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A Success Story - Tiana Cornelius

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  Scholarship recipient Tiana Cornelius 

  Dancing at a Benefit


Tiana has graduated in 2004 from Barnard College of Columbia University in New York and received her degree in Economics / Mathematics maintaining a GPA of 3.7. Tiana is continuing her graduate studies at the Teachers College of Columbia University towards her MA degree in Secondary Math Education. She will continue singing, dancing and acting. 

Tiana Cornelius  has prodigious musical and vocal talents and is a most talented, intelligent, and diligent student of music. When she performs, her esthetic interpretations reflect the composers’ intentions as well as those of the poets and librettists of each period and language.

In her senior year of high school, at the age of 16, Tiana began college on a full scholarship to the SUNY Rockland Mentor Program for Gifted and Talented students. At the age of 18 she was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She survived a most intense year of chemotherapy. When the chemotherapy and radiotherapy temporarily impaired her voice, she maintained her musical studies by taking up the study of piano and music theory. Tiana has emerged stronger, and even more passionate, all the while amazingly maintaining her good spirits. In her own words:

"Surviving cancer at the age of 18 was an experience that transformed me as a person. While it forced me to grow up, it also gave me the chance to again experience life as a child. Surviving cancer changed the way I view my life and subsequently, what I will do with it. 

Always “ahead” of myself, I began college at the age of 16. I spent the summer following my Freshman year studying Shakespeare at Cambridge University in England. When I returned home, I detected the growth of a tumor on my face. After a tour de force of doctors’ appointments, misdiagnoses of impending death and biopsies, my life fell apart. I turned 18 just in time to sign my life away to chemotherapy.

Over the course of that year, living life through the eyes of a sick person, I learned what it was to let go. I know what it is to be unable to do for myself, to not be conventionally beautiful, to be pitied, to be sick, and to hand over my independence. It took a great deal of maturity to allow myself to be cared for like a child, and to give up my attempts to achieve the impossible, which at that time, included things as simple as walking up the stairs.

Accepting the harsh reality I was dealt involved a great deal of growing up. With the side effects of chemotherapy I came to accept the possibilities of future limitations. Receiving radiation to my face, neck and throat, I came to deal with the idea of never being able to sing again. Having received Vincristine, I had temporary neuropothy in my feet and I dealt with the possibility of never dancing again. Luckily, these side effects did not end up being long-term. Upon completion of therapy, they were merely challenges and obstacles I worked hard to overcome.

Before chemo, I was not very fond of children. My opinion changed while I was on therapy. I saw their joy and beauty. While being treated in pediatric oncology, I got back in touch with the pleasures of being a child; I learned how to “play” again, and how to enjoy the simple things in life. I also saw the uncertainty and fragility of life. Seeing the helplessness of parents to alleviate their child’s suffering, I no longer saw the illusion of certainty and security that my parents had provided for me.

Before chemo, my life had a path and a purpose. A serious student of voice, dance and the performing arts, I was, of course, a Math major. My parents convinced me that even though I didn’t like Math, I was good at it and I should get my degree in something “practical.” If I truly wanted to pursue a frivolous career in the arts, which probably wouldn’t work out in the end anyways, I could always try at that after college.

Once I survived cancer and returned to school, I realized that life is too short to spend time doing that which one does not love to do. I finished out my 2-year degree in Math, and when I transfer to Columbia this fall, I plan to major in Music. I want a career in the performing arts, which I try my best to achieve through the disciplined devotion of daily study. I have taken my life into my own hands. I will pursue my dreams because I now realize that I only have one chance to do so.

No matter how wonderful or practical other life paths are; if I die tomorrow, I want to know that I died in the pursuit of MY goals and dreams. Surviving cancer has forced me to evaluate the predictable path my life was taking and re-route a new, more risky, but also more interesting, and personally satisfying future." 

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