It's graduation season, and with so many students preparing for their next steps, it’s also a time to reflect on the journey along the way. For many college grads, that road to earning a diploma was filled with challenges, hard work and determination.
Crystal Allenton was once in their shoes, and her story serves as one of incredible inspiration.
Years ago, as a single mother of three, the Washington native went back to school and earned her college degree — and she did it while dealing with domestic violence and homelessness.
Recently, Allenton saw her story turned into a special piece of art. This mural in Olympia, Washington was painted in her honor and was commissioned by her college alma mater, Western Governors University.
NBCLX’S Ngozi Ekeledo caught up recently with Allenton from her home in Pennsylvania about her inspiring story.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
NGOZI: When you decided to go back to school, what did life look like for you at that time, and what was the motivating factor behind that decision?
CRYSTAL: To be honest, what got me on this journey and on this path was, of course, ultimately my own children [and] just being able to set a good example for them that you can be a professional and you can be an educator and you can be intelligent and also go through some really, really hard times.
There was a point in my studies when I was actually almost finished getting my teaching degree – I only had one semester and my student teaching to finish – and my kids and I became homeless.
NGOZI: Was it something that you were trying to hide from other classmates of yours?
CRYSTAL: I’ve always just been really honest, never playing the victim and saying, ‘Oh poor me. I have this need.’ It’s been more of: “This is the reality of our situation: I’m a mom, and I’m going to fight for our kids, and I’m going to fight for my education.”
NGOZI: During that time – dealing with housing insecurity, trying to study, trying to raise your kids by yourself – for you, what was your source of strength that got you through that time?
CRYSTAL: I had some really wonderful family members. My dad has been one of my biggest cheerleaders all this time. He always tells me that I’m the best mom that he knows. You know, just looking at my kids and wanting to provide a better for them, of course [and] the other major factor that I don’t always get to talk about in interviews like this is my faith. Even through this journey as difficult as things have been, I’ve always carried on that hope that we’re going to be alright.
NGOZI: Was there a resource that came to your aid during that time?
CRYSTAL: That very first step, that seed that got me to say, “Okay, I can rent us a place,” was actually part of a deposit from an organization called Help Us Move In, and that was just the thing that I needed to get me to believe that we could be alright.
NGOZI: So you end up getting your degree. Describe to me what that moment was like after everything you’d gone through.
CRYSTAL: I think it really took several months to sink in, but [I thought], “I did this,” and “I’m finished. Maybe I should go for my Master’s degree now!”
NGOZI: Recently you got another surprise from your alma mater; there is a mural that depicts a portrait of you in Olympia. Can you tell me what it was like seeing that mural for the first time?
CRYSTAL: I could just cry right now talking to you. It was such a beautiful moment to see that version kind of looking out over the city and hopefully inspiring other people. It’s very, very humbling that the university wanted to honor me in that way, and it really is such an honor.
NGOZI: When you look at that portrait of that mural of your face, what does that version of Crystal represent to you as you look at it now?
CRYSTAL: I feel very strong. I feel very motivated. It’s a reminder of a version of myself that’s going to persevere no matter what. I’m still a single parent. I’m still making a teacher’s salary, and so there are so many things that we’re going to continue to struggle with, but for me to be able to look at that – not only with the view and the perspective of how can this inspire the community but just what does it mean to me? It means that was me, that is me, it’s going to continue to be me, and I’m going to continue to fight.