CSUB Graduate Overcomes Setbacks
Like many people, Shamyka Sutton-Johnson, decided to go to college to provide a better life for her and her child. But the untimely death of her 2-year-old daughter, Amethyst Safira-Avion, on July 3, 2003, created circumstances that tested her strength and desire for life.
Yet this tragic experience hasn’t kept her from pursuing her dreams. On Saturday (June 9) Sutton-Johnson will graduate from California State University, Bakersfield with a bachelor’s degree in both psychology and criminal justice.
During the few years since the death of her daughter, Sutton-Johnson came to learn just how much effort she had to give and where she needed to go for extra support.
“Holidays and my daughter’s birthday are very difficult,” Sutton-Johnson said. “I don’t know anyone who has lost a child the way I did, so sometimes it’s hard to express my thoughts and emotions to those I normally go to for support. I know that I’m not the only person in all of eternity to lose a child abruptly or unexpectedly, so I try to look at others who have survived what life throws at them.”
Being a minority, Sutton-Johnson says she identifies with women and minorities who have survived their own traumatic experiences, and looks to them for wisdom.
But this 23 year-old double major has a unique history of her own. Her fear of clowns as a child sparked an initial interest in serial killers, and eventually led her to study criminal justice and psychology at CSUB Antelope Valley.
For a class assignment in the third grade, Sutton-Johnson managed to get her hands on a book about the famous Chicago serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, who dressed up like a clown and murdered young men and children. “I wasn’t grossed out. I thought it would help me not be afraid of clowns. My mom was nervous, and the teacher called and asked why I was reading this type of book.”
When Sutton-Johnson brought home a road-kill cat, it stirred a reaction from her mother who banned her daughter from reading violent books. Sutton-Johnson said, “Jeffrey Daumer was known to torture animals and I just wanted to know what was so interesting about the inside of the animals.” Her mother’s ban didn’t last long, because Sutton-Johnson’s interest and curiosity still lingered.
“I’ve always been interested in individual behaviors and why they are being conducted,” Sutton-Johnson said. She chose psychology as one of her majors because it has always been a part of who she is. “I always loved playing good guy/bad guy and remember catching whoever was playing the bad guy, asking 21-questions to get to the reason.
“The two subjects (psychology and criminal justice) go so well together … society has made jobs within law enforcement that concerns both … now I get to enjoy the two things that have always come naturally to me.”
Something else that felt natural to Sutton-Johnson was having Maryam Allahyar, psychology professor at CSUB-AV, as a professor and mentor. “One example that comes to mind is a moment last summer when ‘doomsday’ was looming (July 3) and I was quite emotional,” Sutton-Johnson said. “Dr. Allahyar reached out to me and allowed me to sit and cry. As hard as it was for her to understand me, with all the anger, sadness and overwhelming feelings, she said, ‘You’re here, you’ve got this far.’ She made me see more in myself and was the first one to light the fire for grad school in my mind.”
Allahyar isn’t the only professor who had faith in her. CSUB criminal-justice professor Anthony Hoskins believes Sutton-Johnson will successfully continue her journey. “Shamyka took several courses from me,” Hoskins said. “One thing that struck me immediately about her is that she has a sweet spirit. She sets her sights very high, but does not act above everyone else. She works very hard, and is active in so many things. She has overcome a great deal. And she always gave the best presentations.~She would go beyond what I asked for. I know she will do great things.”
That journey, obtained through hard work and determination, doesn’t end at CSUB. Sutton-Johnson has applied to American Psychological Association-accredited clinical psychology doctoral programs that have an emphasis in forensics. “Location didn’t matter so I applied to Nova Southeastern University in Florida, Howard University in District of Columbia, Alliant International University in San Diego and Fresno, and of course Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and Stanford’s joint doctoral program,” she said.
She’s particularly interested in the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the FBI. “This unit specializes in the behaviors of offenders, especially my favorite – serial killers,” Sutton-Johnson said. “I (also) … started thinking about the CIA and Secret Service because if I chose either of those I could work internationally, unlike the FBI which is predominately national.”
Even after the sudden death of her daughter from a car accident, Sutton-Johnson was able to envision a future of open doors. She kept going. She didn’t stop to take a break, nor did she quit attending classes. But she knows the death of her daughter has changed who she is, and in some ways for the worse. She is easily aggravated, especially by those that don’t take motherhood seriously. But as far as the good, “I appreciate life … a lot more! I’m a big thrill-seeker. And being a mother calmed me down a lot, it changed me for the better.”
Changed? Maybe, but slowed down? Not at all. This 23-year-old Lancaster native doesn’t stop when class ends. she has found plenty to be involved in. She is the president of CSUB-AV’s Psych Club and vice-president of Black Women on Campus. She is also an AV representative in Associated Students, Inc., and a Psi Chi member as well.
The hard work and fun doesn’t stop once she leaves campus.
Her vigorous training in both ballroom dancing and martial arts keeps her well defended and in shape. It was her father, a Navy Seal at the time of her birth, who instilled her love for martial arts. “It kept the father-daughter bond between us and continues to do so even after my parents divorced.”
Her love of dancing, especially Latin ballroom dancing, has kept her closely connected to her mother and her Puerto Rican culture. Most recently she has picked up salsa dancing. She has never taken a dance class, yet has already started competing, and spends at least 10 hours a week practicing with her dance partner at the gym and local salsa nightclub.
Sutton-Johnson knows she couldn’t have graduated as a double major nor been so actively involved without the love and support of her family. She’s been so busy trying not to forget those who have played an essential role in keeping her afloat that she hasn’t stopped to give herself credit for who she’s become through it all.
She received an e-mail with the subject line that read, “People come into your life for a reason.” Her favorite passage, “When someone is in your life for a reason, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually. They may seem like a godsend, and they are.”
To everyone in her life, Shamyka Sutton-Johnson is that person: “I hope my story helps people snap out of their zones … helps them from holding back and stop being afraid.”
| Public Affairs Offices/Campus News
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