Real Story: Tiffany Barber

Tiffany Barber

CSM Class of 2000, NursingA selfie of CSM graduate Tiffany Barber

Current Job Title: Executive Director, Poiema Movement

At the age of seven, I lost my father to cancer and my mother to grief. And though my mother did her best to keep me safe, fed, and warm throughout my childhood, those tangible supports never replaced the distance I felt between her heart and mine. What I really wanted was connection.

Growing up, these are the lies that I believed: I wasn't smart, I wasn't good enough, and I didn't belong.

It's no surprise that, as a high school girl, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. At the age of 17, I traded my pom-poms for a wedding ring and a baby bump. The following September—when most of my friends were going off to college to enjoy parties and newfound independence—my life was marked by late-night feedings and the cries of a hungry newborn.

And so I thrived, until I didn't.

My world came crashing down when my not-so-“happily ever after” marriage ended.

I found myself a single mother, with no job, no money, and no plan. My children were 10, 8, 6, and 2. We lived on child support and social services to survive. I put my youngest in Head Start so I could work the mornings. I spent my days cleaning houses, and my evenings waiting tables.

We did survive, but barely. There were countless times when I would open my door to find bags of groceries left by a Good Samaritan. I probably would never have risen above the poverty line if it hadn’t been for the safe community of support I had in the women around me, who were able to see what I could not—that I had potential, just waiting to be unlocked. One of those women was Brenda.

Brenda was the kind of friend who insisted I do the hard things, like get a college degree. She encouraged me to apply for a Pell Grant. She knew I needed to prepare for a career that would provide a sustainable income. With much hesitation, I followed her guidance and applied.

She was right; I did qualify for a Pell Grant. The funding was a life-changing opportunity—except, I didn’t go. I lived what I believed about myself: I wasn’t smart enough for college.

And yet, something random shifted my trajectory. My boyfriend at the time—my now-husband—wanted to learn to scuba dive, and he invited me to join him. This was a chance I was not going to pass up.

A few weeks later, standing in line at Charles County Community College—before it became CSM—with a paper application in one hand and a college catalog in the other, I had a thought: “If I add just one more class, my Pell Grant will pay for my scuba diving.” And being the resourceful mom that I was, I flipped through the catalog to select another course.

I hastily added English 101 and handed in my paper. One thing I had already learned was that to keep Pell funding, I had to pass the class. So I made sure to do all of my homework and study hard to ensure I received at least a “C.”

I remember, vividly, sitting in the classroom, having my last essay returned to me. The “A” marking at the top of the paper had suddenly rewritten my story.

Funding or no funding, my history had shaped my belief that I was not college material. But that “A” told a different story—one that I believed. And with my grade in hand, I signed up for 12 credits the next semester. Four years later, I graduated second in the Nursing Class of 2000. The College of Southern Maryland was a catalyst not only in my career, but in my life.

Moving on my nursing career stretched from Georgetown to Hospice of Charles County, and the experiences of my work and my childhood for the work that I do today.

As the executive director of Poiema Movement, I get to lead women who are like me. Women whose stories are different, but whose needs are the same. Women whose lives have been broken and shattered by trauma and choices, but whose value and purpose are significant.

When I think about my life now, “connection” is at the center. I’m connected to CSM through the Nonprofit Institute. NPI, for me, has been a resource to bring me together with other nonprofits to create this collaborative connection. Collaboration is ultimately about being the best that we can, collectively. It’s not just about “what can I get from you?”; it’s also about “what can I give to you?” And as we make that exchange, we have this healthy community.

I’m connected to my coworkers that shoulder the journey with me. I’m connected to amazing women who I’m able to be honest with, and I’m connected to a family that my husband and I have built. That’s really turned my life from being an only child, into a family that’s just the most precious part of who I am.

The Tiffany Barber Story - Full Circle

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Last updated: 8-8-23

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