From laughing to crying, Doniska Taylor ran through the gamut of emotions as she held her bachelor’s degree from Central State University (CSU) in a video posted to social media as she declared, “I have a degree!” Then the tears fell, and she laughed and cried simultaneously. “I have a degree … fa, like, school. No, fa real … that’s so good. I finished something that was really long – and hard. And then she started crying again, before the seconds-long video cut out.
Growing up, the thought of going to college was not an option for Taylor. She said it was not financially feasible for her family. With a Public School Scholars Programme (PSSP) scholarship, college became doable. Today, the 20-year-old is a graduate of CSU with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a concentration in hospitality management and preparing to begin graduate school in August, matriculating toward a Master’s in Student Affairs and Higher Education at Wright State University (WSU), in Dayton, Ohio.
The daughter of David Taylor and Donna Sweeting, who graduated CSU in Wilberforce, Ohio, with honors, has a graduate assistantship at WSU, which ensures her tuition will be paid in full and that she will receive a monthly stipend.
The former Anatol Rodgers High School head girl has come a long way from the teenager who arrived at CSU without any family members by her side to begin a new chapter in her life that no one in her family had ever experienced, and as such could not offer her any guidance. Taylor is the first person in her family to graduate college.
She had no one in her family who could understand the struggles she endured in her freshman year as she struggled with math and not wanting to go to class because of the difficulties she had with the subject. And with no ringing bell to tell her to go to class, she said the first-year struggle was real. Taylor had to learn self-control and to do things on her own. She also had to let her guard down and depend on others as she took advantage of tutoring services, especially when it came to math.
Her first year after struggling to a 3.3 grade point average (GPA), she said she had to sit herself down and strategize, because, she said, she was not that student. She was not going to settle. And that she did not go to CSU to be average.
Sophomore year, she set a theme for herself – “elevate” – and made the decision that everything she did the year before, she would do it higher the next year. She took her GPA from 3.3 to 3.7, and then 4.0, and refused to look back over her junior and senior years.
In a little over six weeks, Taylor’s higher educational journey continues at WSU with a shift in studies, owing to the exposure she’s had in the last four years and the mentorship, which she said inculcated in her a passion for student activities.
Taylor’s accomplishment is a far cry from the young lady who, in 2017, wrote as she graduated high school, that she can recall not being the smartest child and being told in primary school that she would amount to nothing.
“I remember starving. I remember using the flashlight to see just to do my homework. I remember crying late at night wanting better,” she wrote. “I spoke to God. His words were ‘If you want something better, do things better’. Fast forward to senior school – I started to shine. I started to do better. I became the true Doniska Taylor.”
The takeaway Taylor wanted others to get from her post, she said, is for people to not let their problems – especially poverty, stop them.
“Your future is bigger than your past. Be encouraged,” she wrote.
Taylor also looks back at the people who mentored and encouraged her, which allowed her to be able to call herself a college graduate. Janelle Cambridge, who Taylor said stoked her passion for the tourism industry, exposed her to the many facets of the industry and influenced her course of study for her first degree. And then watching Monique Hinsey’s (consultant administrator, PSSP, Ministry of Education Scholarships and Educational Loans Division) passion for students such as herself in encouraging them to seek higher education.
“I watched how she [Hinsey] was a tool in changing the lives of more than [hundreds of] students. I looked at her and wanted to be that change for others as well,” hence, Taylor’s decision to study student affairs and higher education at graduate school.
“I wanted to go into this because throughout the duration at CSU, I’ve been exposed to a lot and I’ve been mentored by a lot of individuals and have also gained a passion for student activities. I participated in a lot of activities, so as I gained leadership development experiences, and the skills I needed, I have a passion for training other people as well.”
Ultimately, Taylor said she would like to see herself in the side of the education sector that exposes youth to professional and social opportunities.
While a student at Anatol Rodgers, Taylor also had a guidance counselor in Samantha Wells who stressed to her the importance of a college education, even as Taylor was telling herself that college would not be in the cards for her without a scholarship.
“In my mind, at the time, if I didn’t get a scholarship, then I wouldn’t be attending a school, especially one abroad,” she recalled.
Then she heard about PSSP from both Wells and Hinsey.
“At first, I didn’t take what she [Hinsey] said seriously. I was in eighth grade, and she was talking to me about college. I was like, this isn’t important right now.”
In 10th grade, Taylor said she remembers the tide changing for her.
“I was going through it and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my future. I still wasn’t thinking college because financially it wasn’t an option, but I knew that I wanted to be great, and greater than the circumstances life had given me.”
She sought out her guidance counselor to have a conversation with, and Wells spoke about college. Once again, Taylor said she still did not pay it heed because she did not see the feasibility in it, as her family simply did not have the finances.
And then there was the fact that Taylor did not think of herself as smart.
“I did not see the smart girl that Samanatha Wells saw. So, as I was growing and going to her office and speaking to her, she convinced me that regardless of circumstances, I was going to school. I was convinced from that day that I was a smart girl.”
Taylor recalls leaving that 10th-grade conversation with the decision that she would be named head girl for her final year, and she was. She said that honor was confirmation for her that she could do anything.
When she learned she would be a PSSP scholar, she said she got scared and cried because she was going to be the first in her family to have the opportunity to go to college. Then reality returned.
“I can remember reading the email and then thinking I have to provide a bank statement – that was scary because I was like, when it ain’t one thing, it’s the next.”
Her parents did not have the funds to provide a statement for her, but the parent of a friend in her graduating class stepped up for her. Through all the preparations for her to go to CSU, she said it did not sink in that she was going to college.
Disappointment reared its head again when it was time for Taylor to travel to Ohio as neither of her parents had the funds to make the journey with her.
Taylor traveled to Ohio with a friend and her mother. That friend also had a sister that helped to provide for Taylor, who she honorifically calls Aunty Dessy, owing to the kindness she showed Taylor in taking care of her in Ohio in the weeks before she was able to move into the dormitory. Through it all, Taylor said she did not initially feel like she was at college.
“One day walking across campus, and it hit me really hard – and I started crying, I was so grateful. A part of me was hurt that I saw people’s parents moving them in and I wanted that, but at the same time, I understood [why my parents could not be there for me] and I was grateful for the opportunity, nonetheless. When I had time to call my parents, I called them and showed them my room, but it was hard watching people have a parental presence.”
At the same token, she said she knows if they could have, that her parents would have been there for her.
Over the course of her four years at CSU, she said her parents were never able to visit, and did not travel to the state to celebrate her virtual graduation with her. They did, however, put together a recorded presentation for her that she was able to view.
“My mother told me how proud she was of me, and how far I’d come. My dad, who always makes me laugh, told me he’s proud of me as well, but he also told me to keep going, and to not stop,” she said.
“I would have loved to have them in Ohio, but at the same time, I’m very understanding of life. I get that things happen and some things are beyond our control. I know if they could have, they would have,” said the oldest child of three brothers on her maternal side. She is her father’s only child.
In four years, Taylor has also been home only twice over Christmas breaks during her freshman and sophomore years.
As she prepares to pursue studies at WSU, Taylor said she decided to remain in Ohio, where she has support, and because it’s close to what she has become familiar with. In an emergency, she said, she will be able to communicate with people she knows.
As Taylor looks back on her still young life, she said while she feels loved and supported by her parents, she gets sad sometimes thinking about never having been allowed to just be a child and have the full childhood experience, because financially, they did not have it.
“Sometimes in school we had field trips, but some field trips cost money and we didn’t have that. I was doing community service at children’s hostel and my dad came to pick me up and he was just telling me he didn’t have it. And I was trying to think, I need to get a job, and how do I help my daddy, while still ensuring that I do well in school. My goal after a while was to be successful not just for the generation after me, but the generation before me, and mostly my dad.”
As she prepares to commence studies at WSU on August 8, the college graduate said the fact that she has a degree is still sinking in.
“I am always on go mode and most times don’t stop and smell the roses sometimes because I always have to figure out what’s happening next and everything costs money. Sometimes, I battle with just not celebrating myself because I always feel like I have to do more,” she said.
Taylor hopes her accomplishment motivates her younger brothers to aim for a college education. She said it would be her dream to see them also attend CSU and returning to campus to celebrate homecoming with them there.
At CSU, Taylor had an active extracurricular life outside the classroom. She was Miss Freshman, Miss Sophomore, Miss Junior, 2020/2021 Miss Central State University, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Zeta Phi Zeta Christian Sorority, Inc., Delta Mu Delta Honors Society, Alpha Kappa Mu Honors Society, as well as a resident assistant, student ambassador, and International Student Organization and Hospitality Club vice president.
PSSP started with 13 students in 2015. It has evolved to over 500 public school graduates in six years. Taylor was among the largest cohort of graduates, well over 100, since the program’s inception, to complete studies in the United States and Canada through partnership agreements between the Ministry of Education and the colleges/universities they attend.