By Kacey Sycamore

For Breanne Lencioni, a college education was more than a chance to broaden horizons. It was more than a piece of paper leading to a career, and certainly more than what those around her thought she should be taking on, as a single mother renting out someone else’s living room.

It was a way out.

“For me, school was not something that I was willing to give up on, even if nobody else believed in me,” she said. “Because I felt like it was the way that I was going to get us out of poverty.”

Now approaching graduation as a top student in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Lencioni, 35, can envision a future that goes beyond mere survival. But that’s a hard-won perspective.

When she first began applying to transfer to a CSU from Las Positas College in Livermore in 2017, she learned the home she had been renting out of was going to be foreclosed on. With nowhere to go and no one to lean on, she and her daughter, Aurora, now 8, ended up living in her 2001 Toyota Corolla.

“I had people telling me things like, ‘Well, you just need to give up on school and start working full time at like CVS, and then move up to somewhere like Redding where it’s super cheap,’” she said.

But within two months, Lencioni and her daughter were able to secure a van, granting them more space and comfort. Still committed to education as a path forward, she was looking forward to enrolling at Chico State after poor experiences trying to connect with and distance-visit other universities.

“Every time I called Chico State, somebody answered. They got back to me. They were kind,” she said. “In a way, it made me feel like they really wanted me.”

By that point, Lencioni knew she wanted to study nutrition, which she had been focusing on in community college. Her eyes were opened to the subject one day when she came across a $5 self-care book while working at a craft store. Feeling down about herself because of her weight, a section on eating well caught her attention.

“All I knew about nutrition before, was the food pyramid. And I didn’t really even understand that,” she said.

Arriving in Chico in 2018, Lencioni found a safe place to park the van and quickly established a routine for herself and her daughter. A predictable routine, she says, is a key to making things work as a parent navigating college—scheduling time to play, hours at the library where there’s a kid’s area, and, of course, attending her courses, kid in tow.

Through her classes, Lencioni realized she didn’t want to be a clinical dietician, working in a hospital setting. An outgoing and curious person, she hopes to work in public health, perhaps helping to connect people to government nutrition programs like the ones she utilized, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Another option is becoming a professor. She learned she may have a knack for the role while helping create and teach a pantry-to-plate pilot course series, which teaches students who make use of the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry how to cook simple meals, from creating a balanced dinner to simple kitchen skills. When faced with ingredients like gourds or winter squash, she found many didn’t even have the knife skills to know how to cut one.

“What we’re striving to do is to teach these students how to prepare, how to properly use a knife, how to read recipes, how to substitute ingredients, things like that, and teach them how to utilize these ingredients that they’re getting from the food pantry so that they can better feed themselves,” she said.

Students began to ask Lencioni when she, specifically, would be teaching another course. She credits it to her ability to connect with people—something she’s been able to do with her fellow classmates as well, often offering advice and support to younger students as they navigate life’s trials.

“I really try to help people see the positives in situations,” she said. “When students are just like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t even know if I’m gonna pass this class,’ I’m like, ‘OK, so play it out. What if you don’t pass that class? You can take it again. Just because life doesn’t happen the way that you envisioned, it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen.’”

Portrait of Breanne Lencioni
Lencioni first saw education as a way out of poverty. Today she knows it’s given her the power to transform others’ lives, just as she transformed her own.

After a total of 19 months technically homeless, Lencioni and Aurora were welcomed into the home of a woman named Susan who offered them affordable rent and has been “a lovely, positive influence” in their lives. Now weeks away from graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Lencioni says that as she looks back on her journey, she’s proud of not listening to other people’s doubts and not simply “limping along.” There were times she wanted to quit, and times that took a toll on her health, but she made the most out of school—earning the College of Natural Sciences Summer Research Award and the Lt. Robert Merton Rawlins Merit Award, and landing on the dean’s list every semester, among many other academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

Her professors, in nominating her for the Merton Rawlins Award, highlighted Lencioni’s dedication and leadership.

“She is an individual who has overcome many obstacles and challenges in her life but she never lets challenges stop her from achieving her goals,” Nutrition and Food Science Professor Kathryn Silliman said.

Assistant Professor Lauren Housely calls her a “true student leader” who also “shows compassion for her peers and an interest in their successes in addition to her own.”

Now, Lencioni is looking forward to pursuing her next dream—a master’s degree. She’s been accepted into Chico State’s program in nutrition education and plans to have an emphasis in public health, eventually moving onto pursue a PhD.

Just as she envisioned, her education at Chico State has given her hope for the future.

“Because again, at the end of the day, that’s why I wanted an education,” she said. “And I think that’s what it’s done for me. … I’ve never said that out loud.”

Kacey Sycamore works as a freelance writer, editor, and producer for public media organizations in Northern California. A Chico State journalism alum, she and her husband recently moved back to Chico to start a family.