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A Second Chance at Following a Dream

Story by
Nancy Joseph

As a teenager, Simon Walker was all about cars. While classmates dreamed of getting into top colleges, Walker’s goal was an elite automotive training school. He struggled academically in high school and decided to leave during his junior year, earning a GED instead. After attending an automotive trade school, he was accepted at Audi Academy just as he’d hoped.

But three years into his career as an Audi technician, Walker questioned his choice. He’d become interested in politics and current events and had begun reading more. “I felt like I could have a bigger impact,” he says. “As I learned more about the world around me, I wanted to be more involved in what’s going on.”

Simon Walker

“There are so many directions I could go, so many fields I could pursue,” says Simon Walker. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Thus began the long journey from mechanic to academic. Walker graduated from the UW this month with a BA in international studies and an impressive resume that includes two years as co-editor-in-chief of the Jackson School Journal and an internship at williamsworks, a Seattle-based international consultancy firm.

Walker’s return to school began at Shoreline Community College (SCC), where he earned his associate’s degree. “When I stepped foot in Shoreline, the number one goal was to transfer to UW Seattle,” Walker recalls. “It was intimidating to think about what it would take to get into the UW, but it made me work hard.”  Professors took note of that hard work, recommending Walker for the year-long SCC honors program. In addition to completing that program, Walker played on Shoreline’s soccer team for two years, worked as an editor at the student newspaper, traveled to Valencia, Spain for a quarter of intensive Spanish, and served as president of SCC’s political science-economics club. In short, he blossomed.

He also discovered a passion for international studies, thanks to an interdisciplinary course team-taught by three SCC faculty with expertise in economics, history, and politics—and high expectations for their students. “We read books that you would be reading in graduate-level courses at UW,” says Walker. “It was really something else to have that experience. It really pulled me into international studies.”

Whenever I tell people about Task Force, and specifically my task force, they’re just like, ‘Are you kidding? How are you doing that as an undergraduate?’ It’s unparalleled.

That preparation smoothed Walker’s transition to the UW, as did Husky Promise, which covers UW tuition for qualified students who otherwise could not afford to attend the University. “Husky Promise helped a lot, especially being an older student with no parental help,” he says. “It meant I could focus on my studies completely and pursue academic opportunities that were unpaid.”

Walker wasted no time seeking out such opportunities. Before he’d taken a single UW class, he competed successfully for an editorial position with the Jackson School Journal, a twice-yearly academic publication housed in the Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS).  The journal is written, peer-reviewed, and edited entirely by students, with JSIS faculty as advisers.  After serving on the journal’s editorial staff for just one quarter, Walker was promoted to co-editor-in-chief, a position he held for the next two years.

Simon Walker

“It’s taught me that I’m capable of things I never thought I would be,” Simon Walker says of his involvement with the Jackson School Journal. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

“Going from somebody who never thought they could be successful in school to running an academic journal has definitely boosted my confidence,” he says. “It’s taught me that I’m capable of things I never thought I would be.”

His JSIS courses stretched him as well. One of his favorites was International Negotiation Simulation, which simulated the Six Party Talks, a specific 2003 negotiation event in which the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea tried to convince North Korea to refrain from nuclear proliferation and turn over existing weapons.  The students, representing delegates from each of the participating countries, had to negotiate and then report back to their demanding bosses, played by the course’s two faculty, both former Senior U.S. Foreign Service Officers. “They didn’t pull any punches,” Walker says of the professors. “It was a fantastic class.”

Equally memorable was Task Force, a capstone course for international studies majors. Working in teams, Task Force students research a complex policy issue and offer a set of recommendations to an outside evaluator. Walker was chosen for a task force about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that was passed in 2001 to give the President the legal authority to pursue individuals that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11 attacks.  His team explored what should happen to the AUMF, which is still in place, and what other approaches to fighting terrorism might be more effective.

The class was led by U.S. Congressman Adam Smith, who spent Mondays with the students before returning to Washington, D.C. for the week.  “It was incredible to be doing real-world policy with Adam Smith, the ranking House Armed Services Committee member, knowing that he was going back to D.C. to discuss exactly the same issues in the Armed Services Committee,” says Walker.

The Task Force’s outside evaluator, James Miller, was equally formidable: he had been Undersecretary of Policy for the Department of Defense when the AUMF was implemented. “We were debating the points in our paper with someone who had been part of writing the policy that we were critiquing,” recalls Walker, still astounded by the opportunity. “Whenever I tell people about Task Force, and specifically my task force, they’re just like, ‘Are you kidding? How are you doing that as an undergraduate?’  It’s unparalleled.”

With skills honed at SCC and the UW, Walker is ready to start the next chapter of his life.  This summer he will continue his internship with williamsworks and begin a concurrent internship with the Washington Council on International Trade. And then…who knows? He is eager to see what comes next.

“There are so many directions I could go, so many fields I could pursue,” he says. “I’m just opening doors as they are in front of me and going through them and seeing where they lead. That’s what I’ve been doing all along—taking opportunities as they come and going from there.”

And that Audi training? Walker says it still comes in handy. “A lot of my friends bought Audis and Volkswagens so that I can fix their cars,” he explains with a laugh. “I enjoy doing that—but just for my friends.”