Crystal Allenton returned to her alma mater, WGU Washington, this week, more than five years after she received her bachelor's degree from the school. She was in Olympia, Washington to see a new mural on the historic Capitol Theater. It was a portrait of Allenton, commissioned by the school to honor her for her hard work.
Not only did Allenton graduate from the university, she did so as a single mom raising three kids – while homeless.
Allenton enrolled in college in 2010, right around the time she and her children had to leave their home. "My kids and I had this new life that we started, and it was because there was domestic violence in our home," Allenton told CBS News.
"You know, I wanted a better future for us, and so — I kid you not — we found a safe place to live, and my very next step was to take the college entrance exam," she said.
At 30 years old, Allenton became a student at WGU Washington University, while working multiple jobs and couch surfing at friends' houses with her kids.
In 2014, during her final year of school. Allenton found herself and her three kids sharing beds at a homeless shelter.
"It was just devastating to kind of be in this place of, 'I'm so close!' And even just being able to get a bed in the shelter was quite a feat," she said. "You know, there were times where I would cry and pray and just kind of wonder what was going to happen to us."
Allenton and her children stayed at Pear Blossom Place, a family shelter in Olympia. She was still determined to graduate for her kids.
"I wanted my kids to see that you can be ambitious and you can also struggle," she said. "Whether it was staying up later while they were in bed to do assignments, or working while they were napping, it was all about quality time with them and showing them that I could be a mom and I could also be a person who valued education."
Her children's school had a homeless liaison, who helped her get in touch with organizations that found more permanent housing situations. That enabled Allenton and her children — whom she described as her support system, too — to move out of the shelter and into their own home.
"They've definitely been my biggest cheerleaders, for sure," she said. "And I know they're really proud of me."
She's been a music teacher since graduating in 2015, has since earned two master's degrees and is considering getting certified to be a principal.
Allenton now teaches at a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, but was invited back to Washington to see the mural painted in her honor.
"This is not just my face on a wall," she said. "I pray that it be a beacon of hope and encouragement to all who pass by and all who see it around the world as people share."