Tianna Williamson seems like the classic college student—the first-year Communication major is doing well in her coursework, participates in the Communication Learning Community, and holds a work study job in the Office of Student Life. She even secured a spot on the cheerleading squad.
But Williamson’s path to Cabrini was not typical. Recently honored by Philadelphia’s Achieving Independence Center (AIC) for being an honorary achiever, she spent the past four years in foster care and has lived under the auspices of the Department of Human Services (DHS) for nearly her entire life.
In high school, Williamson became involved with AIC, through which DHS provides resources, classes, employment, and housing services—as well as help with enrolling in college—to youth who are preparing to age out of the foster care system.
Williamson says she resisted taking advantage of AIC’s outreach at first, but it didn’t take long for her to change her mind once she became comfortable there. She set goals and decided to become the first person in her family to attend college.
“Without their support, I wouldn’t be here at Cabrini,” said Williamson of the AIC staff, calling them family, especially her coach and mentor, Latia Hayes. “She’s like my big sister. We’ve become really close, and she became someone I trust.”
Hayes, who has worked in the mental health field for several years, feels the same way about her mentee. “I love being Tianna’s coach, because she is honest and funny,” Hayes said. “She is very vocal about what she needs, which makes my job easier.”
Hayes was unsure of how Williamson would transition to college life, though, and is pleased with the support she has found at Cabrini.
“The transition to college for Tianna has been so smooth and not frightening for her,” said Hayes. “I feel Cabrini has been super supportive, and I have no worries about her there. Support plays a big factor in a successful person, and Tianna has made the right choice from the very start.”
Williamson credits Vice President for Student Life Christine Lysionek, PhD, and her assistant, Carmel-Jo Madonna, with getting her off to a good start. The help they provided—managing timing issues with a grant and her tuition bill as well as offering her a work study position—are two forms of assistance Cabrini provides through its Building Lives of Purpose program. Aligned with the University’s mission-based commitments to social justice and a personalized educational experience, the program connects students who have experienced foster care with support and resources to help them enroll, persist, and graduate.
“Tianna is a very self-motivated, conscientious student,” said Lysionek. “Her AIC award definitely shows her determination.”
Cabrini was one of the four schools in PA—the only private school—selected in 2017 to partner with the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania in its Foster Care to College program, which helps college-bound youth who have lived in foster care. The collaboration with agencies and readiness organizations across the state develops best practices for recruiting, retaining, and supporting students transitioning to college from foster care and has grown to involve more schools.
“Our partnership with the Field Center helped us develop and launch Building Lives of Purpose,” said Lysionek. “They connected us with the resources and technical assistance to move program development forward.”
Lysionek reaches out to students who have experienced foster care when they enroll at Cabrini to let them know about the services the University can provide for them through Building Lives of Purpose, including counseling, financial aid application assistance, an orientation program, peer mentors, 365 housing, the Cabrini Cupboard food pantry, and campus job connections. It’s up to the students to decide how they want to proceed.
“They all have different needs,” Lysionek explained, “but they all have one thing in common: the need for support.”
A new Pennsylvania law that takes effect next year creates a tuition and fee waiver for youth who were in foster care and will augment Cabrini’s efforts to reduce barriers for promising students like Williamson.
In just her first few months in college, Williamson is making the most of the support and the opportunities Cabrini has to offer her.
“Cabrini is really good school, education-wise, and really prepare us for our careers,” said Williamson, an aspiring news anchor, of her decision to attend Cabrini. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express featured Williamson and Hayes in a video as part of its “We’re there” campaign to celebrate moments of human connection.