KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Taylor Gaines is no stranger to hard work. Since she was old enough to be employed, she's been bringing home paychecks, working hard to provide for her family and for her future.
"I was working two jobs in high school, helping pay for rent and bills," says Gaines, who experienced stretches of homelessness growing up in Detroit. "We went through periods where we were staying at hotels. I went to three different high schools … and I didn't really have a stable learning environment because I was switching schools all the time."
Displaying incredible resilience, Gaines pushed forward, determined to go to college and eventually help families and children who were also struggling. She'll take a giant step toward that goal, graduating from Western Michigan University on Saturday, Dec. 18, with a bachelor's degree in athletic training and plans to attend graduate school for physical therapy.
"My mission is to be able to help my community," says Gaines. "I know I want to work in a clinic for sure, but I also want to open a pro bono clinic, giving free services to people that can't afford them. Once I get my athletic training degree and physical therapy (graduate) degree, I want to be able to offer those services part of the time."
THRIVING AT WESTERN
Gaines always had the potential to succeed, but access to higher education wasn't guaranteed.
As the cornerstone of Western Michigan University, the College of Education and Human Development continues to build upon its rich tradition of excellence by facilitating the preparation and growth of pre K-12 teachers, human service professionals, innovative designers, and health and wellness specialists.
"When it was time for me to apply to colleges, I didn't really have much support," she says. "I mainly did the college search myself, applying to colleges that weren't too far from home but not too close either. Western was the only one where I went on a tour. Once I stepped foot on campus, it immediately felt like home. It felt like the perfect size."
She points out the support and welcomeness she immediately felt from students, faculty and staff alike—support that helped guide her to her passion when she initially felt lost.
"I actually changed my major three times," says Gaines, who knew she ultimately wanted to pursue physical therapy (PT) but wasn't sure the right path to get there. Through the Broncos FIRST program, which helps first-year students make the transition to college and provides mentorship and resources to lead students to success, and the help of her advisor, Gaines found her stride in athletic training.
"Holly (Sisson), the program director, has helped me so much. She's been on my journey from the start," she says. "She meets with me once a week just to do what I want to do. 'You want to work on competencies? You want to work on (PT school) essays? Cool. You want to just sit here and talk about life? Cool.' Just having a support system like that means the world."
A number of internship opportunities have also impacted her education, allowing her to put what she learned in the classroom into practice with the Western men's basketball team, Armor Physical Therapy and Sindecuse Sports Medicine Clinic. She is currently a student athletic trainer at Plainwell High School.
"Without those experiences, I probably would not be an athletic trainer. I made a lot of connections through them, and those people have been a big part of my professional growth."
Gaines dove headfirst into the college experience, from residence hall life to joining Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, women's empowerment organization Girls in Action and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated.
"I was president of the Delta Chi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and it really helped build my confidence and gave me the tools to be able to help the community," she says.
While she developed a strong support system in those organizations and her athletic training cohort, the pressures of her busy life began to feel overwhelming in spring 2021.
"I went through a really bad period of burnout. I was taking six classes, I was working two jobs, I had my clinical rotation and I was also president of my sorority. My body was breaking down because of stress," she says. But a class visit from Bre Traynor, Western's assistant director of mental health outreach, helped Gaines realize she needed to put her mental health first.
"Caring for yourself is important. It's one thing to say it but it's another to actually be doing it. And I was not doing it."
She started seeing a therapist and thought about ways she could help other young people connect with mental health resources. It turned into her PEAK (Providing Evidence of Active Knowledge) project for WMU Signature. She created "Project Serenity Black," which is a safe digital space for Black students struggling with mental health issues. It provides peer support as well as access to a number of mental health resources both on and off Western's campus.
"I have a mission to be able to help my community," she says. "It's always been a big thing to me to make sure that there are spaces for minorities."
In addition to filling out graduate school applications and focusing on her own well-being, Gaines became an entrepreneur in 2021.
"When I was going through all that stuff, I thought, 'I just want to be comfortable and cute,’" she says. A little research showed the growth in athleisure wear during the pandemic—casual clothing that can be worn to work, the gym or out on the town. "I started looking up stuff that I really liked and started putting stuff together; I thought it was something I could do."
She launched Katalyst Leisure Wear in October. The name is a play on her sorority nickname with a nod to a greater mission.
"It means to start a reaction. I think of it like starting a change," she says. "My long-term goal is to be able to take some of the profit and donate it to mental health organizations. I just care a lot about people, how I can better the community. Seeing the stuff that I've been through just made me want to do better for other people."
Looking back at how far she's come since her first year, Gaines is thankful for the opportunities and guidance she found at Western and the possibility she sees in her future.
"I was a shy person my freshman year; I still am not a huge fan of public speaking, but I'm much better at it than I was before. My writing skills have developed much stronger. My people skills have improved from learning how to communicate in the classes I've taken," she says. "Knowing that Western has given me the tools to be a successful person out in the world and seeing the change that I made makes me proud."
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