Kristofer Walker is quick to admit his academic journey has been an unlikely one.
He struggled through high school, spent years feeding his wanderlust with travels around the globe, and found self-discipline serving in the US Army through a tour in Afghanistan. After recommitting himself to his education, he’s now on the brink of earning his undergraduate degree in mathematics this month, before heading to Carnegie Mellon University, where he will pursue his doctorate.
“If I were to work that out right now, I would probably acknowledge the incredible improbability it would even happen,” Walker said. “One could argue that I had a higher probability of getting killed or injured in Afghanistan than being accepted into that PhD program.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Walker was a “mediocre student” at Santa Monica High School, which was a 90-minute drive away. Nonetheless, education was impressed upon him and he knew it was his ticket to escaping his dangerous neighborhood—particularly after an up-close view of the 1992 LA riots during his senior year of high school.
“My neighborhood was pretty bad, I got held up a couple of times coming home late from work,” he said. “There were gangs that bothered me because I wasn’t part of any of that—I stood out because I didn’t participate, so I knew I had to get out of there.”
Seeking additional opportunities and a safer environment, Walker grabbed a northbound Greyhound bus and enrolled at San Francisco State. After securing a place to live and a mall job, he began his college career—it didn’t last long, though. He struggled with having so much personal freedom, while also trying to balance his coursework with paying his own bills.
Walker spent the next decade cycling through a pattern of taking classes, dropping out to travel and work, and then re-enrolling in college: From San Francisco, he trekked through Mexico and Guatemala, worked on Kauai for three months as an organic farmer and, after he ran out of money, returned to City College of San Francisco and couch surfed.
“For a long time, I never thought I would even be capable of getting my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “For about seven years, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t an ‘academic or scholastic’ type of person—instead, I figured I would just live outside society’s norms and just be satisfied with bare necessities.”
Finally, during a multi-month stint in Brazil, Walker came to a realization about his future. As much as he loved the lifestyle, it was not sustainable.
He returned stateside and enrolled in San Diego City College. Once again, though, higher education failed to keep his interest. Feeling the need to push outside his comfort zone in order to realize his potential, at age 34 he enlisted in the United States Army. After braving basic training with a group of cadets 15 years younger than him, he served as a paratrooper from 2009 to 2012—and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
Shouldering a full load of arsenal, Walker found himself hiking up mountains and descending into valleys, carried out night missions on foot and out of a helicopter, and engaged in live combat almost daily during warmer months.
“It helped me develop an ability to persevere, to dig deep and go through things I found uncomfortable, and to see them through,” he said. “Throughout my 20s, I avoided responsibility and things that made me uncomfortable like the plague, and I always had the freedom to just walk away. I wasn’t able to commit when things got hard or too much was demanded of me—the Army forced me to be in a situation where I couldn’t do that.”
After three years of exemplary service to his country, Walker exited the US Army and was awarded the Good Conduct Medal. He fell in love and married, and he and his wife soon welcomed their first child. Plotting a plan to ensure a strong and stable future for his family, Walker decided he was once again ready to pursue higher education—this time, though, he was equipped to stick with it.
“I thought, if I can pick up a weapon and run toward the bullets and explosions and not run away from them, then I can go to school,” he said.
After exploring majors he hoped would lead to recession-proof careers, Walker chose to pursue a mathematics degree. While he admits math is not his strongest subject, he attacked his curriculum, conquered textbooks and lessons, and committed to classes that truly challenged him.
In 2018, Walker transferred to Chico State, where he developed a keen interest in probability theory, statistical learning, and programming. His faculty quickly took note of Walker’s innate curiosity, ability to problem-solve, and self-awareness as tremendous assets.
“Kris is very well aware of his strengths and has high expectations for himself,” said statistics professor Robin Donatello. “His thoughtfulness and interest in learning everything brought such a welcome attitude in and outside of class.”
At Carnegie Mellon, he will pursue his PhD in statistics, which has been his undergraduate focus. And while he looks to have a career in research, he doesn’t yet know if it will be in academia or industry—he remains open to both possibilities.
Walker doesn’t shy away from the experiences that shaped the person he has become. Today, in addition to being a veteran and former world traveler, he is a loving husband, doting father of two, and promising scholar—it just took him a while to get here.
“I think it just goes to show that the ideas we sometimes hold about ourselves may evolve as we learn about how the decisions we make shape our lives, especially if we are honest about ourselves to ourselves and take action,” he said.