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Aya and Tirashia Smith are in a race to see who can reach the graduation stage first.

Always moving forward; Tirashia Smith's story

Monday, November 20, 2023

Media Contact: Stephen Howard | Manager of Communications | 405-744-4363 |

In 1995, Tirashia Smith was beating the odds as a science fair winner and a sophomore honor student at North Philadelphia’s infamous Strawberry Mansion High School, that is, until her grandmother, Johnnie Mae, dropped the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Johnnie Mae was a tough woman who raised Tirashia in a loving but no-nonsense kind of way. She left school after the eighth grade, and at this point, Johnnie Mae felt like her granddaughter had more than enough education to get by. It was time for Tirashia to find her own way.

“She said, ‘I liked having you here, but it’s time to go,’” Tirashia said, chuckling at the memory. “I remember thinking, well, I guess I’ll figure this out. So, I did. I figured it out.”

Tirashia has done a remarkable job of figuring it out in the 28 years since that moment. She found a job, moved out, turned that job into a career, started a family, moved states, earned her high school diploma through the Job Corps, picked up several promotions, started college and moved states again.

Smith was 15 years into her current role with the Department of Veterans Affairs when a remote work opportunity allowed her to answer the call of the Tulsa Remote program and its $10,000 incentive for those willing to relocate to Oklahoma. Once in Tulsa, Tirashia’s daughter, Aya, started showing promise in school. Aya, now 15, was bringing home report cards full of As and Bs, and she couldn’t stop talking about her interest in science and the medical engineering field.

Unlike her own path, Tirashia wanted to encourage her daughter to pursue these educational dreams. She just never thought it would end up serving as her inspiration too.

“I didn't want to be one of those parents who said, ‘Hey, go to college,’ but I didn't finish,” Tirashia said. “I want her to see that it's possible to beat the odds, that you can do anything. Even if things seem a little difficult, there's a way to get it done.”

Hoping to serve as Aya’s inspiration, and ready to chart a new path of her own, Tirashia enrolled at Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business to pursue an online degree in data analytics. The goal was simple — show her daughter that people can do anything they set their mind to and earn her OSU diploma before Aya graduates high school in May 2027.

The race is on. But don’t tell that to Aya, who doesn’t need much in the way of added inspiration — the drive is already in her genes. On top of being a cheerleader at her high school, Aya is also active in Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and Future Farmers of America (FFA). Next year, she plans on doubling up her math classes so she can stay one step ahead of her academic goals.

“She is my hero,” Tirashia said. “Aya is the most caring, loving, ambitious and honest person I know. Most kids her age aren't thinking about doubling up on math classes. But that’s her, and we want to encourage her to go for it.”

Aya isn’t the only one doubling up. Tirashia is double majoring in data analytics and information assurance in addition to her full-time job and family life. She’s hoping to go into OSU’s 4+1 program to earn her master’s in management information systems before pursuing a new career in cybersecurity. In her current role within the Department for Veteran’s Affairs, she sees the vulnerabilities within the government’s networks and wants to be a part of protecting them in the future. Don’t be surprised if she ends up at the National Security Agency after graduation.

Until then, Tirashia knows that she has her work cut out for her, and she’s thankful for the people that have helped her get this far. Her husband, Russ, and her grown son, Malik, have been some of her biggest supporters, and she and Aya have become homework buddies on the weekends. She’s also thankful for the Spears Business family that she’s come to know virtually during her time in school. She is quick to point a spotlight on Dr. Jim Burkman, who challenged and pushed her while keeping class fun and colorful.

Her highest praise, however, is reserved for Shannon Ramsey, her academic advisor in the Chesapeake Energy Business Student Success Center, who has been, “rock solid,” during the ups and downs of Tirashia’s academic career. Data analytics and information assurance classes are difficult, and more than once Tirashia has had to change direction midstream. Still, Ramsey has had a solution each time.

“She hasn’t ever told me that it’s impossible,” Tirashia said. “She’s just been supportive, and she’s found a way to keep me on track and working at my pace.”

For her part, Ramsey sees Tirashia as an inspiration to people to not give up on their dreams, and that her ability to keep her sights set on the goal will help her complete her degree.

“I love that she’s continued to persevere and has come back every time she’s gotten knocked down,” Ramsey said. “Because of all her life experiences, she never loses sight of the main reason why she’s doing this — her daughter. She’s able to keep her motivation at the forefront, and I think that can be a motivator to others. Keep going and find the goal that will keep you moving forward.”

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