For anyone on the outside looking in, Tiana Barnwell may seem to have a charmed life. The 21-year-old New York City native is a political science major at Spelman College, the school of her dreams, and is set to graduate on May 19. She already has a job lined up at Goldman Sachs in Dallas, Texas once she wraps up her degree. Barnwell’s future seems astonishingly bright.
It’s perhaps hard to imagine that her life has in fact been filled with many painful trials, including one particular incident that led to her being in foster care for a good portion of her high school life, with no real hope that she would ever be able to attend her dream school.
Barnwell was placed into kinship care with her aunt after it came to light that she was molested in her own home. It was a dark period in her life, where she recalls she just wanted help.
“Before I was placed into kinship care I was still staying in the home with my mom. Occasionally I would go stay at my aunt’s on the weekends but nobody really knew why. It was kind of like a secret almost,” she told ESSENCE. “I would just go there, maybe every other weekend and just stay there. It was extremely difficult because while in high school I decided to act out just a little bit and I started talking back to teachers, I started not going to class as I should have been, and just lashing out for somebody to notice…I wanted somebody to notice that something was wrong, but I did not want to say it.”
Thanks to the help of an English teacher, Barnwell was able to share what was going on, and she moved in with her aunt toward the end of her freshman year. However, it was still hard. In between trips to court to deal with the situation in her home, as well as making sure she had the counseling she needed, her schoolwork suffered, and it began to impact her Spelman dreams – something that she had been attached to since she was about seven.
“I remember one of the last conversations that I had with my grandmother was about Spelman and how she knew that I was going to do such great things,” she recalled. “And I knew I needed to get to Spelman”
However, at the time Barnwell’s grades were not up to par and she didn’t necessarily get the encouragement she needed. And for a while, the negativity did get to her.
“I was like, ‘you know what? Alright, maybe I’ll just stay here, maybe I’ll just go to Queens College or maybe I’ll go to BMCC and just do the bare minimum.’”
It was around this time that The New York Foundling really became Barnwell’s rock and helped her refocus in order to achieve her goal. The Foundling, one of New York’s oldest and largest social services organizations, provided her with a social worker and counselors, connecting her to the valuable therapy that she needed. She was connected to tutors through The Foundling to help get her grades back on track. She was able to get help with applying to colleges, prepping for the SATs and the ACTs, reviewing all her work and even her personal statements to give her the best shot possible at becoming a Spelman woman.
And then the acceptance letter came.
“My acceptance letter from Spelman, that was the happiest day of my life,” Barnwell said with laughter in her voice. “When I got home and I saw that blue envelope…immediately, tears just left from my eyes because this is my dream school, this is everything that I’ve wanted. It’s exactly where I wanted to be. Atlanta is where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a part of the Spelman sisterhood.”
And to make the moment even more special, The Foundling stepped in again, paying for Barnwell’s full tuition over the past four years, to make sure there was nothing else in the way of her dream.
The Foundling remained an integral part of Barnwell’s life throughout her college experience. When she started struggling with classes in college, her contacts at The Foundling was able to connect her with tutors in college.
And although Spelman was her dream school, there were challenges outside of school work that she also had to face.
Because of Spelman’s activism around sexual assault and violence, Barnwell had to reassess the trauma she went through as a child. However, she made sure to stay on top of her mental health, making use of Spelman’s counseling center.
There were also times when she met push back from people within the Spelman community.
Barnwell, a member of
Barnwell kept with tradition by wearing an all-white outfit, just with pants, something which officials permitted her to do, but she still faced backlash online and in person for not being a “true” Spelman sister.
Throughout it all, she remained resilient. And, she tells ESSENCE, if she had to do it all over again, she’d still choose Spelman
Unfortunately, while Barnwell’s journey is amazing to hear about, she is actually unique among foster care children.
According to the National Foster Youth Institute, only about 50% of foster youth graduate from high school to begin with and less than 3% graduate from a 4-year college.
Bill Baccaglini, the President and CEO of The Foundling, told ESSENCE that the organization has been focusing a lot on its position on education over the past few years because standard education does not fully cater to the needs of kids who have suffered through the trauma that many foster children happen to be going through.
“In a system like New York, where there are 1.1 or 1.2 million kids attending the public schools, you might imagine that kids in foster care attend the most marginalized schools and they’re the most marginalized kids in those schools. The teacher has to almost by design teach to the middle of the class and my kids do not live in the middle of the class. Not even to mention the fact that the curricula that are employed are not sensitive to trauma,” he explained.
There is also the fact that many children are not like Barnwell – who was successfully united with her mother and siblings at the beginning of her senior year in high school after therapy, resolving the issues within the home and creating a stronger bond.
Many kids age out of the system and have no further guidance.
This is part of the reason why The Foundling, along with other child welfare agencies and organizations across New York, have formed the Fair Futures Coalition to offer the support foster kids need, not only going through high school and college, but also in terms of finding housing and navigating the other stages of adulthood that other youth have family to support them through.
“When you’re 21 to 25 years old, you’re making decisions that will go a long way toward predicting what’s going to happen to you when you’re 45, 50, 55 and 60. Yet we expect these kids to make these decisions alone,” Baccaglini explained. “Fair Futures is about assigning a coach to these kids until they’re 26. Too often the system gives hands out, not hands up. We don’t teach kids to act on their own, act on their own behalf, be their best advocate. These coaches will do that. That’s why this is a very exciting model.”
“The scary thing here is that [the children] don’t fall through the crack at 16, 17, 18. They fall through the crack when we discharge them. They don’t have an education; they don’t have a skillset, and they wind up in the mental health system, in the homeless system, the substance abuse system or, God forbid, the correction system,” he added.
Barnwell knows how lucky she is, but she, as much as The Foundling, doesn’t want the trajectory of her life to be seen as unique.
So much so, that her dream doesn’t stop with Spelman or even at Goldman Sachs. Barnwell has a long-term goal to get a PhD in hotel management (she has her eyes set on Cornell University in New York) and open a chain of hotels in underserved communities, with the end goal of creating jobs and giving back. She also hopes to one day be able to establish a scholarship fund for people who are in foster care who plan on attending schools like Spelman.
For now, however, Barnwell is satisfied if people hear about her story and are inspired to never give up on themselves.
“I want [people] to realize that their situation does not define them,” Barnwell told ESSENCE. “Sometimes the struggles that you are dealt are the building blocks of your life. You don’t have to let it break you, but you can use that to build yourself up, to create your image, to create a story. That’s what I did.”