When she was a student, Thyraellis Howard would arise before dawn each morning in her home in Richmond’s Fairfield Court public housing development, where she lives alone, and catch the bus to college.
If only it were that simple.
After the first bus, she would catch another, which would take her to the end of the line in western Henrico County, and then she would pedal her bicycle the rest of the way — more than 2 miles, much of it uphill — to ECPI University’s Innsbrook campus, where she was taking classes that she hoped would lift her into a better life. Once she was struck by a car, though she wasn’t seriously injured.
No matter the weather, she was often the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon, said Innsbrook campus President Jacob Pope.
When it snowed and opening was delayed, Pope said, “everybody else would be complaining about trying to get here two hours later, and her bicycle is already here. If it was raining outside ... she would come in off the bicycle, and she was just a mess, but she was here every single day.”
It’s been a long, difficult road for Howard, 23, who goes by Thyra and has lived in Fairfield Court for 13 years. Before that, she and her family found refuge in homeless shelters around the area after moving from North Carolina.
She also is painfully familiar with deep, personal loss: Her mother died in 2009; her father five years later, while she was a senior in high school. She has an older brother and sister who had left home by the time their father died.
She was always capable in school, and her parents encouraged her to recognize the importance of education — “On the day my mother passed, I was going through my math textbook, [saying to myself], ‘I’m going to be so smart and answer them all right and when Mom wakes up, I’m going to show her I’m so smart’ ... but she didn’t wake up” — but the upheaval in her life got in the way.
She missed considerable time from school while caring for her father, who was disabled from the effects of diabetes and depression, and wound up barely, in her words, graduating from Thomas Jefferson High.
Along the way, though, she was fortunate to be connected with the Mayor’s Youth Academy, a program that aims to help develop Richmond’s future leaders and workforce, and with Virginia Union University’s Upward Bound, a federally funded program that assists college-bound high school students in developing the skills required to graduate from college.
At Upward Bound, she became acquainted with counselor Brenda Yancey, who has become her biggest supporter.
“She was always a good kid in school,” Yancey said in a phone interview. “She had the skill set. She just needed the direction. Somebody to tell her, ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ That’s basically what I did.
“When you lose your parents that early, there’s no one really to teach you the basics of life. I just kind of stepped into that role.”
When she was younger, Howard thought about going into medicine so she could help her parents, both of whom suffered from diabetes. Once they were gone, she lost that drive and had to rekindle her passion in another direction. She found it in technology and pursued software development.
She started at Reynolds Community College and eventually found what she wanted at ECPI, a for-profit college where a scholarship helped her attend.
She nearly lost her way at one point, dropping out for a few months, overwhelmed by the logistics, the loneliness and the long-distance grind she was on. It became too much.
“I woke up one day and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ ” she recalled. “I still can go after my education. It’s the only thing I have.”
With the help of Yancey and Pope, Howard took advantage of another chance and made the most of it. She spent the next two years working harder than she ever had, showing up to school not just on time but early, and excelling.
She graduated in June 2018, and since then has worked as a teacher’s assistant at the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies and as a content management system developer apprentice as she seeks full-time work in the field.
Sometimes students are “just not ready,” Pope said, and Howard had so much she was working through, most especially the deaths of her parents.
“So, the first time around, she probably was just not ready to take advantage of everything,” he said. “The second time, she was more than ready. She’s been a big inspiration for people around here. In the 20 years I’ve been here, she’s probably among the two or three students who have totally flipped their whole life 180, going back the other way. She ranks really high because of what she’s had to overcome.
“She’s got enough drive to do whatever it is she wants to do. She’s tasted a little bit of success, and she wants more of that. We’re going to look up in a few years, and she’s going to be doing something great for society. Making a difference.”
Yancey and her husband, Henry, have generously provided not only guidance but also have made sure she had school supplies and whatever else she needed.
Despite all she’s been through, Howard “always has a smile on her face” and is “the nicest person you’d ever want to be around,” Yancey said. “I don’t know if I could have survived what she did, being on her own.”
The next step in Howard’s journey would be a full-time job in her chosen field, which Yancey hopes is coming soon.
“Somebody needs to give her a break,” she said. “She has an awesome skill set. ... She’s dependable. Whoever decides to take a chance on her, I don’t think it would be wasted.”
A lesson Howard has taken away from her journey so far is this: “We’re not just stuck here. We can do great things. I’m not stopping. This is just the beginning, and it only gets better from here.”
She smiled and apologized for her enthusiasm, which, of course, she had no reason to apologize for.
“I have high hopes for myself,” she said.