Kendall Stephens has pushed through adversity, giving her deeper insight and a quiet strength that she weaves into college courses and daily life. “We claim our power,” she says. “When we are affirmed, it begins the healing process.”
As a trans woman, she has not had the full acceptance of her family or her community for much of her life. At first, her mother struggled with Stephens’ identity, and refused to provide information that would allow her to apply for financial aid and attend college.
Without these crucial supports at various times, Stephens has experienced homelessness, life in a shelter, couch surfing, violence and life on the streets.
Despite these challenges, she shifted her focus to her education and figuring out how to address bias, bigotry and hate. Over time, Stephens became a relentless champion for inclusion, and a witness to change.
“Having that firsthand connection, it kind of gives me a unique perspective on how to combat some of the issues and challenges happening in the community,” she explained. “Somebody right next to a problem may be the one that is able to find the solution.”
Now just months away from earning her associate degree in Behavioral Health/Human Services, Stephens balances a full roster of community work and coursework. She serves on several advisory boards, including CCP’s LGBTQ Center, the Mazzoni LGBTQ Health Center and the William Way LGBTQ Community Center.
Since 2015, Stephens has served as co-facilitator of TransWay, a two-hour weekly support group for trans and gender-nonconforming people at William Way, which honored her with its New Emerging Leader Award last October. She also facilitates support groups and assists yoga classes as an intern at Morris Home, the Southwest Philadelphia recovery center for trans and gender-nonconforming folks with addictions.
Stephens’ special blend of compassion and scholarship has brought national recognition and an abundance of scholarships, which she will use to continue her education and her quest for change.
• In early January, the Philadelphia Gay News named Kendall as its “Person of the Year.”
• Achieving the Dream (ATD) named her one of eight 2020 DREAM Scholars, an honor that enables her to participate in a program to enhance leadership, critical thinking and networking skills. Achieving the Dream — the national, nonprofit leader in championing evidence-based institutional improvement — promotes long-term and sustainable practices that foster student success.
The Dream Scholars recently met with community college leaders at the ATD annual conference, sharing their educational experiences while attending sessions alongside leaders on improving student success, institutional governance, and more. The program culminated in a presentation by the DREAM Scholars to more than 2,000 community college leaders.
• Weeks later, Kendall was named to the 2020 All-USA Academic Team and designated as the New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar for Pennsylvania. The state honor comes with a $2,250 scholarship; as an All-USA Team Member, she will receive a $5,000 scholarship and a special medallion.
But this was just the beginning of what promises to be a remarkable year. Stephens married Iman Avery Shaw on March 7, with both of their families there to support them. Iman is a man of trans experience who is working with the Human Rights Campaign on fellowship and is a trans rights activist.
“It was good to have my family and the groom’s family there,” she said. “Our families were at different points of acceptance with us. However, all of them showed up to the wedding, affirming they really care, and they accept us.”
Stephens has also received a full scholarship to Temple University to continue her career path in social work and social services. She said that she is grateful to be among the students in Philly who can focus on their classwork without worrying how to pay for college. She is also ready to hear whether she has been accepted at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was extremely excited to receive the scholarships, because I can now go to school without financial worries,” she said. “When you are dealing with financial struggles and trying to achieve educational goals, that can weigh down on you, distract you and take you off focus. I wanted a credential to help with my advocacy work.”
She applauds the proposal by Mayor Jim Kenney to extend this opportunity to others through the new Octavius Catto Scholarship, a bold antipoverty initiative that will make CCP tuition-free for eligible, full-time students and drastically improve college access.
“So many CCP students experience economic vulnerability, housing instability, food insecurity and child-care difficulty, yet still manage to thrive despite their circumstances,” Kendall said. “Thankfully, CCP’s and Mayor Kenney’s efforts to unencumber students from preoccupation with life’s struggles allows students to focus their efforts on studying and being actively engaged in their courses.”