By Dan England
Tiana Lynn Cunningham believed, even in the darkest times, that she could make a difference.
The young Black woman had six siblings, four of them younger sisters, and she wanted a better world for them. She believed she could deliver it. So other than lighting the world up with a fun, infectious personality, she worked hard to change it. In the Summer of 2020, to her, that meant marching in a Black Lives Matter protest that started on the University of Northern Colorado campus, where she got her bachelor’s degree in sociology and was working on a master’s in communications.
It was a difficult summer, you’ll remember, with the pandemic and police brutality and the protests that followed, some of them violent. It was tough to reclaim any kind of positivity, but Cunningham wanted to do her part. Her goal was love and awareness, not anger.
“She believed that everyone had power in themselves to make a difference,” says her brother, Raymond Murphy. “She was so idealistic. Think about it: If everyone believed that, just think about what could happen.”
Her family wants to find out. Cunningham died in a car crash later that summer, just a couple months after she marched, and her family is honoring her with the Tiana Lynn Cunningham Scholarship at UNC for a female Black student who has a 3.0 GPA and graduates from any high school in Colorado.
“She really liked helping people,” Murphy says, speaking for the family because people like her mother still find it too hard to talk about her. “How cool would it be to allow her to be a big sister in her own way?”
The scholarship is appropriate in so many ways, Murphy says. Cunningham’s father, TJ, believed in education: Tiana loved quoting a saying of his: “Education is power and the key to success.” When he died in 2019, after she graduated with her bachelor’s, she went for her master’s to honor his memory. Cunningham also believed in hard work. She lettered two sports at Rangeview High School in Aurora, and pursuing her master’s meant working an internship at North Range Behavioral Health and two jobs while doing her classwork.
“That really shows her passion,” Murphy says. “That also explains why she marched. She was passionate about a lot of things, and she never did them halfway.”
She mixed that passion with a loving spirit. Murphy shared a mother with Cunningham, but she never treated him like a half-brother: Even though he was older than her by a few years, she mothered him, checking up on him every day that summer when he had COVID-19. He has a hard time talking about her, too.
“That’s the tough thing about grief,” Murphy says while choking up. “The more you love someone, the harder the grief is.”
She came into her own at UNC, and the way people were drawn to her amazed Murphy even though he was not surprised by it.
“She would walk in the door, and it was like everyone was just standing there, waiting their turn,” he says and laughs. “But when she talked to you, it was like it was just her and you. She could connect with a lot of different people.”
The family now wants to help another person come into her own at UNC and find their own path.
“We hope to have a yearly dinner and invite the recipient every year,” Murphy says. “We just want to be able to help similar girls in her name. That’s what she would have wanted. That’s something I can feel she’s proud of.”
Indeed, Cunningham talked about counseling other girls as a career when she got her master’s—or maybe her doctorate, who knows—and it would have fit her, Murphy says.
She wanted to make a difference, he says. She still is now, in her own way.
Tiana Lynn Cunningham Scholarship
Go to give2unc.org/tiana-cunningham for more information on the scholarship, to donate or apply.