Tiana Sims is a survivor. Her grit and determination are hard to rival, and if she has it her way, she’ll use her education and her voice to be a changemaker in the legal system.
Knowing where Tiana is in her life today — a mom of three happy, healthy boys; a military spouse; and a college graduate on her way to another degree at the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) — it might surprise you to know the challenges she’s overcome. Few would have predicted her present, knowing her past.
Despite what life throws at you, continue to be fierce.
Taking Back the Narrative
To understand the level of tenacity and perseverance it took Tiana Sims to get to where she is today, it’s important know where she’s been.
Tiana is a survivor of child sex trafficking. At the age of 14, she was abducted in Las Vegas and taken to New Orleans, where she describes being held in chains with other girls also around her age. The conditions were so poor that Tiana says a few of the girls she was held with did not survive.
When she was recovered at age 16, Tiana’s mother immediately sought medical attention and discovered that Tiana was pregnant. Given the circumstances of her pregnancy, her mother asked her what she wanted to do. Tiana chose to keep the baby, and he is now 12 years old.
“Upon coming back, I had missed two years of high school, and I was slated to not graduate,” she remembers. “I pushed through for an entire year and was able to still manage to graduate with my class on-time.”
Tiana learned two years of high school curriculum and successfully completed her proficiency exams while recovering from a traumatic experience, while pregnant, and then while caring for her newborn. “He was born January 3, 2009, and I graduated June 11, 2009,” she says.
Tiana says she knows that hearing how her story began could be difficult for other survivors, and she has a message: “Despite what life throws at you, continue to be fierce.”
Those in Tiana’s life didn’t know what to expect for her future, and she says she knows some probably expected her to become a victim of her circumstances or a statistic. She decided not to let anyone tell her what she could or could not become. “I chose to take my narrative back,” she says.
Tiana’s not immune to painful days and memories, but she says she channels that into motivation to reach higher and push further toward her goals. She says she hopes she can inspire others to take back their own narrative and write their own story.
Determined to do more and become more than anyone thought possible, Tiana sought out higher education and work that suited her.
“I went into a certificate program for medical administrative assisting,” she explains. “From there, I went to another school for respiratory therapy.”
While she didn’t complete her respiratory therapy program and hadn’t yet found the right fit to complete her education, she did find work that gave her purpose. For the past 10 years, Tiana has worked with adults who are disabled.
Tiana explains that the work came naturally to her. She started working in group homes and eventually took a job with the state of Nevada in an intensive care facility with adults who had severe disabilities and behavioral health issues. She worked there until it became physically unfeasible. “I realized that I could no longer physically maneuver the holds, so I slid over into the state of Nevada’s vocational rehabilitation department.”
Still, she always said she would finish college.
As a military spouse, Tiana finds purpose in offering support to other military families at UAGC.
Finding her Way
Tiana didn’t come to UAGC, back then called Ashford University*, in a way you might expect. It was a bit of a dare.
A friend, who was also a student at the University, gave her the push she needed to finally enroll.
“For years, I would say, ‘I’m going to go to college, I’m going to do it,’” she laughs. “She would say, “Well, just do it!’”
Tiana explains that she always found an excuse not to enroll until finally, her friend said to her, “Stop talking about it; you’re never going to do it.”
Now, she had something to prove, so she made her move. Tiana got on the phone with an Enrollment Services Advisor and enrolled in school. “It hit me the next day,” she says. “I really just signed up for college.”
At the age of 26, her journey really began, and she didn’t look back. Tiana enrolled in the BA in Social and Criminal Justice program, which she completed in late 2020 along with a BA in Sociology. Now, she’s pursuing her Master of Science in Criminal Justice.
Tiana says her mom worked in law enforcement, a profession she found exhilarating. The fast-paced nature of the field excited her, as well as the passion and love of a career she saw displayed by her mother’s co-workers.
“When she was working, she would bring home her radio and we would listen to the calls go out,” she recalls.
As a student, Tiana experienced the impact that a solid support system can have in working with advisors, who inspired her and always answered the phone willing to talk in-depth about any subject, even when she lost both of her grandparents.
She’s also paid it forward by extending support to her fellow classmates as the current president of the UAGC Military Support and Leadership Club. “We reach out and support anyone in the UAGC community, whether you are a student or alumni,” she explains. “And you are eligible to be a part of the club if you are active duty, a veteran, a spouse, a parent, or someone who is actively in the military, or a dependent.”
Each month, the club meets to discuss the issues that matter most to the military community. They discuss topics like moving frequently and making new friends, juggling school and military responsibilities, career opportunities, or services offered by UAGC to military students and alumni. They provide each other with the kind of support that can only be given by those who truly understand the experience, and they celebrate the successes of fellow club members.
In 2019, Tiana became a CHAMPS peer mentor. “It was amazing,” she exclaims. “You get paired with a brand-new student, who is new to not only the university, but online learning. You’re working with them, so that they can be successful.”
When a federal work-study position opened with the CHAMPS program, Tiana was excited to apply, and she was hired as a student success assistant. In her new role, she welcomed new students to the program and helped them complete orientation. Now, she’s a program coordinator with CHAMPS and works with a cohort of students throughout their entire CHAMPS experience.
If that wasn’t enough, she was recently tapped by the UAGC Access & Wellness department to work part-time as an Access & Wellness counselor.
Tiana celebrates earning her bachelor's degree at home with her three boys. She hopes to inspire them to reach for their goals.
Looking Toward the Future
Like many have done over the past year, Tiana’s family reevaluated what they wanted for their future, so they picked up and moved across the country from Nevada to North Carolina. “We wanted a little bit simpler way of life, so we settled on a very small town,” she describes. “We love it. The people are nice, schools are great.”
I hope to inspire my three boys by earning my degree. I want them to know, no matter what you want to do, if there’s a will, there’s a way.
Of course, her family faced challenges brought on by the pandemic. Tiana’s kids, who are all school-age, had to learn from home. “Sometimes life throws you curveballs, and you have to adapt,” she affirms. Fortunately, she employs some excellent time management skills like keeping a planner and writing everything down to make sure she keeps her commitments.
Most of all, she is ready for what is next. With her master’s degree in-progress, she’s also been accepted to law school, which she plans to begin next fall after completing her current program. She says she knows her UAGC experience has prepared her well and that she just needs to take it one day at a time and give each day her best.
“The goal is to open up my own private practice in criminal defense,” she explains. “Here, I have found that is severely lacking, especially when it comes to people of color and minorities being represented.”
Tiana wants to bring a fresh perspective to the legal field and help to enact policy change. “I do think there needs to be a new wave of people coming in to implement the change that people are demanding,” she says. “I want to be a part of that change.”
She wants to be a part of a future where everyone’s liberties and rights are protected, and that also means she might have to get political. “I do plan on running for city council this upcoming fall,” she confirms. “Then from there, I would absolutely love to run for Senate.”
Of course, she wants to instill hope in others, including her three boys. “I hope to inspire my three boys by earning my degree,” she states. “I want them to know, no matter what you want to do, if there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Whitney Bradford is a UAGC content specialist and former academic advisor for Ashford University.
*Ashford University is now the University of Arizona Global Campus.
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