For most of Tarnika Edmunds' time at Old Dominion University, one thought propelled her forward: "I won't be a statistic."
When Edmunds receives her diploma from the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies on Dec. 18, she'll be the first in her family to earn a college degree. Ahead of her is a career in human services, hopefully working behind the scenes in administration addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. Behind her is a childhood marked by trauma and abuse, grief and loss, strength and survival.
"I'm very transparent about everything I've been through," Edmunds said. "The things I lived through have shaped me into the woman I am today ... the woman who can tell my story."
Studying Human Services Offers 'Light Bulb Moments'
Her story begins in Blue Ridge Estates, a subsidized housing community located in the Southside area of Richmond. Edmunds' mother "fought to support us," she said. Her father was incarcerated, and she met him for the first time when she was 7. She experienced sexual and emotional abuse from family members and friends. But somehow, she was a top student; none of her teachers could have guessed what she was experiencing away from school, she said.
Two events in 2014 changed her life: a close friend was killed and her little sister was born. Losing her friend to gun violence made her more determined to succeed, while gaining a sister made her want to be a role model. "I knew I needed to beat all of the odds and statistics and labels," she said.
In her senior year of high school, she was determined to go college. "I knew the dynamics of my household. I knew where I came from, but I knew I wanted something different. College was my different."
Edmunds planned to study forensic nursing when she arrived at ODU in 2017, but it wasn't a fit. She went to Student Support Services in tears, and a program director encouraged her to take a class in human services. She immediately was hooked.
Since then, her studies have offered a series of "light bulb moments," helping her to understand and process her past trauma as she learns how to aid others. Her professors gave her a vocabulary to describe what she'd experienced firsthand. "I learned that when you grow up in survival mode, you don't realize - that was trauma," she said.
She found direction when Professor Frank Scaringello suggested pursuing macro social work, a broad field that seeks to develop and implement large-scale solutions to societal challenges, after she excelled in a class in grant writing. "I can direct change in the system and in the community," she said.
"What amazed me about her is that she breaks far and away from almost all undergrads in initiative and creativity," Scaringello said. He believes she'll be successful in her career because "she's teachable and she likes people" - attributes that are hard to teach.
"She's just a dynamic person."
Trials into Triumphs
Edmunds' college experience has been marked by moments of extreme success and despair. She graduates as a member of the Honors College. She's had her passion and commitment recognized - she serves as the University's at-large representative for the National Organization for Human Services; as a student representative for the Black Alumni Chapter; as president of ODU's National Pan-Hellenic Council; as a member of the Theta Chi Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.; and has been honored with the Darden College's Excellence in Service and Leadership Award. In early 2020, she had the life-changing opportunity to study abroad in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where she spent a week working with pregnant or recently post-partum teenage girls. She implemented workshops focused on self-worth, self-identity and self-love.
At the same time, her life was again touched by abuse and grief. In February 2020, she faced the same form of abuse that she fought through as a child, revealing she'd never processed her emotions. Less than two months later, her best friend, Keira M. Reese-Johnson, passed away after a car crash on her way home from visiting Edmunds.
That semester, Edmunds was working at a shelter with the YWCA, assisting survivors of abuse. "I felt this was my dream job, but when that assault happened in February, I realized I was being triggered at work," she said. "I had experienced a life-altering event. It takes a lot to remove yourself from a population you want to serve."
She realized she couldn't serve as a health professional if she didn't heal herself. She stepped away from clinical work and sought therapy through ODU's Counseling Services.
"Everything in 2020 really positioned me to be where I am today. I never thought I'd have to experience what I had as a child in my adulthood. But if it hadn't happened, I wouldn't have gotten the therapy I needed," she said. "The most unfortunate situations can turn pain into passion and trials into triumphs."
Now, she's working to honor Johnson's memory by founding Keedy's Greater Impact Foundation. In the summer of 2020, the foundation's first act was to send more than 500 newborn essentials, back-to-school supplies, clothes and shoes to the Women's Center Foundation in Jamaica.
In her final semester, Edmunds is completing a 12-credit internship with the Chesterfield Adolescent Reporting Program, working with teenagers in the juvenile justice system. She's attended school board meetings about restorative justice and court hearings. But perhaps most importantly, she's gained insight into what young men of color face. "There's a lot they go through that I really didn't understand," she said. "A lot of these kids are living in survival mode, and it affects their intentions. Now I'm sitting at the table to see how we can implement changes that affect not only them, but their community."
She hopes to gain work experience and apply for graduate school to study macro social work. She dreams of moving to Savannah or New Orleans. She knows wherever she goes, she's already come so far.
"Where I started doesn't determine where I go in life," she said. "Watching my own growth, and really working to elevate and succeed and beat those odds - it all really motivates me to keep going."