By Joe Garvey

Yamariah Walters’ journey to her college degree took longer than most, with several significant twists along the way.

But her perseverance will culminate when she receives her bachelor’s degree as a double major in marketing and management from the Strome College of Business during Old Dominion University’s 138thcommencement exercises this weekend.

“I feel like I have a long history since graduating from high school,” Walters said.

It began when she enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University as a photography major in 2010 after graduating from Norview High School in Norfolk.

But the fallout from the Great Recession was taking a toll on her family. Her aunt, who had raised Walters from age 2, and uncle lost their home and were unable to financially support Walters, who was living off campus. She dropped out of VCU after her sophomore year.

“That second year was hard,” said Walters, a first-generation college student. “I was 19 years old and learning what it is to be an adult. I had to fend for myself.”

She took a job at Forever 21 but left in 2015 to enlist as a seaman recruit in the U.S. Navy. However, she was unable to advance out of basic training.

She was depressed and unsure of what to do next. Her aunt pushed her with some tough love.

“My aunt gave me an ultimatum – ‘you need to get a job or get out,’” Walters said. “I think she even drew up a contract. She never wanted any of us to just be stagnant.”

Walters returned to Forever 21, and in 2016 decided to resume her college career at ODU.

“I just had to do something,” Walters said. “Because I was not where I wanted to be.”

She decided to major in business and picked marketing. “I always worked in retail and I thought maybe it’s the same thing, essentially,” she said.

“I’m graduating from college with my bachelor’s at 31. You’re never too old to do something that you want to do.” – Yamariah Walters

She also took a part-time job at Walmart in November 2016 and was promoted to a full-time position within three months.

She started off strong academically at ODU. But working long hours caused her to miss classes during her sophomore year, and her grades dropped significantly. Difficulty paying her college debt forced her to interrupt her education again, this time for a year and a half.

After paying down her debt, she came back to ODU for her junior year in 2021. While still holding full-time team leader position at Walmart, she’s been better able to manage the school-work balance.

In fact, she has thrived.

Her grade-point average, which fell nearly a full point to 2.67, is now up to a 3.0. She was one of 15 students nationwide selected to attend the American Marketing Association’s inaugural Diversity Leadership Institute (DLI) at Indiana University last summer. Upon her return, she suggested creating a diversity director position for the Strome College’s chapter and volunteered to serve in the role.

“Yamariah encouraged us to look at our events through the lens of diversity and host separate events on topics tied to diversity,” said Michelle Carpenter, senior lecturer in the marketing department who has had Walters in three classes.

“I’m honestly tired of seeing on the news first Black woman, first gay Black male, first lesbian or Asian or this or that,” Walters said. “We still should not have that large gap based on race, sexual orientation, sexual identity.”

Walters also participated in a Zoom Collegiate Summit last October. She was part of a four-person team that won a national competition to propose a marketing plan for Gerber Life Insurance.

“The last day of the conference, I had to work,” Walters said. “So I was presenting in my car on my phone during my lunch break.”

That kind of dedication and determination has impressed her professors.

“I had a big project in one of the classes, and the students could choose to work individually or in a group. Yamariah was the only student who chose to work individually,” said Jennifer Klinger, lecturer in the management department. “By the end of the project, Yamariah seemed discouraged about completing the final part by herself. I gave her a little encouragement, and she ended up turning in one of the best assignments in the class. She did a lot of research for the assignment and put together an exemplary presentation.”

Carpenter added: “I see in Yamariah the inner drive and perseverance of so many of our students that must juggle work and school. Despite a demanding team leader position at Walmart, Yamariah chose to attend more than one of my classes in person. In each of my classes, she sits in the front row, asks questions and engages in class discussions.”

Walters is still deciding what’s next for her, but Carpenter said, “Yamariah is hard-working and is destined for big things beyond graduation.”

Walters also has a message for students facing significant struggles.

“I’m graduating from college with my bachelor’s at 31,” she said. “You’re never too old to do something that you want to do. It may not be easy – it’s definitely not going to be easy. But keep at it because I honestly believe that everyone deserves to be happy in their lives. Or to be in a place where they feel like they’ve accomplished something, and they’ve done something that they wanted to do and not something that they had to do.”