When Chris Walkes entered UMass Boston as a freshman four years ago, he said he had no idea who, or what, he wanted to be. It wasn’t until he became a peer mentor at the university that he realized he could use his voice to become a driving force behind education reform.
“I didn’t know I was interested in educating or teaching at all,” he said, adding that the relationships he was able to build with his students during mentoring were transformative. “I knew from that moment on that I wanted to enter education.”
Walkes, who will graduate this month with a degree in English and a minor in secondary education, is the 42nd recipient of the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence, the highest honor given to UMass Boston graduates. He will address the Class of 2018 during the undergraduate commencement exercises at the TD Garden.
Professor Denise Patmon, who was one of three professors to nominate Walkes for the JFK award, actively recruited him to apply for a writing tutor position at Calderwood Writing Centers in 2016.
“He is a compassionate individual who is dedicated to high quality teaching for all students,” Patmon wrote in Walkes’s nomination letter. “He has a sincere interest in learning from and teaching others. He is a young man with potential and a vision to make a difference.”
In 2017, Walkes went on to become a tutor coordinator for Another Course to College (ACC), a college preparatory high school in Hyde Park.
“I fell in love with the community at ACC,” he said. “Just seeing the social justice work that’s being done there, the strong relationships between the teachers and students—and even between the students and themselves—really drew me to that school.”
Walkes was drawn to a different school last summer when he applied for the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT). IRT is a competitive summer program whose mission it is to address the lack of diversity in the nation’s teaching faculties. Students attend weekly seminar discussions, lectures, writing conferences, debates, and presentations by nationally known educators, artists, and poets. They also prepare for the GRE and begin work on their statements of purpose.
“That was the most challenging experience of my life, and I felt as though I grew tremendously from it,” Walkes said. “That experience at IRT led me to question things I took for granted or just passively accepted—education being one of them. I see education as a way to build critical consciousness, which is important for students to understand the contradictions between the institutions of society and humanity.”
Now Walkes is doing his part to impart that wisdom through practice at ACC. He teaches a 12th grade English class, leads a computer science course, and runs a weekly boys group for students. In the fall, Walkes plans to attend Tufts University, where he will pursue his master’s in education.
“One of the things my mentor always says is, ‘Do it for the babies in the womb,’” Walkes said. “What we’re doing right here is for the next generation. All this research and publishing and teaching and service that we’re doing is to create a better world for the next generation. I feel it’s a truly beautiful concept that I’ve really adopted.”
About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 17,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.