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Sophomore, Who Once Was Homeless, Plans to Run Shelter

By Phil Walzer

During the four years of her childhood that Taliah Connor lived in homeless shelters in Richmond, she repeated to herself almost like a mantra: "I have to be better than the life I'm living now. My goal is to go to college."

She did it. And she hasn't forsaken her past.

Connor, a sophomore, volunteered last summer at Hilliard House, the last shelter she had lived in. Her goal after graduation: To run a similar shelter.

"If you need to be in a shelter, I want my shelter to be the one you should go to," said Connor, who is 20. Hilliard House "was one of the places that built me, and I want to help build up other people."

Her mother, who suffered from drug issues and depression, moved to a shelter when Taliah (pronounced Tuh-LAY-uh) was 7, "and she decided to take me with her."

Connor lived with her mother in four shelters. "At the beginning," she said, "it was really hard," with kids at school calling her "poor" and worse. "But I grew up fast."

Other girls whined about not getting the latest style of shoes. "I understood at a young age that I couldn't have everything I wanted. It made me a stronger person. I can handle more."

She left Hilliard House when she was 11. Connor remained a good student, heeding her mother's advice: "Go to school."

She chose Old Dominion, she said, because it's like "VCU away from home" and provided enough scholarship money for her to attend.

"I like it here," she said. "There are a lot of different cultures and people, and the environment is very accepting."

Connor plans to double-major in business management and women's studies, blending her career goal and academic passion. "I have seen inequality for women, and I want to be a part of that change. Even if I can't change the world, I can change something in someone's life."

Connor mentors freshmen in Old Dominion's Women on Wall Street Learning Community. "Ms. Connor exudes confidence and compassion," said Wendy Porter, an adjunct faculty member in women's studies. "Her humble beginning has served as her passion for learning and leading by example."

Over the summer, Connor volunteered at Hilliard House, helping answer phones, packing meals for the residents and talking to them about her experiences. "It made me feel good, and I hope it motivated them," Connor said. "They can think, 'She used to live here and she's in college now.'"

Her mother, who is better, still nags her if she's in danger of sliding in her classwork. "If I slip up, she tells me, 'You need to get back on track. This isn't going to get you your shelter.'"

Connor said her life's lesson is: "Things do get better as long as you set your mind to them getting better. You just have to try. You can't sit back and wait for stuff because it'll never happen."

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