Meet new alumni: These grad cap decorators had stories worth sharing

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

Last month we shared with you a photo gallery of graduating seniors who decorated their grad caps with us at Grad Fest. Well, we were so taken with their excitement about graduation and love of all things CSUB that we decided to learn a little more about them and their aspirations.

Three stories stood out: A Roadrunner basketball player heading to the pros. A salesman who got his degree later in life to be a role model for his son. A 62-year-old woman pursuing a career interest she's had since high school.

Here are those stories

Name: Aja Williams
Age: 22
Degree: Bachelor’s degree in liberal studies

Aja Williams decorating grad cap

Aja Williams literally has a world of possibilities open to her as she transitions from the CSUB women’s basketball team to the pros.

She just learned of an opportunity to play pro ball and get her master’s degree in England. Her agent has sent her game film to Portugal, Puerto Rico and somewhere in Africa.

And Williams still has a chance to shine in person before U.S. and foreign scouts at a “pro combine” in Las Vegas this summer.

Adding to the anything-can-happen nature of going pro, getting picked up by a team doesn’t ensure a long-term career there.

“When you sign, you’re automatically going (to a team),” Williams, 22, said. “But there’s no guarantee how long you’re going. It depends on your play.”

Williams’ play this past year was exceptional. She was the leading scorer off the bench (she usually entered games toward the end of the first quarter or early in the second) and was second in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

The lady Roadrunners had a great season, falling just one game short of its first Division 1 regular conference championship and making it to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game. 

They lost the tournament title game by three points, but Williams focuses on the positive.

“Even though we lost, we had a strong bond and we’re still like family,” she said.

Williams, who graduated with a degree in liberal studies, has been playing basketball since age 3. She caught the bug watching her uncles and dad play in her hometown of Jackson, Miss.

“I picked up the basketball and never put it down,” she said.

Williams played basketball only with boys growing up, which she thinks improved her game, and then joined her junior high and high school squads. She immediately made a name for herself at Provine High School by scoring 18 points in her first game without having started. Her senior year she was named one of the “Dandy Dozen,” meaning one of the 12 best players in Mississippi.

From there she went to Holmes Community College for two years and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. Next came CSUB; she liked the feel of the school when she first visited it her senior year in high school.

“The thing that stood out to me was this school is all about family,” Williams said. “They weren’t just worried about me playing basketball, they were worried about me getting my degree, too.”

Williams admits to hitting some rough patches at CSUB.

Her first impressions of the facilities weren’t great. During her junior year she averaged just 11 points, the worst performance of her career.

And at times she clashed with her coaches. She sometimes came off as aggressive; she sometimes thought they were too sensitive. But they worked all that out, Williams said.

“We are like a family and that helped me because I’m so far away from home,” she said. “Since I stepped off the plane, they have taken care of me.”

To get in front of professional scouts and agents, Williams attended a pro combine in Ohio earlier this year. At pro combines, athletes play games on assigned teams to show off their skills.

Hers was hosted by some of the first players drafted by the WNBA. 

“That was a pretty cool experience because they were the same women I’d been looking up to my whole life,” Williams said.

Then an agent emailed CSUB women’s basketball Head Coach Greg McCall about Williams and the two women started talking. Williams signed with her.

While she waits for word of professional opportunities, Williams is coaching kindergartners through eighth-graders in a Bakersfield basketball league.

American women basketball players usually aspire to the WNBA, but they can make more money playing in foreign countries, Williams said. One of the things she’d like to do with those earnings is support basketball programs for high school and lower-income kids in Jackson. Her dad has a traveling team that plays in front of college coaches, which is how CSUB first saw her.

“I want to start with them because they’re from my home state, home city, and a lot of them look up to me,” Williams said.

She’d also like to start a clothing line promoting positivity in Mississippi. She’d market it on social media and the platforms of her stepmother, Diana Williams, star of the Lifetime dance reality show Bring It.

A business career is her Plan B for if and when her basketball career ends.

“I can’t play basketball my whole life,” she said with a smile.

 

***

Name: Rich Walsh
Age: 38
Degree earned: Bachelor’s degree in psychology

Rich Walsh decorating grad cap

After 15 years of “taking care of everyone else,” Rich Walsh decided two years ago it was time to take care of himself.

So he returned to college a decade and a half after dropping out when his then-girlfriend got pregnant and he had to go to work full-time to support her.

Walsh just graduated from CSUB with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, what he had been studying at the University of La Verne all those years ago, and in the fall will start working on his master’s degree in social work.

When he enrolled at CSUB he not only wanted to pursue the psychology career he’d always wanted but serve as a role model for his son, Mason, now a nearly 16-year-old Centennial High School student.

“He tells his friends how proud he is of me,” Walsh, 38, said, beaming. “That’s amazing, especially since he’s a teenage boy.”

Walsh, who grew up in West Covina, is the first among his parents, siblings and even cousins to graduate from college. It’s been hard work; he worked 45 to 50 hours a week as a salesman (he’s now area manager for Mattress Land) while taking no fewer than 15 units per semester.

He was also a research assistant in Assistant Professor Kyle Susa’s applied cognition lab and a teaching assistant.

Walsh accomplished it all by studying during work lunch breaks and late at night at home. He had no days off during the semester, but he’s not complaining.

“If you enjoy it, it’s not work,” he said. “I rediscovered my love of learning.”

Walsh also credits his “very understanding” wife, Jennifer, an environmental biologist for an oilfield company.

Walsh will begin pursuing his master’s in social work this fall. At the pace he plans to take – one night a week of classes and 20 hours a week of internship work beginning in the second year – it will take him three years to finish.

But then he will be doing what he believes he was always meant to do, which is help other people. As someone who loves research, he wants to go into program evaluation for the Kern County Department of Human Services.

That way, Walsh said, he can help large groups of people.

“I’ve always wanted to help others who can’t necessarily help or speak for themselves,” he said.

***

Name: Lee Ann Carlisle
Age: 62
Degree earned: Bachelor’s degree in sociology

Lee Ann Carlisle

When she was 17, Lee Ann Carlisle of Lancaster wanted to study psychology. “Why do people do what they do?” she often wondered.

“I’d also want to tell them how to do something better, so they could not be hurt,” she said.

But life sidetracked those ambitions.

At 19 she got married and at 20 had her son. She tried and tried to get back to school, but all she could fit in were courses here and there.

She liked the idea of being self-employed and started taking bookkeeping classes. She worked in the accounting offices of various businesses while raising her boy.

When Carlisle’s marriage ended in 2007 after 32 years, she went through a period of healing and growth through her faith in God. She repaired her low self-esteem. She learned how to take care of herself. She saw herself in a new light, strong and healthy.

Then one day in 2015, Carlisle was driving down the road when she heard God say go back to school. She literally made a U-turn, drove to CSUB’s Antelope Valley campus and talked to a woman in the advising office about what it would take to get into college.

“She was nice and upbeat and encouraging,” Carlisle recalled. She suggested Carlisle study sociology because the degree offered more career options, and to start out at Antelope Valley College.

Carlisle did that, then transferred to CSUB’s Antelope Valley campus. 

“I have loved it,” she said of her college career. “In the beginning I had some panic attacks because it had been years since I’d been back to school. I was able to squelch that and to think differently, too, to think more in a positive way, to not think, ‘I can’t do this.’”

She did do it. Carlisle will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in sociology.

She’s now applying to graduate school at CSUB. She’d eventually like to open her own therapy practice and start a seniors-helping-seniors group.

“I could have done this at 17,” she said of pursuing a career in therapy. “But I don’t think I would have been as useful. I’ve had all these life experiences now that I’ve overcome, so now I can help other people do the same.”