SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Christina Talley is an entrepreneur and owner of a thriving performing arts center in her hometown of Philadelphia. She is also a proud Penn State 2008 alumnus who began her college career at Penn State Schuylkill.
Preparing for college success
Talley had a choice of Commonwealth campuses, but chose Schuylkill because of the Nittany Apartment housing option and the convenience and opportunity of campus life. As an engaged and outgoing student, she wanted easy access to classes and participation in clubs and other student-centered activities. Talley found a welcoming college community in Schuylkill and benefited from small class sizes and approachable faculty.
“I wasn’t the best candidate,” admitted Talley. “Schuylkill gave me the opportunity to develop my academic skills and increase my GPA, so I felt much more prepared when I transferred to University Park after two years.”
Thanks to Penn State’s 2+2 plan, which allows students to begin their first two years of study on one campus and complete their studies on another, Talley completed her bachelor’s degree at University Park with an arts degree. theater with an emphasis on performance.
Although Talley has completed much of her foundational coursework at University Park, she credits Catherine Fiorillo, associate professor of drama and speech at Penn State Schuylkill, for encouraging her to pursue her passion. “Cathy’s love for the arts is unparalleled,” Talley explained. “She influenced me more than she will ever know, and I will be forever grateful to her.”
Investing in your community through the arts
After graduating in 2008, Talley returned to her hometown of Philadelphia with a desire to bring dance and the performing arts to inner-city youth. She helped introduce dance and dance history to the Police Athletic League Recreation Center of Philadelphia and taught theater arts from beginner to advanced level at the Dance Institute of Philadelphia.
When her students began asking for additional dance training, Talley was inspired to start her own youth dance company and the En L’Air Dance Academy was born. The company has performed across the United States, and Talley plans to expand her travel schedule with overseas opportunities in mind first.
She finds great satisfaction in her role as artistic director.
“Being with my dancers after a show and seeing the looks on their faces is pure joy and excitement!” exclaimed Talley. “It means the world to me to be able to provide these opportunities to my students.”
While teaching dance at the Dance Institute of Philadelphia, Talley was also working on her MBA in International Business and Marketing at the University of Philadelphia.
With her MBA in her pocket, Talley felt ready to open her own studio. With encouragement from friends and her motivation to create a creative space for young people in her Mt. Airy neighborhood, Talley established the Free to Be Performing Arts Center in 2015.
Building a community to build your community
In 2020, Talley combined programs with Leah Brown, who is now the center’s executive director. Free to Be offers a variety of classes, including traditional dance studio classes like ballet, tap, and jazz, as well as kickboxing and salsa. Students can start as young as two years old, and junior classes continue until the age of 18. Free to Be also offers performance art camps and adult classes. Originally a head instructor, Talley now employs a team of 15 dance and performing arts instructors.
Today, Talley continues to expand his entrepreneurial footprint, recently developing a small event planning company, The True Experience, and a sportswear and dancewear brand, ExitoFit.
Be a Penn State Land Grant Mission Agent
Penn State is a land-grant university with a mission to provide access to affordable, high-quality education; conduct and promote research that improves people’s lives; and engage with communities to make them better places to live. Graduates like Talley, with his community service, embody this mission as alumni and entrepreneurs whose values reflect those of Penn State.