organizing the largest emergency medical relief effort ever mounted by a university, eventually saving the lives of thousands of earthquake survivors.

“I was meant to be at UM,” Camille said. “And I couldn’t be happier to help Honors College students make their transition here. If they need me, I’ll be there.”