By Heidi Toth
Celena Wallace just wants to be a rock star.
It may seem like a lofty career aspiration an almost-college graduate, but for NAU student Wallace, who is one of the President’s Prize winners, it may not be the hardest thing she’s accomplished in her life.
“The accomplishment I am most proud of during my stay at Northern Arizona University is never giving up,” Wallace, a creative media and film major from Phoenix, wrote in her essay to the Gold Axe selection committee. “I always believed that I could rise in the face of adversity, even when I felt so small and the problem felt so big.”
Adversity was a typical part of Wallace’s childhood. She grew up in a toxic, unstable environment, moving in and out of foster care and with frequent and difficult family situations. Coming to NAU provided stability, which she found, much to her surprise, presented its own kind of challenge.
“Anyone would think it would be easy to go from a place of consistent chaos to a place of silence and productivity,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I wanted to go back to the toxic environment I came from. When I was taken out of the toxic environment and struggling emotionally and mentally, I didn’t feel normal anymore. I did not understand why I would wake up in a sweat, have nightmares, panic attacks and deep sadness.
“However, when I was in the toxic environment, all of those things made sense. It felt like home. I hadn’t met anyone else around me who was experiencing what I was, which was another reason it was hard to connect with my peers outside of fostering success.”
During her early time at NAU, making connections was one of her biggest struggles. No one could relate. She didn’t have family support. Two factors turned the college experience around for her. The first was finding mentors through Fostering Success, then becoming a peer mentor for Student Support Services and the Successful Transition and Academic Readiness program. She worked with other students who had been in foster care, becoming the person who could relates to their struggles that she wished she’d had.
The second was studying for six months in England, an eye-opening experience that introduced Wallace to opportunities she didn’t know were available to her. She traveled to a half a dozen different countries, in each place being shaped by the new culture she experienced there. In England, she also worked with music producers to release some tracks, which inspired her to write, perform and produce her own record called “Jude Deep Waters” and a music video for her original song, “You Thought Wrong.”
“I found the studying abroad experience especially formative due to what came after and finding inspiration for producing my own music and not just writing and performing it,” she said.
Even as Wallace was forging her own path, her problems kept cropping up. A family member died, another attempted suicide and a sister was hospitalized multiple times. Frequently she was called on to help, at times working three jobs so she could help her family financially. Wallace mentions these things matter-of-factly. They were a part of her college career, just as going to classes and taking exams were.
“When my family needed me to be there for someone in the hospital or someone needing legal support, I just was,” she said. “I always did what I could when these situations would arise in regard to academics, whether that be contacting teachers, bringing homework with me, finishing assignments ahead of time or regrettably turning them in late. I just tried to work around what was thrown at me.”