By Cynthia Hubert
Donna Walters was a young teenager walking through her Sacramento-area neighborhood with a friend when her worst nightmare came to life. A man brandishing a gun appeared out of nowhere, held her and her friend at gunpoint, kidnapped and brutally assaulted them.
The attack haunts Walters to this day, but she refuses to let it define her.
She has suffered from paralyzing fear, mental distress and homelessness in the years since her childhood was shattered. But her determination and the help of counselors, professors and others, lifted Walters from despair.
She became one of the top students in Sacramento State's College of Business Administration and was named winner of the CBA's 2020 Dean's Award. She is graduating with a Business degree with a focus on human resources management and will begin her master's in Business Administration at Sac State in the fall.
The man who assaulted Walters was at large for more than a decade. He was arrested in 2012 based on DNA evidence, and Walters and other victims testified at his trial. He was convicted and ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“Having that closure set me on the right path,” Walters said. “I yearned to do something really meaningful in my life.”
She decided to pursue a business degree with an eye toward learning how to help troubled companies improve, thrive and be welcoming to all.
At 37, Walters is older than most members of her graduating class. At first, that was daunting.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in,” she said. But she found Sac State to be what she considers a model of diversity and inclusivity.
She encountered professors and mentors who were empathetic and encouraging when she hit roadblocks. She worked as an instructional and research assistant for some of them. Walters also discovered esports, which she said expanded her social circle and provided a valuable learning experience as she led efforts to expand the activity on campus.
Walters signed on as an ambassador for Sac State’s “On the Rise” fundraising campaign, and became active in Associated Students Inc., serving most recently as vice chair and director of Business Administration.
“I am inspired to see how Donna has already started growing as a leader with a number of important roles she successfully fulfilled on campus,” said one of her mentors, Professor of Management Hakan Ozcelik. “This gets me even more excited about her future.”
When Walters arrived at Sac State as a transfer student in Fall 2018, the campus esports club was small and lacked visibility, she said. She joined because she believed the gaming community would be accepting of an older student who was a single mother and still fighting the effects of the trauma she suffered as a youth.
She saw the community as “a sanctuary for people who didn’t fit into traditional constructs,” she said. “I felt accepted.” She led an effort that has seen the club grow from a few dozen to hundreds of members.
Participation in esports helped build her confidence and cement her desire for a career in making workplace environments more accepting and supportive for everyone, she said.
“I used the tools obtained from my coursework and successfully applied classroom lessons to our developing organization,” Walters said.
Once Sac State’s club began to thrive, Walters started working with the Big Sky Conference to create an esports league. Sac State now has a University-branded esports team that placed second in the Big Sky’s inaugural tournament. Walters is working with all 23 CSU campuses to help build their esports communities.
Her dream is to some day run a varsity-level college esports team, one that offers scholarships and organized competitions.
Walters has overcome many obstacles since she was attacked when she was just 14 years old.
“I suffered intensive trauma on my developing brain,” she said. “Everything in my life was a thousand times more difficult than before and prevented me from living a normal life.”
She developed post-traumatic stress disorder and had had trouble sleeping. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. For a time, she became homeless.
“To this day, I don’t feel comfortable walking outside at night, even with other people,” she said. “I am extremely vigilant at all times.”
She persevered with the help of emergency housing programs, the nonprofit group Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE), friends and relatives, and her Sac State family.
As she prepares to accept her diploma, Walters is well aware that her life is a story of resilience.
“I know I can persist through adversity because I refuse to give up, and I’m surrounded by people who want to see me succeed,” Walters said. “I will never stop growing or learning from my mistakes, and I will continue to step out of my comfort zone to achieve what is often seen as impossible.”