When Tiana Studebaker took the stage Tuesday at Resurrection Life Church at the graduation ceremony for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools’ Class of 2019, she used her platform to acknowledge the fortitude of her classmates and thank the staff at East Lee Campus, the alternative program for the district and now, her alma mater.
Given the focus on others by Tiana, who was chosen by East Lee staff to give the commencement address on behalf of her school, one might not realize the tenacity that brought her to that moment.
For Tiana, the path to graduation has been filled with instability, to say the least. Her early years involved a lot of fending for herself. She moved from house to house. She attended four different high schools in four years and battled debilitating panic attacks.
She referred to East Lee’s entire graduating class when she told the audience, “Every individual has a story that could have made it impossible for us to walk the stage today.”
This is the story that could have made it impossible for her, but didn’t.
Rocky Start for this Self-Starter
One thing to know about Tiana: “She’s a self-starter,” said Deb Hoyle, paraeducator and Tiana’s mentor during her time at East Lee.
While being a self-starter is a common résumé boast, it isn’t something Tiana relishes. Rather, it was what she did to survive: At age 3, she was microwaving her own meals and by 6 she was making macaroni and cheese on the stovetop. Had she not learned, she said, she might not have eaten. She remembers taking baths, but doesn’t remember anyone giving them to her.
It’s not that she didn’t have people who loved her. It’s just that those who did had their own problems: Her mom worked long hours, battled addiction and depression and, when Tiana was 7, began displaying symptoms of multiple sclerosis, which later required use of a wheelchair. Her mother and father lived separately, and during Tiana’s formative years her father also faced battles: with substances, with the law.
“When I was 7, I kind of just got sick of what was going on at home so I got up and left,” said Tiana. “I kind of did a self-foster care. I just went anywhere I could go.”
First, she moved in with a friend of her mom’s. She’d go back home for spurts, but that never lasted. She bounced from house to house, staying with family friends, her mom, her dad and with an uncle. Over the last decade, she’s lived in eight different homes.
Tiana began getting herself out the door and off to school– “it was only about two blocks away,” she said –in second grade. The responsibilities she faced have, in many ways, shaped who she is today.
“She knows that she has to do for herself,” said Hoyle. “Her life and how it goes is dependent on what she does. She wants a good life; she has goals, and she knows that she’s the one she’s dependent on to get those done.”
One thing that was relatively consistent in her early years was school. Tiana spent six years at East Leonard School, half of sixth grade at Riverside Middle School, then attended Kenowa Hills schools through ninth grade. (Interestingly, she saved a man’s life in seventh grade, and SNN had the story.)
Then, like so many other things in her life, school also became unpredictable.
Four High Schools, Four Years
Tiana attended Kenowa Hills as a freshman, East Kentwood as a sophomore and Wyoming Public Schools as a junior. While a sophomore, she was living with a family friend named Ana who, she said, “was like a mother.” When Tiana was not at Ana’s home, she would get severe separation anxiety. Each school day brought a panic attack.
“They would make her come and get me every day,” Tiana recalled. “I failed the whole last semester of my sophomore year, and it set me back.”
At Wyoming Public Schools, she said, staff were extremely supportive. “They set up a plan for me to catch up. They would have made sure I walked the stage.”
But soon, circumstances found her in yet another home, this time closer to Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. She assumed she’d be at Lee High School, but a failed English class and poor attendance record made her a match for East Lee Campus.
“When I moved to East Lee, I had figured that it was gonna be all the stereotypes about alternative schools. I thought, ‘these kids are bad, these kids are the kids that are screaming in the classrooms, and don’t listen, and get kicked out of school… I don’t want to be around them because that’s not me — I’m just here because of one credit,’” said Tiana.
She had her guard up and aimed to get out of East Lee as soon as possible, when a single assignment changed everything.
“We had to write an essay about what person impacted our life the most — negative or positive,” said Tiana. Students shared their essays in an emotionally-charged exchange. “That’s when I realized that these kids are here because of the obstacles that were in their way. That’s why we’re all here.”
The experience changed her view of her school and her peers entirely, and it’s what she chose as the focus for her commencement speech. Ultimately, she thrived at East Lee Campus, which follows a problem-based learning model — a good fit for her ‘works well with others’ personality, said Hoyle.
She finished school early, and starts a new full-time job at Butterball Farms this week. Ultimately, she plans to attend trade school for welding, followed by community college and a four-year university for engineering, or maybe medicine.
Transient Life, Lifelong Lessons
Hoyle said Tiana’s situation is a best-case scenario.
“So often in that same situation people feel sorry for themselves, which I get. I feel sorry for them too — we all do. No child should be in the situation where they have to fend for themselves and take care of themselves.”
Hoyle added that Tiana never used her situation as an excuse: “She took it and said, this is my life, I want a good life, and I’m going to do this.
“She is a very kind person — very accepting, caring and a hard worker. I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anyone,” said Hoyle.
Junior Isabell Lazcano, a close friend to Tiana, echoed the sentiment: “She’s so motivated to do everything. She wants to be there for everyone. She’s caring, friendly. She takes life’s challenges and wants to do better for herself.”
Tiana insists she learned a lot, moving around. “It benefited me in good ways, but there are ways it affected me that I still struggle with today.”
While she made it work, she doesn’t recommend her brand of DIY-foster care to others, and thinks sticking it out with family, even if home life is less than ideal, is probably a better course: “Don’t move yourself around,” she said. “You feel like no one wants you. You feel like you’re unloved.”
But that life offered her some good things, too: “It taught me to humble myself a lot because I lived with people who had nothing. They had bugs in their house, we didn’t have hot water, we didn’t have food, we could barely afford to get to school … Those were the most kind-hearted people that I have ever met, and I still talk to them today and consider them family. I also lived with people who had money, lived comfortably, could afford whatever they wanted, didn’t have to worry about anything, and those people ended up hurting me in the end.”
From both examples, she learned love: ”I’m really, really sensitive. I’m emotional and I like a lot of love. You can’t get love if you don’t give it.”
She also learned to persist: “I think that happened watching other people do the opposite: not finishing school, not having a job. That was unattractive to me.”
And while the victories in her life are hers, she never fails to express gratitude for the families and individuals who had a hand in them: Ana; Mrs. Hoyle, who helped her stay on track; a couple named Jaime and Lola with whom she currently lives; friends; family and educators.
And if life hands you lemons — unstable, anxiety-covered lemons that leave you with unmet needs — Tiana says don’t wallow.
“If you sit there and dwell on the situation and feel bad for yourself, it’s not gonna get you anywhere,” she said. “If you sit there and say, ‘this is what it is, this is the good that came out of it and this is what I’m gonna do about it,’ It’ll make you feel a lot better. You have to look at the positive outlook on everything. Your worst situation that you’re going to be in can make you the best person that you can be.”