When Eugenia Wallace ’19 was at cheer camp in September of her freshman year at Missouri Western, the other cheerleaders found out her birthday was coming up. “How old will you be?” they asked. “20? 21?” Wallace said it was a little awkward when everyone found out she would be just 17. That’s right, 17. The Kansas City, Missouri native graduated early from Raytown High School and came to Missouri Western on a cheerleading scholarship at the age of 16.
Although she says it was tough coming to college quite a bit younger than her fellow students (“I made mistakes that 16 year olds would make in high school, but I made them in college”), you would never know it. Wallace graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice/legal studies in just four years, was chosen as one of two students to give the commencement address at the ceremony in Spratt Memorial Stadium this past May, was involved in student organizations, volunteered more than 400 hours in the community, and already had a job lined up at a Kansas City law firm before she graduated.
Starting college that young may have been a challenge for Wallace, but really, it was just one more challenge in a very long line of challenges that marked her childhood.
Growing up in poverty with her dad and three older brothers, she remembers times of no electricity or food, and sometimes not knowing where she was going to sleep. Just seven years before becoming a Griffon, Wallace was separated from her family and placed in the foster care system. She lived in two different foster homes over the next few years before settling with a sister in Raytown.
“I had to fend for myself. Some foster parents were great, but some were not. I had to teach myself,” Wallace says. One foster parent told her she wouldn’t go to college. “I believed it. I thought, ‘there goes my dream. I’ll just go on to be another statistic.’”
She was pretty young when she realized she was good at reading and writing and that school was a great escape, so it wasn’t long after she transferred to Raytown High School as a freshman that she caught the attention of teachers who pushed her to succeed.
Wallace took a lot of summer classes and was very surprised when the school told her she had enough credits to graduate at age 16. Wallace earned a full-ride scholarship to a school in Oklahoma, but thought it might be prudent to stick closer to home because of her age.
She cheered for one year for Missouri Western on a scholarship and joined the Mystics the second year. But that cut into her school work (“academically I felt like I had to work twice as hard”), so she began to focus more on her degree and became active in the students’ Legal Studies Association. This past year she served as vice president for the group.
And through all her academic success, Wallace never forgot that she’s a foster kid. In high school, she was asked to join the State Youth Advisory Board and she continued to serve on that board as a college student. One of her proudest accomplishments was when the group advocated for legislation that gave foster children health insurance up to age 26.
She also gave the graduation speech at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri for the Alex Smith Foundation Cornerstones of Care, an organization that supports children in foster care, and served as vice president of the Kansas City advisory board for youth in foster care.
Last fall, she founded the Wallace Community Association, a 501(C)3 to support youth in Kansas City, Missouri and the surrounding area. Her organization teaches about financial literacy and pairs students with foundations that award scholarships. It also sends care packages to the students when they go to college.
The association was created, she says, “to let youth and young adults know they can overcome any obstacle put in their way.” She’s working with a lot of Missouri Western students in an effort to give back to the University that helped her “find my voice and learn how to use it.”
“Missouri Western taught me a lot about grit, perseverance and hard work,” Wallace said. “I know what it’s like to feel down and not wanted. But I also know the benefits of persevering and getting to where you want to be. I refused to let my circumstances define who I was and where I was going. I tell people, if I can do it, you can do it.”