Jamaal Walton ’07 came to VMI with a Division I Keydet Club football scholarship and a plan: Earn a biology degree, followed by a career in college athletics – an area the self-described “sports junkie” still loves.
Walton’s plan was going along smoothly, until his junior year when he was featured as part of the “Don’t Do Ordinary” admissions recruiting campaign. With his view from the inside, Walton found marketing and communications encompassed far more than “taking pictures [and] putting up posters.” The creativity and variety innate to the field appealed to him.
“I really enjoyed it,” he recalled. “I started to learn more and more, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’” Realizing he could work in a field he was passionate about – athletics – and in communications, opened a new world of possibilities for Walton. He began exploring how to pivot and change paths toward a future in communications and marketing. Biology – which Walton had spent his undergraduate career focusing on – is “a different ballgame than marketing. I had to learn a new craft.”
To that end, Walton completed an internship in the Institute’s communications and marketing department during the summer before his 1st Class year. Col. Walt Chalkley ’72, then the Institute chief of staff, had worked closely with Walton in Walton’s capacity as class president and was impressed with the young cadet. Chalkley assisted Walton in obtaining the internship. “He is a great young man,” said Chalkley, who keeps in touch with Walton and follows his career. “He’s outgoing, smart, friendly. I can’t say enough good things about Jamaal.”
At the same time, VMI’s graduate school partnership program was getting off the ground. As part of the Vision 2039 plan, Superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62 wanted to establish partnership with graduate schools. VMI graduates would be an asset to any institution, but – due to the Institute’s rigorous military schedule – VMI-earned GPAs were often lower than those of their competitors, causing graduate schools to overlook what could be their best students. The partnerships would give qualified VMI alumni a chance to attend graduate schools. Col. Sonny Craven, then the director of VMI’s communications and marketing, had earned a graduate degree at Florida State University and still had connections there. Craven and Chalkley reached out to Jay Rayburn, Ph.D., who headed up public relations, advertising and integrated marketing at FSU’s school of communication to see if they might be interested in establishing an on-going partnership with VMI. Peay invited Rayburn to tour VMI, and Rayburn walked away impressed with the quality of students he saw at the Institute – particularly Walton.
Brimming with leadership potential obvious to those surrounding him, Walton’s Brother Rats selected him as class president. He also served as co-captain of the football team. This drive for excellence, wrapped up in an unpretentious package – Walton consistently credits others, notes that he is “blessed,” and was “fortunate” to be selected as president of his class – made the young alumnus the best possible representative VMI could have sent to the graduate school partnership program. He attended Florida State University and earning a master’s degree in integrated marketing and communications. “I would take a whole class full of VMI graduates, because they come down here and they excel at everything,” Rayburn said, adding that his fellow faculty members share his high opinion of VMI alumni. “I hope we can continue to get these great students from VMI.”
The partnership works differently for each individual student, university and program of study. Aside from FSU, VMI has partnerships in the areas of business, law and health sciences at schools including the University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary and the University of Richmond. In Walton’s case, the partnership provided him with in-state tuition – “which was awesome” – plus a research assistant position and some in-state tuition waivers, making the final cost for his master’s degree in the hundreds, instead of thousands, of dollars. FSU continues to offer the same benefit to qualified VMI cadets and alumni, Rayburn said.
Although it was a seismic shift in fields of study, Walton didn’t mind. “I’m a guy who likes a challenge,” he said. “I love when people think that I can’t do it, or when people look at a goal and say, ‘Man, that’s not attainable.’” Those comments inspire him, Walton said, to prove that whatever the “it” may be, it can be accomplished. While he loves a challenge, he is also passionate about the concept of the whole team. Noting that folks at VMI “went above and beyond to help me out,” Walton concentrates on paying it forward. “I’ve got to lift up everybody else behind me,” he said, and puts his organization’s goals above his own. “I’m not really all about getting any accolades individually. I want to help our team move forward.”
At Florida State Walton joined the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a worldwide organization whose goals include helping, or “lifting up,” others. He has worked with OPPF in various community service aspects – from mentoring local elementary school children to working at food banks. The fraternity’s outlook meshed with Walton’s personal character. “Service before self” is a lifestyle for Walton, whose giving back extends beyond what most would term community service.
For the past two years, Walton has been the associate athletic director for external operations at the College of Charleston. He brings his service mentality to work every day, building up those who work for and around him. He holds his staff to a high standard, treats them “the right way” and gives them clear expectations – with hopes that they, in turn, “will do that for everyone else.”
Before the CoC, Walton worked in senior leadership at other college athletic departments, including the University of Oklahoma and the University of Alabama. In his journeying through southeastern college campuses, Walton has not been alone. “Everywhere that I’ve been, I’ve had people along the way who have helped me,” he said. Coming to FSU, Walton initially stayed at the property of a fellow alumnus – M.B. Adelson ’73. After FSU, Walton went to work at Savannah State University’s athletics department. The opportunity came through W. Bart Bellairs, the Keydet basketball coach during Walton’s cadetship.
The lessons Walton learned as cadet – from accountability to “having the integrity to do things the right way” – have served him since leaving VMI, and the myriad opportunities VMI has made possible for Walton – an athletic scholarship, serving as his class president, assistance in entering a new career path and help from the VMI family around every corner – are something he is not likely to forget.
Summing it all up, Walton said, “I’m forever grateful to VMI.”
Graduate school partnerships are available to current cadets and recent alumni. VMI has programs in place with 10 institutions and is working with 10 additional universities to renew or begin programs. Fields of study range from law and medicine to business, communications and health sciences. For more information, contact Bri Holland in the Dean's office at email@example.com.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist
The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.