Ready to Go
"HCC is such a diverse, welcoming campus. We're not on our own. There is a great community of support. I would always always always recommend this school to anyone." – Tatiana McKnight '23
Tatiana McKnight owes a lot to her grandparents, so much that she had their names tattooed on her right forearm: "Sonia" and "Angel."
Sonia would be Sonia Nieto, the noted Puerto Rican educator and author, and Angel her husband, the Spanish poet Angel Nieto.
"When I graduated high school, there were certain expectations," says McKnight. "My grandmother was like, college is something you need to be doing, if you're not doing anything else."
As McKnight considered her options, her grandmother took her on a tour of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. She loved it.
"It was a great experience," says McKnight. "After we left, I told her, 'I wanna go there.'"
"It's not an easy school to get into," her grandmother advised. "You have to put in the work."
Their next stop: Holyoke Community College.
"She brought me to HCC, because it was an easy commute," says McKnight, a Springfield resident then living in Chicopee, "but also because she knew people at HCC whom she trusted."
On that visit, McKnight recalls her grandmother saying, in so many words, "Start here."
And so she did.
In June, after five years as a part-time student, McKnight, now 23, graduated from HCC with honors and her associate's degree in psychology.
"I'm very happy," she said. "This has been very validating for me. I've been doing this for a very long time, proving things to myself, because I doubt myself a lot."
There was a time when those doubts were so severe she literally could not leave her home. As a teenager, McKnight was prone to panic attacks and diagnosed with agoraphobia, a debilitating fear of crowds.
"I was home all day," she recalls. "24/7 I would not leave my house."
For a while, she was homeschooled. Later she completed high school in Chicopee through an online program called Edgenuity.
"It was difficult," she remembers. "I had no job. All day, from the time the sun went up to the time it went down, I was home, in my room, on my bed. It was so depressing."
After graduating, determined to better her circumstances, she found a therapist, who, little by little, helped transform her life to the point where she felt comfortable again in the outside world.
Despite her progress, McKnight was unsurprisingly nervous about starting college, especially in person. On that first visit, Nieto brought her McKnight to see a friend, Irma Medina, senior special programs coordinator for HCC's Pathways program. Every year, Medina, herself a graduate of both HCC and Mount Holyoke, helps dozens of HCC students successfully transfer to competitive four-year schools, such as Amherst, Smith, Williams, and Mount Holyoke.
Nieto also introduced her granddaughter to Maureen Conroy, then the director of OSDDS, the college's Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services. Conroy became McKnight's learning specialist and helped her obtain needed classroom accommodations. She also offered McKnight a campus job as an assistive technology trainer in the college's Assistive Technology Center.
"She said, I think you'd be good at it," says McKnight. "I was kinda shocked. I don't know why she thought I'd be good at it. That was my first job ever in my life. But she made me feel very comfortable. I trusted her."
Through Pathways, Medina helped McKnight build an academic record that would give her the best chance of getting into a top transfer school. One class that meant the most to her was "Caribbean Feminism," her first honors-level course.
"Not only did I relate as a woman of color, but that class also challenged me and expanded my critical thinking skills," says McKnight.
At the end, the professor, Raúl Gutierrez, suggested she join the college's Latinx Empowerment Association, also known as the LEA Club. She served as vice president.
"HCC is such a diverse, welcoming campus," says McKnight. "We're not on our own. There is a great community of support. I would always always always recommend this school to anyone."
Since 2022, in addition to her schooling, McKnight has been working with autistic children as a behavioral technician for a company called Butterfly Effects. She conducts home visits and implements behavior plans to help children improve their communication skills and give them a better chance for living successful, independent lives. It's work she not only finds rewarding but that also lines up with her career plans, working with children as a therapist or school counselor.
'At one point, I was the person who needed help, and what my therapist did for me motivated me to want to do that for other people," says McKnight. "I loved her. I loved the experience. I know that's what I want to do."
In May, she got the good news. She'd been accepted as a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College, where she plans to study psychology. Although she'll miss HCC, she says she's looking forward to a new start at Mount Holyoke.
"I'm excited to be part of campus life there," she says. "I'm ready."
STORY and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: Tatiana McKnight