Jessica Walton gives hope through sports and education

February 29, 2024 | Allura Garis - San Diego College of Continuing Education

From the Dominican Republic to the boroughs of New York, Jessica Walton’s narrative is changing lives. Walton serves as a CalWORKs counselor at San Diego College of Continuing Education, and is a community impact driven athlete. A leader who inspires action indeed.

Jessica Walton in a black and white photo is outside among trees.
Jessica Walton, Counselor, Community Leader, lululemon Run Ambassador.

“The why behind my career is to provide hope to others who come from impoverished backgrounds,” said Walton. Her parents were born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Her father moved the family to the United States to play college basketball. After her parents decided to divorce, Walton’s dad left the family to go back to the Dominican Republic, leaving his wife to raise three kids on her own in the projects of New York City. There a young Walton was exposed to living in poverty and witnessing crime and drug abuse.

“My mom is the definition of resilient. She didn’t have a job and she didn’t have an education, but she figured out how to take care of me and my siblings and did the best she could,” said Walton. Due to dangerous living conditions, Walton’s mother moved the family again to San Diego. Walton attended San Diego High School, where she found a safe haven in basketball. The sport earned her a full-ride scholarship to Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), where she achieved a bachelor’s degree in media communication. Walton became the first in her family to graduate college.

Being raised between the Dominican Republic and New York, and going to an inner city high school in San Diego, PLNU was a culture shock for Walton. The university’s rigorous academics challenged her and she was no longer surrounded by the melting pot of cultures she was used to. Regardless of the differences, Walton committed herself to being a great student and a great athlete. “I was loved on at PLNU, the empathy from my professors and coaches molded me and my future. They would attend my basketball games and cheer me on.”

Walton continued her studies at PLNU for a master’s degree in counseling and guidance, which led her to working as a Career Counselor for PLNU. While a graduate student, Walton received a track scholarship.

“I loved working for my alma mater but I also knew I had a yearning to serve students who come from backgrounds like myself and my mom. I wanted to provide hope through education,” said Walton. She left PLNU to start as an adjunct CalWORKs Counselor at Cuyamaca College and at San Diego City College. The transition from working at a private university to the public sector was scary. “It was a sacrifice for my family. I heard from my colleagues that becoming a full-time counselor at a community college without experience was going to be highly competitive.”

Walton was overwhelmed with emotion when a contract CalWORKs Counselor position opened up at the College of Continuing Education.

“The position was perfect for me, but I didn’t think I would get it,” said Walton, who moved on to the final round of interviews. “Then I got a call from a 388 number which I knew was the district, and they told me I got the job. I remember that moment perfectly, I was with my youngest son and I was overjoyed.”

Now Walton is inspiring hope for large populations of students who come from Latin America and the Caribbean and who face significant financial and academic barriers. Students like her.

“Working at the College of Continuing Education showed me that there was a purpose for everything I endured. I love what I do, I don’t just make academic plans for my students, I get to know them because I actually want to know their story and where they come from,” said Walton. “Once my students see that I can relate to them, they trust me to guide them.”

Students enrolled at the College of Continuing Education are among the most impoverished in the region. CalWORKs assists welfare recipient students and those in transition off of welfare toward long-term self-sufficiency. Specialized student services have been designed to support students in their career, education and personal goals. 

For Walton, the opportunity to serve students is transformational. 

“When I meet with my students, I think about how my mom should have been treated and serve them from that perspective,” said Walton. “Like my mother, these students are just trying to survive. They may not be immediately ready to transition to career and college, and that is okay, their focus is providing for their family. However, by doing so, they are making generational changes so their kids can go to college.”

She added, “as counselors, we don’t always get feedback on how a student is doing but when I do it gives me the motivation to keep going. For example, students look for you at commencement and they come up to you and they thank you for supporting their journey. It makes me so happy.”

Her impact goes beyond the College of Continuing Education doors. Her love for running turned into community activism. 

On Fridays, Walton leads a Donut Run to and from Nomad Donuts in North Park. “The run started out with just myself, making it a fun thing to get donuts. Then more people started showing up and now we do it together as a community.”

In 2023, Walton was named a lululemon Run Ambassador for the brand’s Fashion Valley site. This Black History Month, lululemon launched the Take Space campaign to celebrate Black culture through movement and to challenge Black men and women to proudly express themselves in historically white spaces.

For Walton, this movement means being outside and being proud to take space no matter where you come from. She hosted lululemon’s Black History Month run at the Embarcadero earlier this February. Inspired by her steadfast activism and passion for running, lululemon debuted a photo reveal of Walton amidst family and friends on February 18th.

Walton captains the Black Girls Run charter in San Diego, a national organization aimed at empowering Black and African American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority. 

“African American women face the highest obesity rates in the nation. With running we can get in shape, have fun, and live longer for our loved ones. Black Girls Run provides a safe space where Black women and allies can come together,” said Walton, who additionally leads the once a month collaboration for Black Girls Run and Black Men Run, the two groups unite and run together.

Back at home Walton is utilizing sports to instill important values in her sons, Isaiah, 9, and Noah, 6. “Playing on a team shows them the importance of health, getting outside, and being in community. More importantly, they are learning to respect and love people. Because of sports they will be better teammates, friends, and colleagues,” said the proud mom. “No matter what they’re doing, I encourage them to do and be their best.”

Dr. Franklin Garrett, Associate Dean of Student Support Programs at SDCCE, echoes the sentiments Walton is teaching her kids about her leadership style. "Jessica's journey and her work with us at the College of Continuing Education has been nothing short of inspiring. Serving low-income, underrepresented, and immigrant students, has made a profound difference in the lives of many, guiding them with empathy, expertise, and unwavering support. Her commitment to making education accessible and meaningful for every student is a powerful example of service and excellence,” expressed Dr. Garrett.

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