“Someone is looking for you.” That’s what a colleague said to Walden University senior enrollment specialist Aaron Thomas this January while he was volunteering with the disability services team at commencement in Tampa, Florida. Shortly after, a spunky 5-foot-tall woman walked toward him, saying, “Do you know who I am?”
For Dr. Sharon Alston ’19, the moment was unforgettable. She was celebrating the completion of her PhD in Psychology , but she was also finally meeting the man she credits with helping her get there. “Dr. Alston gave me a big hug and said, ‘So this is the man behind the voice that I’ve been talking to for 10 years!’” Thomas says.
Their story began in 2009 when Alston requested information about Walden and Thomas reached out to her. During their first phone conversation, the two realized their homes in New Jersey had been just 30 minutes apart. Always trying to get to know his potential students to serve them better, Thomas asked Alston what her passion was, and he told her how Walden could help her achieve her goals. “We hit it off right away,” Alston says.
Even after Alston enrolled and was assigned an student success advisor for the next stage of her journey, Thomas didn’t stop calling to check in. “It was unusual to me—I thought he would provide the enrollment information and move on,” Alston says. “But when I was in my first class, he called to see if everything was going well. He was just kind and concerned.”
Thomas says he likes to stay in touch with students after they’ve enrolled because it helps him learn more about the Walden experience from the student perspective. “I’m invested in you as you become invested in this program,” he says. “I’m going to be your coach, your advisor. Sometimes I have to help you overcome challenges and negative thoughts that might be holding you back. But I’m not going to give up on you, and I’m not going to let you give up on yourself.”
Alston says the timing of Thomas’ calls sometimes seemed like divine intervention. “I really, truly believe he was God-given to me,” Alston says. “If I didn’t have Aaron, if he didn’t check in at certain times, I would have probably given up and said, ‘I can’t, I won’t, and I’m not going to do this.’”
Thomas recalls one conversation on his way home from work that meant a lot to both of them: “I picked up the phone and she said, ‘Aaron, you can call me “doctor” now!’”
Thomas, who has worked in enrollment at Walden since 2007, was thrilled to attend his first commencement in January. But it meant even more to be there to support Alston. “It was wonderful to see her walk across the stage,” he says. “I was inspired that I played a small part in helping my friend on her journey.”