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For the Tolliver sisters, the path to success was paved with 9 degrees from Ohio State

Sophia, Sylvia and Starling Tolliver grew up outside Akron in difficult financial circumstances. But they found a common escape route: The Ohio State University.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sometimes it just takes a spark of hope to find success.

Just ask the Tolliver sisters.

Sophia, Sylvia and Starling Tolliver grew up near Akron in difficult financial circumstances.

“We grew up in poverty,” Sophia Tolliver said. “We were poor. We didn’t always know where the next meal was going to come from. There was the threat of eviction, at times. Sometimes utilities got cut off. When we were in elementary school and they had the canned food drive, we were the family that benefitted from that. So we know what it’s like not to know where your next meal is coming from, and I think, within us, that sort of instilled a drive to do better.”

The three sisters all credit their mother for instilling in them a drive to seek out education, even when times were tough.

Sophia recalled learning from an Encyclopedia Britannica that was likely purchased from a thrift shop. She also often shared a single pair of jeans with Sylvia, who was just 11 months her junior.

“There wasn’t so much violence,” Sylvia said. “It was just this poverty that just sat on top of you, and it dictated, to some extent, your opportunities and your network and your resources and where you were gonna go.”

For Starling, the experience was a bit different. She is more than a decade younger than her sisters. But the influence of her mother was the same.

“My mom, just like them, she was very adamant about me getting my education, but, for me, it just came a little bit easier, so I think that’s primarily my motivator, my motivation, was this came easy for me, so I was going to go down this path,” Star said.

That path would end up having a common denominator for all of them, and an important one at that.

All three would end up being accepted into the Young Scholars Program at The Ohio State University.

“If you successfully completed the program throughout high school, you graduated, you would get a full ride to Ohio State, and that is what happened,” Sophia said. “So that happened for me, that happened for Sylvia, and that happened for, 13 years later, that happened for Star.”

It would end up being a life-changing experience for all three that would lead them all down a path to success.

“To answer that question for us at 12 years old was a burden-lifter for my mother, for all of us,” Sylvia said. “It was a mental health boost for us because it didn’t matter that I was the skinny, awkward, little girl who was a nerd with bad clothes because I was always going to go to Ohio State. There was nothing stopping me. At 12 years old, when you’re coming into your identity as a young girl, to have that solid, as part of what you can hope for in the future, the effects are immeasurable. Because it meant something to me that, I may not have anything in this present world, but I had something in the future that I could hang my hat on.”

All three sisters maintained their high grade-point averages throughout school and were offered that free ride to OSU. But their ascent to success did not stop there.

“It really gave my family more than we could ever even give back to them for, so I’m just grateful for what they were able to do for our family,” Star said.

But the sisters did not stop at one degree each. They kept going. They now share nine degrees among them.

“Thank god for Ohio State, thank god for whoever had the wherewithal to think of programming to impact Ohio’s vulnerable youth in such a way where you literally changed lives, with such a strategic push of resources and finances into the nine major cities in Ohio,” Sophia Tolliver said.

And she earned four of those nine degrees. She is now Dr. Sophia Tolliver, a clinical assistant professor and doctor of family medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Outpatient Care East.

Meanwhile, Star also pursued a career in medicine. She is completing her internship at the University of Rochester and will then move on to her residency.

Sylvia chose the path of law. Before taking a step back from formal practice, she put in time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, the Ohio Supreme Court and a private firm.

All three sisters hope their story of struggle and success makes an impact on others. And they already have invested time in mentoring others, which will surely continue.

“There are kids, young, who, through no fault of their own, just because they were born in maybe the wrong place, at the wrong time, quote, unquote, are not able to succeed, even though they’re high-achieving, but Ohio State came along and plucked us out of those circumstances, I get kinda goosebumps right now, came and plucked us out of that circumstance, and look at us right now,” Sylvia said. “And all we want to do is tell the whole world, tell the whole world.”