Taryn’s Story: Finding Transformation in the Uncertainty

Taryn Williams’ magnetic personality and infectious laugh easily overcome the monotony of the typical video conference call that’s become all too familiar for many of us. A full-time student at the California State University Long Beach and mother of five-year-old twins Isaiah and McKayla, Taryn is no stranger to the challenges of a heavy load under trying circumstances. As she eats her lunch during our video conversation, she excitedly talks about her Executive internship at Target this summer. She leans back to show me her packed color-coded calendar filled with thesis assignments, GRE practice tests, and application deadlines. “It’s absolute madness,” she comments with a wide smile. 

Like many college students, Taryn has experienced the significant disruption that COVID-19 has brought upon the day-to-day social interactions on bustling college campuses. Loss of a passionate exchange of ideas, loss of a study space, and, as a mother of two young children, Taryn has also lost access to childcare and free meals. For Taryn, college was not only her place of academic and personal growth, but it was also her social safety net. “Financial security for me was strongly tied to being in school. When COVID happened, I didn’t get my stimulus check, my husband’s work hours were cut, I lost my government assistance.” As a recipient of MAF’s CA College Student Support Grant, Taryn was able to buy food and basic needs for her family. Losing critical income and food support for her family created new sets of challenges nonetheless. But for Taryn, this was another chapter in a long story of perseverance and hope. 

Inspiration and Hope Emerge in Unlikely Moments

“My children are my driving force for everything I do. I went back to school when they were fifteen months, and that was pretty crazy.”

At 31 years old, Taryn decided she wanted to have a picture of herself in college graduation regalia with her children. And she picked a particularly unexpected time in her life to do that.

“When I went back to school, I didn’t have childcare, I had just totaled my car, we had been forced out of our housing due to gentrification. So, I had no place to live, didn’t have a bank account, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a car, had these two newborns. I really wanted to tell myself that this wasn’t the time to go back to school. But I just kept going.”

More than ten years earlier, Taryn had started college but ultimately had to take a permanent break. Taryn describes the agony of attending school for years and trying to stay focused while dealing with one curveball after another. Raised in the foster care system, Taryn had attended over a dozen elementary schools growing up. She moved so often she worried she didn’t know how to properly read and write. When she was 19, her dad lost his job and left town. She was left homeless. She experienced substance abuse and depression. “Unable to provide basic food, shelter, and clothing, school was just no longer a priority for me.” Nearly ten years after taking a leave from college, Taryn enrolled in Long Beach City College to pursue her associate’s degree. Her goal in coming back to school: show her kids what an alternative future could hold. Timing – where she was in her life and who she had with her – was everything for this new beginning.

The Power of Being Seen and Heard: Finding a Voice in Community and Acceptance

It took that one “A” in her chemistry class to completely change Taryn’s academic trajectory. She was then recommended to the Honors Program. Taryn didn’t feel like that was where she was at all, she recalled with an incredulous laugh. 

“Joining that honors program and having people there totally accept me for who I am – and really meeting me where I was in that part of my academic journey – was really reinforcing.” 

Stepping out of her comfort zone lit a fire in her to keep going. People’s encouragement fueled her motivation and her belief in herself. And then it happened: she got her first 4.0 GPA. “Getting that 4.0 made me realize that I shouldn’t judge myself based on my prior experiences.” She now knew she had to go even further.  

In 2018, Taryn transferred to Cal State University Long Beach with the President’s Scholarship, the most prestigious merit-based scholarships awarded by the university.

“Those scholarships are for 18-year-olds, fresh-out-of-high school valedictorians, who have over a 4.0 GPA. I’m in my 30’s, I have kids at home, I didn’t have a cumulative 4.0 GPA. What did they want with me, I thought?”

But Taryn found her voice on campus. The support she received when she arrived was so overwhelming, she finally felt comfortable sharing a part of her life she had always been quieter about: she had previously been incarcerated. Taryn had been incarcerated right before her twins were born. She never wanted to bring that up before, because she felt she’d be deemed untrustworthy. She didn’t think people would really believe she was a “changed woman.” 

She found healing in opening up. “It was freeing, humbling, and because I’m naturally so loud and free-spirited, I just tapped into that. It gave me so much self-esteem.” She was hearing from students with her background that her openness was helping them heal as well. Taryn found strength in her communities of support, and uses this strength to fuel her motivation to keep going.

Changing the Narrative as a Scholar and Advocate: Looking Beyond COVID-19

Right before COVID hit, Taryn had just given a TEDx talk on bias and judgement, particularly around previously incarcerated people and the negative stereotypes people hold about them. “I come to the stage with a blazer on, and people look at me with a certain type of respect. Then, after a while, I take off my blazer, showing a bunch of tattoos, and people then become more aware of my piercings. Then they look at me differently. They judge me and I can feel it.”

Taryn is on a quest to change the narrative around previously incarcerated and foster youth’s chances at higher education attainment levels.

She wants to apply to PhD programs and become a faculty member at a university one day so she can advocate for and support her communities. Taryn plans to graduate this December with a double bachelor’s in management and operations supply chain management. 

Yes, she deeply worries about COVID’s implications and how she’ll manage her kids’ school schedules this fall now that they’re starting kindergarten.

“Being a parent in college during a pandemic might be one of the harder things I’ve gone through.”

As she finishes her thesis, completes her internship, applies to PhD programs, and actively juggles the needs of her family, Taryn is putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing her journey ahead. She proudly shows me a canvas of her associate’s degree graduation photo with her kids – full regalia and all. She can’t wait to collect more pictures.  

“My biggest hope is that people will understand that you really, truly can do whatever you want. You have to seek out your community. You have to be willing to speak up for what your needs are, and then say when your needs are not being met. Most importantly, you have to be willing to ask for more –you have to know that you’re worth asking for more. And, anything is possible.” 

“Any last words?”” I ask, still soaking in the depth of Taryn’s casual summary of life lessons. “Yes, wear a mask!” she exclaims with laughter. 

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