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One-time track star hurdles over addiction to earn her degree


Juanita Allison (Photo: Barry Zepel)

  • June 15, 2012

Eight years ago, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biological science –– with an option in cell and molecular biology, no less -- seemed unobtainable to CSUEB senior Juanita Allison. Struggling with an alcohol and drug addiction at the time, Allison’s dreams of college slowly faded.

“I was completely at the bottom,” said Allison, who today has been clean and sober for seven years.

The 32-year-old Clearlake native, a star track and field high school athlete in her hometown, set her high goals for herself when she received a full-ride scholarship to Sacramento State University (SSU).

However, her SSU career fell short when she became ineligible to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as she failed to meet the proper unit requirements. Because of her inability to participate in the university’s track and field program, Allison turned to a less appropriate past time.

“I started drinking my sorrows away and hooked up with the wrong people,” said Allison.

Although Allison was only declared ineligible to compete in the NCAA for one year, when the time came to reapply for eligibility, her grades had fallen below the minimum requirement, which also negatively affected her financial aid status.

Hoping to curb her drinking problem, Allison dropped out of college and returned to Lake County. Sadly, her trip home only nurtured her addiction and in 2004 she began using methamphetamine as a tool to wean her off alcohol.

“I figured at least I wouldn’t be falling everywhere if I used meth,” said Allison, referring to the way she conducted herself when she was intoxicated.

Her addiction to meth soon led to encounters with the police, eventually landing her in jail when she fled from officers after an incident in 2004.

While in a cell at the Lake County Hill Road Correctional Facility, Allison realized what her life had become.

During her time behind bars she received news that her grandmother, who had raised her, had passed away.

“I felt so hopeless. I couldn’t do anything for her,” said Allison. “The one thing I could do was finally make something of myself and make her proud.”

Now, looking back to the lowest point in her life, Allison acknowledges that walking across the stage in cap and gown on graduation day seems surreal.

“I was never really sure of whether or not I would make it,” said Allison. “I just thought that I would try, I would give it my best. I’ve been homeless before, penniless and it’s been rough. It’s hard to imagine that now I’ll be a scientist one day.”

Her love for and interest in the natural world guided her choice in selecting a major in the biological sciences, and although Allison says it’s been a challenging subject to tackle, she has enjoyed learning every step of the way.

She says CSUEB philosophy lecturer Louis Villanueva has been very supportive and most inspirational during her college journey.

“He’s a different kind of (professor),” said Allison. “He’s so dedicated to his students, and I probably would have never passed physics, if it wasn’t for him.”

Biological Sciences Professor Christopher Baysdorfer, who served as her major advisor, taught Allison to apply what she learned in the classroom to careers in the science field, which she says she will take with her after graduation.

Allison admits she “constantly thought about dropping out,” but it was the continuing thought of making her grandmother proud and support she received from others who had overcome similar circumstances that kept her focused on the finish line.

The biology graduate said she’s not sure what her future holds, but Allison hopes to be admitted to CSUEB’s Teaching Credential Program, to which she recently applied.

“It would be so fulfilling to help kids in high school learn about college and possible careers in science,” said Allison. “I would love to make a difference that way.”

Allison urges current students who may have come from less than ideal circumstances to: “Never give up, and keep your eye on the prize. The reward is well worth it.”

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