What happens when the pain you’ve been through in the past is channeled towards giving others hope and a prosperous future?
This is a reality that Jessica Walton (05), former PLNU athlete and CalWORKs counselor, knows all too well.
Having grown up in poverty, Walton found refuge in playing basketball, a sport that helped her become the first one in her family to get a college degree. She now serves low-income families seeking an education, helping lift them out of poverty.
Walton’s story is full of ups and downs, but ultimately it is marked by perseverance, hope, and light, qualities she hopes to pass on to everyone she encounters.
Life Growing Up
Jessica Walton is a first-generation American, the oldest of three children. Both her parents were born and raised in the Dominican Republic.
Her father had moved to the United States to play basketball. Early on, Walton began to develop a passion for the sport her dad played.
“I started to have this passion for basketball,” she said. “I played with the boys after school, before school, any moment I could get I would just play basketball. I developed a passion and love for the game.”
Walton spent most of her childhood living between New York City, San Diego, and the Dominican Republic. Growing up in a Dominican home, her first language was Spanish, and she did not learn English until she started kindergarten.
When Walton was 12, her family became divided as her dad decided to move back to the Dominican Republic and start a new life there, leaving behind Walton’s mom and her three siblings.
“My mom had to figure out how she would survive raising three kids on her own,” Walton said. “She didn’t have an education and she wasn’t working, so she had to figure out quickly how she was going to be able to provide for us.”
After Walton’s father left, the family settled in New York City for two years where Walton’s mom had more support from extended family members.
Walton remembers sharing an apartment with her immediate and extended family.
“It ended up being my mom, my aunt, my aunt’s three kids, my mom’s three kids, all in one apartment,” she said. “So it was fun for us. But I’m sure now that I have kids, it had to be so stressful and so much to have to provide for six kids and two adults. My mom had to get on welfare and work very late hours. We didn’t live in the best neighborhood, so we ended up living in the projects.”
The neighborhood they lived in was not the safest.
“We were around drug dealers, we were around people who were high on drugs and a lot of police action, a lot of crime,” Walton said.
Walton says that her mom did her best to raise them in those conditions.
“She was working at a hotel, she was doing odd jobs, and again we were relying on government assistance,” Walton said. “We got around the city using transportation.”
Despite these challenges, there was one thing that kept Walton going: basketball.
A Love for the Sport
Due to the rough conditions in New York City, Walton’s mom decided to permanently move the family to San Diego when Walton was in 7th grade.
Walton ended up going to San Diego High School where she continued to pursue her passion for basketball. “Basketball literally saved my life,” Walton said. “It kept me out of trouble and kept me focused in school. I knew that in order for me to continue playing the sport, I had to have good grades. And so that’s what I did.”
“Basketball literally saved my life. It kept me out of trouble and kept me focused in school. I knew that in order for me to continue playing the sport, I had to have good grades. And so that’s what I did.”
Despite the benefits of basketball, Walton still had some struggles.
“I got into fights,” Walton said. “I was angry, not knowing how to express the anger of not having my dad around, so I struggled.”
Basketball became a way for her to deal with those emotions.
“It was an outlet for me where I could just not worry about anything,” Walton said. “I just played the game.”
Journey to College
In her senior year of high school, Walton began thinking about what to do next. She was unsure of what her future would look like because neither of her parents had ever completed college.
Eventually, Point Loma Nazarene found Walton and invited her to try out for the basketball team.
PLNU presented a big change for Walton as she had only ever attended public schools. She was concerned that PLNU would be a culture shock for her.
“I went to a huge public school where there are talks of gangs,” she said. “We had a lot of students who also had children. We had an infant lab there where students would drop off their kids, and they would go to school. So that was what I was used to.”
In addition, Walton had never really attended church growing up and going to a Christian school had never been on her radar.
However, PLNU offered her a full-ride scholarship, which Walton accepted. She began attending in 2001 and majored in media communications. A Cal Grant combined with her basketball scholarship helped her pay for school.
The transition to PLNU however was challenging in the beginning.
“It was a huge culture shock,” she said. “Most students were white, wealthy, and their parents had gone to college.”
Academically, PLNU also challenged her.
“High school was easy to me academically because we weren’t really pushed,” Walton said. “So I really struggled at PLNU, especially that first semester. I didn’t know if I was going to pass my classes. I came home crying saying, ‘I can’t do this.’”
It was in her greatest need that Walton discovered a loving community at PLNU that provided her with support.
“PLNU really took me in and loved on me,” she said.
A Loving Community
Walton received support from her professors and coaches, especially PLNU’s women’s basketball team assistant coach Alan Nakamura, someone whom Walton remembers with fondness.
“Coach Alan taught me how to drive,” she said. “He would pick me up, take me to practices.”
In addition, Walton’s professors would go to games to support her.
“I felt like people truly cared about me and wanted me to succeed,” she said.
Walton received support from her professors and coaches, especially PLNU’s women’s basketball team assistant coach Alan Nakamura. “Coach Alan taught me how to drive. He would pick me up, take me to practices.”
Walton took a job working at the cafeteria and was able to maintain a 3.0 GPA. In addition to playing basketball, Walton also ran track, something she was encouraged to do by PLNU head coach of track and field, Jerry Arvin. Arvin had offered her a small scholarship so she could focus on school and her athletic activities. Walton was hesitant at first but eventually accepted the offer her junior year.
“The track scholarship was enough for me not to have to work and to focus on my studies,” Walton said.
Walton admires Arvin for the influence he’s had in her life.
“Coach Arvin played a huge role in my life,” Walton said. “I wasn’t this amazing runner, but he just saw something in me. He was one of the people that helped me get to where I am today.”
That love and support and the Christian environment at PLNU led her to make the decision to forgive her dad for leaving her when she was young.
“My freshman year, I spoke to my dad and forgave him for everything,” Walton said. “I just knew that’s what I had to do. So I said, ‘You know what? I forgive you. You don’t need to explain.’ I knew it was what I had to do.”
She began attending The Rock Church in San Diego and gave her life to Christ.
Little by little, Walton began to understand that her story could have an impact on other students’ lives.
She would often get the chance to share her story with coaches and peers. The response was always positive.
“So many of the coaches and athletes came up to me and said, ‘You inspire me. We’re so happy you’re here,’” Walton said. “I just felt loved. God put basketball in my life all those years before so that I’d get to San Diego and then go to PLNU and so that it would completely shape my life.”
After four years, Walton graduated with her bachelor’s degree, becoming the first in her family to do so.
“So many of the coaches and athletes came up to me and said, ‘You inspire me. We’re so happy you’re here,’ I just felt loved. God put basketball in my life all those years before so that I’d get to San Diego and then go to PLNU and so that it would completely shape my life.”
Life After College
After college, Walton took up odd jobs and eventually ended up at a private school in San Diego where she worked as an admissions assistant.
During that period, she spent her summers playing basketball professionally in the Dominican Republic, playing for the national team, and competing in countries like Puerto Rico and Ecuador.
Although she enjoyed playing, after a few years, she realized that the financial payoff wasn’t enough to justify the time she dedicated to playing.
When thinking of new ways that she could add to her career, she accepted an offer from Arvin to run track at PLNU and earn her master’s degree at the same time. She had two years left to play the sport before she became ineligible.
Although Walton was nervous about running track at 28 years old, Arvin encouraged her that they’d make it work.
Walton then enrolled once again at PLNU and began earning her master’s degree in education with an emphasis in counseling and guidance.
“So here I am, 28 years old, working at a private school, getting off of work, driving to PLNU, running and practicing with students in their teens and early twenties,” Walton said. “In between that, I’m studying for my master’s degree and going to class at night. I did that for two years.”
Walton went through moments where she felt discouraged and like she wasn’t running at the level she wanted.
“I got to the point where I was really frustrated because I’m competitive,” she said. “I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted to see.”
Walton recognizes now that the odds weren’t fully in her favor: she was a 28-year-old woman competing against younger athletes and she was also juggling a full-time job and school. Those factors weren’t enough to curb her doubts, however.
Eventually, her mindset shifted and she realized that she had a greater purpose for the position that she was in.
“I thought about it and realized Coach Arvin did not bring me here to run track,” she said. “He knew what he was doing. God knew what He was doing. That’s when I changed my mindset and realized that I was there to be a light and to share my story.”
“I thought about it and realized Coach Arvin did not bring me here to run track. He knew what he was doing. God knew what He was doing. That’s when I changed my mindset and realized that I was there to be a light and to share my story.”
Walton realized that she could serve as an inspiration for those around her – a sentiment that would guide her through the next phase of her career.
After two years, Walton completed her degree. Just as she was the first in her family to get a bachelor’s degree, she became the first in her family to obtain a master’s degree.
Discovering A Purpose
Walton was unsure about what to do with the degree at first but knew that she wanted to work with students who had a similar background as her.
“I know how important education is to get people out of poverty,” Walton said. “It opens doors some may not have had considering their background.”
In the meantime, she accepted a position at PLNU as a career counselor. In her role, Walton worked with college students and gained additional experience as a counselor.
“I know how important education is to get people out of poverty. It opens doors some may not have had considering their background.”
After a little over two years on the job, Walton began to think about how she could work with college students from less privileged backgrounds.
In 2017, she took a part-time position as a counselor at San Diego City College. At the time, she had never heard of CalWORKs, a welfare program that provides financial assistance to families with children.
“The goal of the program is to support the parents in their quest to get an education or employment,” Walton said. “That’s, in turn, going to create opportunities for their children so that when their children are coming up, they’re not in the same position as their parents and are able to break the poverty cycle.”
The CalWORKs program provides these families with services such as childcare during hours parents are at work or school, some general financial assistance, as well as resources to pay for books and school supplies. They also provide funds for transportation and housing assistance, among other benefits.
Walton is now a full-time CalWORKs counselor at San Diego College of Continuing Education.
Walton’s job duties include counseling and making sure that families are meeting the requirements needed to stay in the CalWORKs program.
“My job is to do academic counseling and personal counseling,” Walton said. “I also do a lot of advocating which means that I am the middle person between the CalWORKs program and the families.”
She often is the one to connect with the program if a student encounters issues with the program such as delays with financial assistance payments or housing issues, among others.
The best thing about the job is that Walton is able to relate to what the families go through.
“I know their story,” Walton said. “I know what it’s like for these parents to try to do the best that they can so that their children can have an education and can break the poverty cycle. Because of my background, I am able to empathize with these families.”
“I know what it’s like for these parents to try to do the best that they can so that their children can have an education and can break the poverty cycle. Because of my background, I am able to empathize with these families.”
Walton often shares her personal story with them, which makes the families feel like they have someone who can understand them.
Currently, the majority of the students she serves are refugees from countries like Haiti and regions like the Middle East.
“They all come from horrible living conditions,” Walton said. “My Middle Eastern students, for example, talk about experiencing bombings and being threatened because they had worked for the U.S.”
Walton points out that many of these individuals had thriving careers in their home countries and now have to start all over again in a completely new environment.
“They were professionals, they had careers, they had multiple homes, cars,” Walton said. “Now they have to share an apartment with other families. They don’t know the language and have to start all over.”
One of the things she hears from her students is how they don’t feel like she looks down on them because she is able to understand their situation.
“They go, ‘Okay, she’s not someone who’s going to look down on me, who’s going to try to save me,’” Walton said. “‘She’s someone who can empathize, who can understand.’”
Walton often encounters very difficult cases with the students she serves.
“I have had domestic violence victims who were abused when they were younger,” she said. “You see a pattern of students that struggle with drug use, for example. And it all goes back to how they were brought up and their background.”
It’s because of these struggles that Walton wants to be a positive force in these students’ lives.
“I want to be a light to my students,” Walton said. “I want to provide hope, empathize with them, [and] treat them with respect and dignity.”
Walton also would like to demystify some stereotypes associated with people on welfare.
“A lot of people talk badly about people who are on welfare,” Walton said. “They say ‘They have multiple children,’ or ‘They don’t want to work,’ and that’s not the case at all. The students that I see want to work. They want to learn the language. They want to succeed. But it’s not that easy. I get to see firsthand how passionate these students are, how much they want to succeed for their own children.”
Walton says that her students are very bright, speak multiple languages, and, despite their circumstances, still manage to hold joy and gratitude in their hearts.
“A lot of people talk badly about people who are on welfare. They say ‘They have multiple children,’ or ‘They don’t want to work,’ and that’s not the case at all. The students that I see want to work. They want to learn the language. They want to succeed. But it’s not that easy. I get to see firsthand how passionate these students are, how much they want to succeed for their own children.”
As much as she seeks to be a light in these families’ lives, Walton did struggle at times having to carry such heavy stories with her.
“In the beginning, it was very difficult,” she said. “One time, I was crying in the office. But you know, I can’t cry with my students, I have to be strong for them so they can share their stories. Part of dealing with that is just getting used to it.”
Walton says that what also helps her is looking at the bigger picture of why she does what she does.
“It helps to remember that they are in a safer place now,” she said.
Walton often gets to see many of her students graduate or receive certificates after completing courses or finishing their ESL levels. She often helps her students transfer from technical courses to community college. The positive updates she gets from students she’s helped are of great encouragement to Walton.
“That’s what keeps me going,” she said. “Knowing that I just got to keep going for them.”
To this day, Walton loves her job.
“I look forward to work. I look forward to going into the office and meeting with my students,” she said. “When you know that you’re doing what you’re called to do, it’s not a job; it’s a ministry. I’m never not looking forward to going to work. I have my days where I get overwhelmed, of course, but I truly feel like this is what I was called to do.”
Walton often reflects on her journey to where she is now.
“If you look back at my whole story, everything lined up for me to be where I am today,” she said. “My own personal experiences, my education. So that’s what keeps me going.”
Walton would love for people to understand through her story the need for more compassion in the world.
“When you have to start ten steps behind someone, it is extremely hard, and people often don’t get the same opportunities,” she said. “We’re in a world where we are lacking compassion and empathy. It’s important to empathize and understand that we all come from different backgrounds.”
When you have to start ten steps behind someone, it is extremely hard, and people often don’t get the same opportunities. We’re in a world where we are lacking compassion and empathy. It’s important to empathize and understand that we all come from different backgrounds.”
Walton also encourages any student who would like to do what she does to reach out to her. She says the work is very meaningful as it provides people with the opportunity to thrive.
“I’m just big on providing the same experience of education for everyone,” she said. “No matter where you’re from, your background … Everyone should have the same opportunity for an education and to better themselves. So this is a great career for people who want to do those kinds of things.”