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How Camille Salter became a success story instead of a statistic

By Elizabeth Exline

“When people ask me, ‘How was your day,’ my day is always good. I woke up. It’s a good day.”

This outlook is more than an exercise in philosophy for University of Phoenix alumna Camille Salter, PhD. It’s a way of life born from adversity and rooted in faith. It’s also what’s led her out of a childhood punctuated by physical and emotional abuse, through multiple brain surgeries as an adult and into an existence where her work and her personal life have flourished while helping others.

'Everything my mother was, I did not want to be'

Salter was born in Northern California, the oldest of three kids whose parents had frequent and physical arguments. By the time Salter was 5, her parents had divorced, but the emotional and physical abuse continued.

“I reminded my mother a lot of my father, so I got a little extra attention, so to speak,” Salter says euphemistically.

Salter’s difficult childhood included few positive role models. She frequently found herself out of the classroom, despite her affinity for school, because of the abuse. By the time she was 14, she’d stopped seeing her father on a regular basis, and she’d cultivated a strong sense of independence by looking after her siblings and managing household tasks (including filling out paperwork for Section 8 housing on behalf of her mother). She didn’t know what she wanted to do as an adult, but she knew she wanted to live a life opposite that of her parents.

Her first step toward her future came in an unlikely form: She responded to a newspaper ad for a babysitter.

“Here was this little 14-year-old girl,” Salter recalls with a self-aware laugh, “ready to take care of a 6-month-old baby.”

Salter arrived at the family’s home for an interview, and the mother of the family invited Salter in to get to know her.

“A couple of days later, my mother became very abusive to the point where I was running out of the house, crying,” Salter explains. Salter reached out to the woman from the newspaper ad, acting on instinct that she could help. And she did. The woman picked up Salter, intending to return her to her mother. But when she spoke to Salter’s mother, the woman realized just how bad Salter’s home life was, so she offered to take Salter in for a few days while everyone calmed down.

“Those couple of days turned into two years,” Salter says.

Leading by example

The years Salter spent with her adopted family were not her happy ending, but they were transformative. At her adopted mother’s prompting, Salter returned to school and earned her GED certificate. The couple was also active in their church (her adopted father was a deacon), and that brought Salter to a spiritual faith she hadn’t had before.

In fact, Salter’s relationship with the church stayed with her, even after she returned to her biological mother. Then, on her 18th birthday, Salter’s mother issued an ultimatum: Either stop going to church and live in her home — or leave.

Salter chose the church, which supported her as she began to work and live independently. Her outlook at that time speaks to her character. Where some people might see only a traumatic childhood and limited opportunities, Salter saw blessings.

“So many people in my life were Christians who reached out each time there was a cry for help,” she explains. “So, I began to work with the young people to try and give back what was given to me.”

Salter began to mentor young people through her church, taking them in to live with her when necessary and providing the structure they needed either to finish school or learn a vocation.

“I’m a very committed person,” Salter says. “I don’t want to fail somebody, because I think about how many times I’ve been failed.”

Back to school

It was in this role as mentor that Salter’s life changed once again. She was attending the graduation ceremony of one of her mentees when the speaker, a first-generation college graduate, delivered a message that felt like he was talking to Salter personally.

“He was saying, ‘Don’t be jealous. Join us,’” Salter says. “And I thought to myself, ‘He’s talking to me.’ So, I decided to go back to school.”

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Salter was 33 years old and married, and her husband supported her while she navigated her way back into the classroom. First, she earned her associate degree from her local community college. Then she transferred to University of California, Berkeley to earn her bachelor’s degree.

At that point, Salter was on a roll. She went back to work and leveraged tuition assistance to earn her master’s degree in public administration from another university in 2007. This was when she wrote her thesis on a subject close to her heart: “The Glass Ceiling Through a Historical and Cultural Perspective: Remedies to Reframe Organizations for Change.”

“This was a passion of mine because I dealt with the struggles of not only being a woman but a woman of color working in the business world,” Salter says. She was used to being told she was well-spoken or disabusing people of their assumption she had children. Those stereotypes followed her, and she was determined to overcome them the same way she had overcome the other barriers in her life.

“Camille’s demeanor, though strong, is gentle,” explains Sophia Mammo, a close friend of Salter’s for more than 15 years. “It seems she doesn’t know the term can’t. She sees everything as an opportunity to grow and develop. But above all, it is her heart that blows me away. She will go that extra mile for anyone who wants her help.”

Another curveball

By 2009, Salter was ready to start a new chapter in life. She was introduced to University of Phoenix (UOPX) through her previous employer and decided to leverage its tuition assistance benefit to pursue her Doctor of Management.

Just three months into the program, however, a major car accident revealed a brain tumor. She had her first surgery in February of the following year. That same spring, her husband left her.

Salter’s friends encouraged her to take a break. “I remember when she was studying to complete her doctorate, she was dealing with very serious brain surgery,” Mammo recalls. “She acted like that wasn’t a factor. I was in awe of her perseverance to see her goals and hard work come to fruition.”

Focusing on something besides her health and relationship gave Salter an objective to work toward. And, in some ways, school came first. “Each time I had one of my surgeries, I made sure it was when we were having a week-and-a-half break,” Salter says.

In 2012, her dissertation was accepted, but doctors found what was her third tumor after repairing a brain aneurysm. “The third one did send me over the edge,” Salter admits, “because my brain didn’t have time to heal from all the surgeries. Luckily, I’m still alive, and I have all of my bodily functions … which is very rare — but I’m a rare person.”

Today, Salter’s health is stable, and she’s able to focus on the things that matter most to her. She is a senior learning and development specialist at Alameda Health System, where she can gratify her love of learning and mentoring as she trains her company’s leaders in the art of effective leadership. She also started a mentorship program.

Looking back, Salter acknowledges the challenges she’s faced without letting them define her. “It’s a blessing that you have whatever you have in life,” she says. “But it’s up to you what you do with life.”

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