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New Cal State Long Beach student goes from drugs and prison to a President’s Scholar

The chemistry teacher wanted to see his star student after class.
She was a Distinguished Scholar, took honors classes, played first-chair violin in the orchestra. If you would have met her in those early years at Wilson High in Long Beach, Taryn Williams would have told you her dream was to study computational physics at the UC San Diego.
Would the teacher be commending her genius? Not quite. Taryn said she had missed 40 days of class that semester just because she didn’t want to go. She would kick over trash cans on campus just to mess things up. She wore sunglasses to class to hide her red eyes.
“Do not,” the teacher said with a mix of frustration and anger, “take my class again.”
That scene played out more than a decade ago.
“I thought I was better than everyone else because I was really smart,” Taryn said. “It’s embarrassing now. I was a drug addict and not fun to be around. I was high all day, every day. I drank alcohol from soda bottles. I was using meth.”
On Aug. 27, with five years sobriety, Taryn Williams will start her first day at Cal State Long Beach as a President’s Scholar. Of the 37,000 or so CSULB students, about two dozen were named for the prestigious scholarship, which pays for four years of tuition.
Taryn Williams’ approach to applying to colleges was to tell the truth about her story. She ended up becoming a Cal State Long Beach President’s Scholar. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams with her boyfriend Jack and 3-year-old twins Mckayla and Isaiah in the doorway of their Long Beach home. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
SoundThe gallery will resume insecondsTaryn Williams got into a lot of trouble in school following the deaths of her mother and grandmother. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams isn’t your typical back-to-school student. She will start college at Cal State Long Beach on Aug. 27 as a President’s Scholar. She’s 31 and is the mother of twins. She was homeless, a drug addict and served prison time for armed robbery. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams with her boyfriend Jack and 3-year-old twins Mckayla and Isaiah in the doorway of their Long Beach home. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams says she is rough around the edges, but her Long Beach City College grades show she belongs in the academic world. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams has 61 tattoos. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams says she has been clean for five years after her problems with drugs. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Taryn Williams plans to double major in business administration and economics at Cal State Long Beach. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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It is likely she is unique among President’s Scholars. And that’s not because she has blue hair, 27 tattoos, a septum ring, 3-year-old twins and is 31 years old.
Her mother was found dead, and it is unknown whether she died by accident or suicide. Taryn was homeless as a child, then was taken in by a foster home. She used methamphetamine and heroin for years. She was arrested three times and served two years in prison.
And now, a school is paying her almost $50,000 to help her get her degree.
Her father, Ira Williams, was floored.
“How did this even happen?” he said. “I couldn’t get my head around it at first. I was so proud of her. She overcame it all.”
Taryn understands how rare this chance is.
“Are you kidding me?” Taryn said. “I have this terrible background. People like me don’t get opportunities like this.”
People like her often end up dead before they get a chance to redeem themselves.
‘Born into chaos’
Cindie Cochrane was pregnant with Taryn when she got in an argument with her boyfriend (not Taryn’s father).
There was a struggle with a gun. It went off. Cindie was shot through the arm. The injury didn’t affect the baby.
“I was born into chaos,” Taryn said.
She lived with her mother, who moved so many times Taryn lost count.
Taryn was 8 years old, living in a hotel on Katella Avenue in Anaheim, when she was abused by her mother’s boyfriend.
“He was really drunk,” she said. “He picked me up by my earlobes. I was heavily bruised and my ears were bleeding. Someone in the hotel called the police.”
Child Protective Services took custody of Taryn, who was placed at Orangewood Children’s Home in Orange. She lived there for five months.
The custody of Taryn Williams was to be decided in a court. Her mother, addicted to drugs, didn’t show up for several hearings. The judge granted custody to her father, Ira, an oil field worker who was living with her grandmother, Joyce. Taryn was happy about her placement.
“Grandma made rules,” Taryn said. “She was trying to reshape me as a normal child. I played violin. I played soccer. She made me study and go outside and play with kids. It was kind of normal.”
Until it wasn’t.
Another painful loss
When Taryn was 12, she found that her mother died after setting her own apartment on fire. Cindie Cochrane was 41.
“She was clearly unstable and under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” Taryn said. “I was kind of pissed off at her anyway. I was pretty resentful.”
Thinking about her mother’s death now, as an adult, Taryn has softened her tone.
“If she was in that much pain that suicide was her solution, I have empathy for her,” Taryn said.
She leaned on her grandmother for strength. But, two years after her mother died, cancer took her grandmother.
“I was pretty pissed at the world,” she said. So many people have told her that her real life resembles the fictional character Matt Damon played in “Good Will Hunting,” the brooding genius trying to overcome his own anger.
She found herself with no supervision. Her dad worked long hours.
Drugs, then prison
Drugs were the answer.
When she started doing meth, “All of a sudden I had all of these friends.”
Among drug users, she found a family.
“She had so much potential, and she got off on the wrong track,” said Richard Calmet, a neighbor who has known Taryn since middle school.
The second half of her high school career can be summed up in one word: high.
A violinist in the school orchestra, Taryn was reminded by a friend recently that she missed the opening of a performance, walked onto the stage in the middle and played like nothing had happened.
Taryn was homeless and the arrests started to pile up after high school. From 2006 to 2012, Taryn was arrested three times – the last time was for armed robbery (she said she was carrying a pocket knife while committing the robbery). She served two years in prison.
In prison, she got clean and threw herself into several self-help programs including B’Not Or (Women of Light), a Jewish congregation.
“Somewhere in prison it occurred to me I had a life worth living,” Taryn said.
‘Brilliant student’
School was the answer.
Taryn got out of prison and poured herself into school. She enrolled at Long Beach City College and took a heavy load. And her report cards were raining As. After 12 units, she had straight A’s. Then after 72 units, she still had straight A’s.
“She is a brilliant student,” said Jeff Wheeler, who teaches English at LBCC and heads the honors program. “She’s a great student to have in class. She brings up the level of the entire class.”
She started to dream about more advanced studies and four-year universities.
At the same time, Taryn got pregnant and had twins (Isaiah and Mckayla, who are now 3). She began receiving welfare checks that she credits with keeping her and her new family alive.
“I’m the reason they have welfare,” she said.
Her drug problems behind her, she started to give back. Check out the list of projects Taryn has worked on:
• Hosted clothing drives for Mental Health America.
• Brought mothers hot meals through the Long Beach Breastfeeds group.
• Mentored young girls at the Vista Del Mar children’s home.
• Purchased hygiene kits for foster girls in partnership with Sole Survivors.
• Held clothing drives for people on Skid Row in Downtown L.A.
“It’s super important that I give back,” she said. “I’m putting one foot in front of the other, but I don’t know where I’m going.”
‘Rough around the edges’
She applied to five universities and for any scholarship that seemed attainable. Her strategy: Tell the truth.
“I don’t shy away from talking about the gnarly stuff,” Taryn said. She sent in essays that revealed her life story.
Then she got two bits of good news. First, Cal State Long Beach accepted her.
And then she found out that she had received the President’s Scholarship. She didn’t know what that was, so she Googled it. Then she exploded.
“She was screaming in my office,” said LBCC’s Wheeler. “She was really excited.”
Taryn said she took off running.
“I was running through the LBCC halls screaming,” she said.
And now, she’s got to start school as a scholar.
“I’m super nervous,” Taryn said. “I don’t feel like I fit in. I’m rough around the edges. I’m not young.”
She’s working as a receptionist at a salon. She’s raising twins. And she’ll carry a double major – business administration and economics.
She hopes to enter the corporate world as a logistics or operations manager.
And she wants other people with addictions and pain to hear what has happened to her.
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“I think my story is important,” Taryn said. “I don’t think I’m important.”
And that’s the important part.
Source: OC Register

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