As a third-generation graduate of the University of Alabama, Ashley Clayton feels it was her destiny to not only attend UA but also make it her career to support and promote that renowned institution.
“My grandmother was one of the first three female Ph.D. graduates and was the dean of nursing,” Clayton said. “My parents also met as students at Alabama.”
As a student, Clayton was editor of the yearbook and had a job in the university’s event-planning department.
“I was very interested in politics at the time and thought I might want to go into political campaigning. But I realized that not only did I want a social life, perhaps impossible when on the campaign trail, but I also wanted to continue the great experience of being part of this school.”
Today, as the alumni events and tour director, Clayton is responsible for coordinating 35 trips a year for Alabama alumni. Choosing from hundreds of proposals from eight tour operators, she markets excursions that range from a nature lover’s cruise to Alaska to an exotic tour in Myanmar. Thirty of those trips are overseas, and in 2014, UA’s alumni will travel to all seven continents.
“The whole reason we offer a travel program is so that alumni continue to have an affinity with the university,” she said. “Once people graduate, we want them to still have a connection to Alabama. We do not use this as a fundraising tool. We just want them to feel connected.”
Learn and Connect
UA’s travels, no matter the destination, must have two components, according to Clayton.
“First, they have to have an educational component,” she said. “For example, this year we are taking an ocean cruise that will include seeing the beaches of Normandy, as this is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. On board, the group will enjoy lectures from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson and Winston Churchill’s granddaughter.
“A few years ago, on a Baltic cruise, Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa were speakers. On another occasion, on an Adriatic cruise, Wesley Clark took part, talking about the Bosnian war.”
In Cuba, the group took salsa dancing lessons on a rooftop.
“During this trip, I went to great lengths to make sure we saw an Alabama football game. It was in Spanish, but we saw it,” she said with a laugh.
Second, the trips must have an enhanced Alabama experience.
“Often, this is a welcome reception on a cruise where alumni who have just arrived from around the country compare their harrowing stories of travel or a farewell dinner where everyone exchanges email addresses and wants to know where we are going next,” she said.
Those harrowing stories of travel are the “bane of our existence,” according to Clayton.
“We frequently have people meeting overseas who are coming from all sorts of original destinations. Problems arise, and all it takes is one rude comment from an airlines employee to taint enthusiasm. It’s really out of our hands.”
Running the Extra Mile
Clayton is an avid participant in triathlons, an activity that she took up to combat postgraduation weight gain.
“I was a spinner in high school, and while a triathlon was out of my comfort zone, it seemed at least attainable,” she said.
“The end-all-to-be-all of triathlons is the Ironman, the event that requires you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. I’m doing the 70.3 Ironman, the competition that requires exactly half of an Ironman, in Sonoma, California, in 2014 — great for me, as I’m a wine lover,” she said.
Completing the entire Ironman is on Clayton’s calendar for 2015. Consequently, she has detailed a daily schedule in 2014 for attaining certain distances and speeds. On those occasions when she travels with her alumni group around the world, she makes no excuses to avoid exercise.
“The best way to explore a new city is to run it,” she said. “I have run the French Quarter in New Orleans — certainly a different place at 8 a.m. I ran the Malecon, a seven-mile roadway in Cuba along the coast that is considered the social living room of the country. I have taken my best photos while on these runs.”
When on the road, Clayton understands that her friends and colleagues often assume she is just on vacation.
“It’s hard, as travel is full of hiccups. And some are expensive hiccups,” she said. “But I know I can’t complain because if I do, someone says, ‘Yeah, but you were in Rome yesterday.’ That’s true. I have the job only dreams are made of. I love to travel, and I love this school, so to put both of them together is indeed a dream.”