RUSKIN — Tatianna Rivers impressed the audience of Hillsborough Community College supporters with her story of courage, perseverance and determination.
And her refusal to be defined as a "crack baby."
"The way I see it, you can make the best out of what you are given, or make excuses for what you don't have," Rivers said during a moving speech to the Hillsborough Community College Scholarship Partners Breakfast last fall.
Today, Rivers graduates from HCC SouthShore thanks in part to the college's 2016 Presidential Achievement Award, which goes to a student who has overcome hardships and obstacles to succeed in academics, service and leadership.
Her life exemplifies the award's attributes.
The youngest of 11 children, Rivers was raised by her maternal grandmother until she died from complications caused by Alzheimer's disease.
Rivers was only 9.
"I never gave much thought as to why I wasn't living with my parents," Rivers said. "My grandmother surrounded me with so much love it blinded me from what was really going on."
Both of Rivers' parents battled drug addiction. When she was born, she had crack cocaine in her system, which prevented her mother from taking her home. Rivers would have grown up in foster care if her grandmother had not accepted responsibility for her.
After her grandmother's death, Rivers was passed around to other members of her family. She moved in with an aunt who already had two children and financial struggles. She remained with them until she entered high school, but during that time they moved several times from one low-rent apartment to another.
Through it all, Rivers identified education as her salvation. She did well in school despite a problem with reading that came to light in the sixth grade.
She practiced daily to reach grade level, reading books that caught her interest by following along with a cassette tape. Soon, she could read an entire book in just a few weeks without assistance.
By the time she reached the eighth grade, she read at grade level and entered high school ready to build on her success and overcome her environment.
"Going to bed hungry and knowing the feeling of not being wanted drove me to succeed," Rivers said. "Education was the only thing that I really had control over."
Her strength and determination led her to achieve a 5.1 grade point average and graduate fourth in her class from Blake High School in Tampa, but she had to defer her dream of attending the University of South Florida after coming up two points short on a college entrance exam.
Rivers turned to HCC, accepting a full scholarship for the college's two-year program.
HCC became the gateway to her future.
"The impact that HCC has had on Tatianna's life is huge considering where she came from and where she is looking to go now," said Ashley Jeffrey, community relations and marketing manager. "It has really opened the door for her."
Rivers has truly blossomed during her two years at HCC. She joined the Student Government Association and eventually served stints as its president, vice president and marketing coordinator.
She also earned induction into the Collegiate 100, a group that provides tutoring and mentoring to elementary and high school students.
Rivers feels a strong passion for an after-school literacy program at Ruskin Elementary School known as PCAT, since she knows first-hand the link between reading and success.
"Tatianna is a student that overcame daunting adversity to succeed," HCC SouthShore president Allen Witt said. "She has made a real difference in our campus and the lives of her fellow students. Her story is so encouraging and so inspiring. We're glad that she allowed us to be a part of her success."
Rivers, who will graduate with an exemplary 3.49 grade point average, now moves on to USF with an associate's degree in allied health. She will pursue a bachelor's degree in mass communications before moving on to graduate school to get a master's in nursing.
These degrees will prepare her for her goal of becoming a motivational speaker so that she can touch the lives of young people with her inspiring story as well as have a career as a nurse practitioner in the field of obstetrics.
Given the standing ovation she received at that HCC breakfast, she appears poised to achieve her goals.
"Yes, I was a crack baby," Rivers said. "But this crack baby has grown up to be an intelligent, inspiring black woman that lets nothing stand in her way toward success.
"I really appreciate the support of HCC and thank them for believing in me and students like me to overcome their past that is sometimes not in their control and allowing us to succeed in our dreams."
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]