- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
- Teaching & Learning
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After graduating high school, Tiana-marie “Tia” Blassingale felt accomplished: It was a level of educational attainment that neither of her parents had obtained. She then followed in the footsteps of her stepfather, earning a barber’s license and setting up in his shop on South Street in Philadelphia.
After eight years there, South Street began to change — and so did Blassingale. More upscale shops and restaurants were replacing the older businesses and the mom-and-pop enterprises that had dotted the neighborhood for generations.
“The community I knew was deteriorating,” she said. “Mentally and emotionally, it was being hit by gentrification.”
After 20 years, her stepfather’s shop — and other businesses — had to move out.
What Blassingale would miss most were her customers. Being a female barber in what could be a hyper-masculine profession was challenging, but she saw barbering as outreach, often volunteering her services for special needs customers and in group homes. In the community and shop, she constantly talked to people, heard their frustrations, their fears, their hopes.
“I felt like the community needed more counseling than a haircut,” she said.
To continue to help the neighbors, she’d need to go to a different level, to re-order her own life. “If I go and get an education,” she thought, “I can learn more and make a better impact.”
In August of 2016, at 26 years old, she went where no one in her family, including her six younger siblings, had ever been before. She enrolled in community college.
She had two encounters her first semester there that touched her life. First, among the general education classes she took, one was Intro to Philosophy. This class connected Blassingale to her passion.
“I have always loved philosophy,” she said, “I just didn’t have the word [for] it.”
The discovery, she said, was “energizing and exciting,” taking her deeper into questions exploring the meaning of life.
The second encounter would propel the first.
The community college had a TRIO program — a support system meant to help under-resourced students pursue college degrees. She entered a tight-knit community of first-generation students where she felt belonging and support.
As TRIO began to advise her about next steps for her education, the University of Pittsburgh kept showing up on the radar. She discovered it had a world-class philosophy department and top-notch teachers. She dreamed if it was possible for her to get into this top program. With the encouragement of her TRIO counselors, she made application and sent it off with a prayer.
In fall of 2018, Blassingale set foot on Pitt’s campus as a student in the philosophy department.
In December of 2021, she graduated. In the fall of 2022, she’s on her way to the University of Connecticut to begin a PhD program in philosophy.
When Blassingale arrived at Pitt, she was older, at a huge university and she didn’t live on campus. There was so much that stood out that made her “feel like I didn’t fit in,” but, she said, TRIO was the “bridge” she needed.
Her first semester was rough, but TRIO helped Blassingale to overcome academic probation to being on the Dean’s List.
The organization made her transition “seamless,” by connecting her with friendships, alumni. The tutors were dedicated, even in a time of pandemic, when they had to meet on zoom once a week. When her internet was not working, she could visit what TRIO calls Pitt Stop and use the computers there, and also get edits of her work in progress.
James Scott with the TRIO staff worked tirelessly to research federal student funding, finding her state grants and other financial assistance. She worked with Scott to implement a weekly success plan.
Scott helped her off-campus life, too, finding her rental and utility assistance when needed, and access to food pantries.
“He was so pro-active, it was like he could perceive my problems and send resources before I even asked,” Blassingale said.
It also helped her to build connections to the local community. She worked with advocates on addressing the school to prison pipeline to reduce incarceration for young people; she served with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And, she became involved with a recent Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit, a two-decade old event to address policing, diversity and equity.
In a full circle moment at the Racial Justice Summit, she got to meet Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante, chair of Africology and African American Studies, and a scholar who was always talked about in the barbershops in Philadelphia. He was the one who suggested she reach and apply to the program in Connecticut.
“Some people join a sorority,” she said, “I joined TRIO and it was like a movement started happening my life.”
“Tiana, with her unfathomable determination, hard work, brilliance and heart, overcame overwhelming barriers,” said Michele Lagnese, director of Pitt’s TRIO. “She is an example of someone who we, as a nation, must not overlook. Those who are the first in their families to graduate from college, who have disabilities or who come from low-income backgrounds, are those who we must help to harness the full array of talents and abilities that we desperately need to move the nation into the future. Equity and opportunity for all people must include access to education for all people.”
Opportunities are emerging for Blassingale. In a few weeks, she is hoping to begin an internship — obtained with the help of TRIO — serving as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C.
When she’s done, she’s off to Connecticut to chase her dream of being a philosophy professor and to open her own practice in philosophical counseling, an emerging therapy that enables clients to look for a philosophical understanding of their lives, social or mental problems.
Those moments when she stood behind the barber chair and “fell in love” with listening to and counseling people have been enlarged. Now, she said, “I am preparing to help people from the inside out and outside in.”
— Ervin Dyer, photo by Tom Altany
For 50 years, Pitt’s TRIO Student Support Services Program has embraced first-generation and low-income college students, empowering them to lift themselves up — and their communities, too. Pittwire is telling their stories in a limited series.