More than 1,300 students will receive Clemson University degrees Thursday across a pair of ceremonies inside Littlejohn Coliseum, each with his or her own unique story to tell.

December graduate Allyson Walters

Allyson Walters, a first-generation college student, is graduating with a psychology degree Thursday.
Image Credit: Student Affairs Publications

For many, it’s a time for celebration with family and friends. It’s a time for reflecting on a long and arduous journey.

For psychology major Allyson Walters, the moment won’t be met with overwhelming fanfare.

She won’t be celebrating the moment with her biological father, whom she’s never met. She won’t be able to embrace her mother Sara, who fell victim to drug abuse early in Walters’ life and passed away in 2010. And her grandmother Joyce Jordan, who passed away in June, won’t see the years of hard work come to fruition.

For Walters, it’s the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year journey that will serve as a testament to the power of intrinsic motivation. One of persistence and mental toughness. But ultimately, it’s a reminder that despite the plethora of challenges life can throw at you, success at the highest level is attainable, especially with the right circle of support.

Overcoming a Major Setback

Walters was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but with a father who was never in the picture, she lived with her mother and grandmother in Florence from the age of 2. It didn’t take long for the perceptive young girl to understand her surroundings.

“I was 6 when I first knew what was happening,” she admitted. “My mom got mixed up with the wrong crowd and was in and out of my life. She eventually went to rehab and was able to clean up. But shortly after … she became really sick.”

Walters was starting eighth grade when it was discovered her mother had a number of brain tumors. Her passing left Walters an orphan at age 13.

She spent the next year trying to process her mother’s death.

“I had to not only figure out high school, but also what was going on at home,” she said. “I suppressed the emotions, I guess, and ultimately that was really bad for me because I revisited them later. But my grandma was a rock star and did anything she could to make me feel comforted.”

Still living under Jordan’s roof, Walters attended Wilson High School for its international baccalaureate program. Because she was excelling academically, Walters began putting a great deal of thought toward a potential college future.

She transferred to South Florence High as a junior and immediately was ranked among the top of her class. It was at South Florence where she made one of the first meaningful connections of her life. She met Lindsey Bibler, a calculus teacher, and the two struck up a bond.

“Allyson was very driven and intrinsically motivated, which was rare to see in students her age,” Bibler said. “Our personalities clicked right away.”

Bibler quickly became an advocate for Walters, who helped grade assignments during her free period. She took such a strong interest Walters opted to take Bibler a second time as a senior.

As Walters began exploring potential college options, financial considerations began to dominate the conversation. She applied for assistance through the James F. Byrnes Scholarship program, available to applicants who have lost one or both parents by death.

Walters was one of eight recipients of the scholarship, and was accepted to Clemson as an incoming freshman in 2014. Shortly after high school graduation, she was invited to the Byrnes Scholarship Foundation luncheon with the other recipients.

Past scholars are also invited to the luncheon, and that’s when Walters first encountered a woman by the name of Kristine Hobbs.

“My son Will and I sat at a table with several new scholars, including Allyson,” said Hobbs, a 1990 Byrnes Scholar. “She was alone, so I took her phone number and told her I’d check on her when she got to Clemson.”

Transitioning to College Life

Through a next-door neighbor in Florence, Walters found out about Clemson’s FIRST program. With over 1,100 graduates since 2006, FIRST helps first-generation college students adjust to the experience by offering a wide variety of resources, from academic support to social activities.

Suzanne Price, Clemson's director of residential learning

Suzanne Price, director of residential learning, has mentored Walters throughout her Clemson Experience.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Walters enrolled in FIRST and was paired with a student mentor. But it was a relationship formed through a staff mentoring program — better known today as the SOAR Institute — that played the biggest role in expediting her transition to Clemson.

She was paired with Suzanne Price, director of residential learning, a staunch advocate of women’s leadership. The program gave Walters assistance with professional skills such as building a résumé and cover letter, while guaranteeing a UPIC internship upon its completion.

“It was part of a collaboration between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs,” Price explained. “The idea was to work together to increase retention in some areas where we were lower. I learned quickly Allyson excels in everything she does. I think she’s just awesome.”

Arguably the most difficult aspect of Walters’ college transition was not the nursing program in which she was enrolled, but rather being away from Jordan for the first time in her life. She traveled back and forth to Florence to provide care.

The need grew Walters’ sophomore year. In the summer of 2015, Jordan was diagnosed with dementia. Her Florence home fell victim to extensive power outages the two ensuing hurricane seasons. When Hurricane Matthew left her without power for a week in 2016, Jordan was unable to care for herself.

“She hadn’t taken a shower, because she didn’t have a hot water heater,” said Walters, who noted Jordan’s house didn’t have heating and air conditioning installed until 2014. “At that point she had started losing control of her bladder, so she was covered in filth. But there was nothing I could do about it, because I was in school.”

Allyson Walters was an intern with Healthy Campus

Walters spent over two years completing UPIC internships with Healthy Campus.
Image Credit: Student Affairs Publications

A Change in Focus

Walters supplemented her classroom experience as a sophomore by securing a UPIC internship with Dr. Nancy Meehan, a nursing professor. Walters held review sessions for students and served as a teaching assistant for the entirety of the 2015–16 academic year.

But as she went through the nursing program, her career interests began to shift. Once pegged for a pediatric nursing future, Walters began pondering the idea of studying psychology. She secured a second UPIC internship, this time in the summer of 2016 with Healthy Campus, a subset of Clemson’s Student Health Services.

Walters worked closely with Associate Director Crystal Fulmer on a number of initiatives over the next two years, performing work such as health assessment data analysis, marketing and distribution of educational materials, and wellness outreach. For the better part of 2017, she balanced the internship while also working as a front desk assistant at Fike Recreation Center.

“Suzanne had recommended Allyson to me,” Fulmer said. “From the beginning, I could tell she was a very hard worker with a lot of professionalism. Allyson finds people who she quickly connects with, naturally and intentionally. Because we’re obviously involved in awareness as it relates to alcohol and drugs, she shared some of what she had seen as a child. She’s open and transparent about who she is and what she’s been through.”

Another Major Setback

Despite all she had been through, Walters consistently found herself excelling academically. It was a foundation that would be significantly threatened this past April when she received a jarring phone call from an older cousin.

Jordan had suffered a fall in her home, and her neighbors found her on the floor covered in waste. Walters received the call during final exams, and went home a few days later.

“She was sent home to hospice care, but she didn’t look good,” Walters said. “Three days after I left, I was back in Clemson and got another call that she fell again.”

Jordan was taken to a nursing home, and Walters returned to Florence to sign consent papers and help admit her. She picked up her dog and brought him to Clemson, making trips back and forth throughout the summer.

On June 24, Walters received another phone call. Only this time, Jordan was throwing up blood.

“I dropped everything and when I got to the hospital, she was experiencing organ failure,” she explained. “Basically, her kidneys were giving up.”

Hobbs met Walters in Florence and put her up in a hotel, because she had already moved her furniture and belongings to Clemson.

Jordan passed away at 2:15 p.m. the next day. She was 82.

Taking in a New Family

While picking up the pieces after Jordan’s death was difficult, Walters found comfort and support from some familiar faces.

Price dropped everything upon hearing the news.

“I knew immediately I had to go,” she said. “I packed a bag, left my family and told them I would be back as soon as possible. I felt a responsibility, I wanted to help take care of her.”

Walters and Price kept in touch following the mentoring program. In fact, the relationship has grown to the point Price tells people she thinks of Walters like a daughter.

December graduate Allyson Walters and the Hobbs family of Lexington, South Carolina

Walters, pictured with another Byrnes Scholarship recipient Kayla Miller, has been embraced by the Hobbs family of Lexington.
Image Credit: Allyson Walters

A similar relationship blossomed with the Hobbs family, whom she met prior to her freshman year at Clemson. As a sophomore, Walters began making regular trips to their home in Lexington.

“The Byrnes Foundation was built on the hope of leaving a legacy,” Hobbs said. “The hope was to somehow, someway support kids who had lost a parent. My husband Bill and I are blessed to have two wonderful biological children. Byrnes Scholars have come in an out of our lives, but Allyson’s a sticker. Somehow, God puts the ones into our lives that need to be there. She’s very much part of our family unit now.”

She’s so much a part of the family Bill cancelled his 50th birthday plans in June to attend Jordan’s funeral. Kristine and Bill are referred to as “Mom and Dad” by Walters, who looks at the two Hobbs children as younger brothers.

“Kristine sent care packages my first year, and at the time I didn’t think anything of it,” Walters said. “I just thought it was so considerate. I can’t describe how awesome they are.”

The Final Countdown

Walters started a countdown to graduation on her personal calendar at 200 days. Now, it’s just two days away for the first-generation success story.

“I’ve gone through every emotion,” she said. “I’ve experienced the desire to leave. Then I thought about failing all my classes (laughs) so I can stay another semester. Now it’s the final week and the realization (has hit) that I did this in three-and-a-half years. I’m in shock at this point.”

Those whose lives she’s touched aren’t shocked. Bibler, who met Walters as a promising yet guarded high school junior, describes the story as “incredible.”

“Obviously, the more you know her story, you’re even more impressed with her perseverance,” Bibler said. “I know other students who have gone through similar situations, and they don’t always handle it like her. I get emotional thinking about her graduating because she’s actually done so much of it by herself … she’s been more of a grown-up than anyone should have had to be at her age.”

Walters isn’t done yet. She’s applied to graduate school at a number of regional institutions with an eye on school psychology.

Until she met Bibler — and later Hobbs, Price and others — Walters didn’t have a lot of advocacy in her life. Outside of Jordan, she didn’t have anyone to lean on. And that’s what sparked the interest in school psychology.

“No child should have to wonder who will speak up for them,” she said. “I’m blown away because I have a pretty good chance of being accepted into graduate school. Looking back on my life and the fact I’m so close to graduating, I am proud that I made it this far.”

While she awaits the admissions process for grad school, Walters has lined up a job starting in January with Little Lights Learning Center, where she fittingly will provide child care.

But first up, she’s got a 9:30 a.m. appointment Thursday to walk across the commencement stage and receive her diploma from President Jim Clements. Then, it’s off to a special lunch date with the Hobbs family and Price, some of her biggest advocates.

“We have reservations at Pixie & Bill’s,” Price said. “We want to make graduation special for her.”

With everything Allyson Walters has been through to get to this point, it’s safe to say they already have.