With a tradition of military service in his family, Chris Walker chose a university that many LGBTQ people would not have chosen: The California Maritime Academy—a campus of the California State University and one of the five US Merchant Marine academies.
Chris created his own safe space by getting actively involved with student life; he joined the Crew team, was elected student body president, and became the Cadet Corps Commander on his senior cruise.
“Back in high school, I was the cadet leader of the Navy JROTC. Looking back, even from a young age, I think it was both a conscious and unconscious desire to ascend to those leadership roles, so I wouldn’t have to take anything from anybody.”
“I went to the Academy to hide, and I didn’t expect to find such a safe space or positive coming out experience. Having to come out, in what was often a male-dominated, homophobic environment, forced me to come into my own in a different way than I think I would have, otherwise. I had to find a community.”
Chris found that community in a small group of classmates and staff at the Academy and, in particular, Peg Solveson.
After exhausting early morning crew practices, climbing the 15 flights of stairs to his dorm room often required Chris to sit down and rest on the way. Peg was the Associate Director of Housing and lived halfway up the ascent to Chris’ dorm. Chris and Peg would often say good morning to each other while he sat and caught his breath.
Peg and Chris began running into one another elsewhere on campus, too. One day, she approached him and asked him to apply for a job in the Office of Housing.
“She’s always said that she hired me because I was so pleasant in the morning—even when I looked like I was about to get sick. Honestly, though, I think she also suspected that I might be gay, and she was trying to bring me into a place where I could be myself.”
Despite the extra income, Chris’ financial struggles came to a head when, at the beginning of his junior year, he was forced to come to the decision that he had feared making since he was a freshman—he’d need to drop out. Scholarships were limited and financial aid barely covered tuition, much less “room and board.” Chris tried to figure out how he could take time off from school to save enough money to finish his degree.
And then something extraordinary happened.
Peg invited Chris out to lunch one afternoon. At the end of lunch, she took him over to his bank, pulled out her checkbook, and asked what he needed. She paid off the credit card he had been using to purchase books and pay life expenses and she then wrote a check that paid off the tuition and fees for the rest of the year.
“It was catalytic for me. This incredibly generous act allowed me to keep my educational dreams on track, and it was instrumental in propelling my professional career forward.”
Peg’s support was so much more than monetary—she provided the safe space that he needed in an otherwise intimidating environment. Having experienced firsthand an underlying current of homophobia and hyper-masculinity that seemed to color the academy, he didn’t fully come out until he was a first classman and in his senior year.
Chris remembers his college conversations about life with Peg fondly: “She used to have this series of artistic black and white photos on her wall. One of them included an extremely handsome [laughs] man. Even before I’d admitted that I was gay, I used to stare at that photo and—after I came out—I would jokingly tell her that he was my first boyfriend. When she moved, she gave me that picture, and I have it hanging in my house. You could say she gave me tuition money, a safe space, and my very first boyfriend.”
To honor this remarkable woman and her life-changing gift, Chris—who is now a Deputy Director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—has established a scholarship fund with Pride Foundation named for Peg, with whom he is still close. His vision for the scholarship is to provide a similarly catalytic investment for junior or senior students who find themselves in a comparable situation and need that extra push to propel them forward in life.
He has kept this scholarship a secret from Peg and looks forward to surprising her in May—by introducing her to the very first scholar who is receiving the support that her kindness and generosity has inspired.