Photograph by Jamie Betts


September 16, 2021


When T.J. Tann, ’21, saw his senior year upended by the pandemic, he did what he’s always done: Stay determined and move forward.

I’m from West Philly. I always have to acknowledge a heavy presence of poverty and violence, but I was mostly shielded from it by the family I had at home.

My childhood memories are spending time with my brothers and sister. In summers, our parents went to work, and we played outside all day. We may be the last generation to do that.

It wasn’t until high school or Richmond where I was like, “Oh, this is not the normal for most Americans.” I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My parents are community-focused. My mom was always involved in her church and the greater community. We talked about it a lot. You might not understand it when you’re 9 or 10, but it’s the routine of, “OK, the world is bigger than what I’m doing.”

My dad is a medical case manager and was a social worker in 1960s Philly. He was always very frank with me about what you’re up against as a Black man in America.

My sophomore year of high school, I was blessed that someone paid my tuition for Delaware County Christian School, a private school. It was three buses and a train away.

After my sophomore year, I worked summers at the school to put myself through. It was humbling, but I was like, “This is real life. You want something, you’ve got to earn it.” I grew up a lot in high school.

One of my best friends, Kayla Connelly, ’21, asked me to start a branch of College Truckers with her. I was going to London the next semester so I thought, “Why not? I need some cash.” Kayla ended up not doing it.

It felt cool to have my own operation. Yes, I ran a storage and moving company in college, and I also studied poverty reduction. It seems like those things don’t correlate, but I enjoyed both.


You’ve still got to make it through, and that’s what we did.

Kayla and I restarted the Multicultural Student Solidarity Network and advocated for a multicultural house on campus.

We talked to students to get opinions, and I became close to a freshman who was from an inner city like me. She said, “There’s no space for me to feel comfortable. I want to go home.” After we submitted our proposal, the university made a plan to create a multicultural space in Whitehurst.

When you don’t come from a family that has considerable resources, it’s a catch-22 to enter a space like college. Higher education is necessary to live a full life, but it can come with steep costs. I hear a lot of people say, “I had to get through college.” It’ll be an indicator that the university is doing something right if more voices say, “I enjoyed college,” and everyone feels like they own a part of where they live.

I never had that panic moment: “The world is going to end because I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I was more upset the social dynamics were disrupted. It’s probably the last time when you have that many close friends so close together. I don’t know how you quantify the cost of the world being subsumed by tragedy every day.

But you’ve still got to make it through, and that’s what we did. It wasn’t the senior year I imagined, but I’m forever grateful.

A partner and I are closing a seed round of $2 million for our company, Relai, a supply chain and logistics startup that aims to transform last-mile delivery. We think it can make a big difference for local retailers.