For as long as he can remember, Percy Walker has been working to better himself.
Raised by his grandmother in New Jersey, he was the first male in his family to graduate from high school. With no money for college, he decided that joining the Marines was his path to success.
“My mom couldn’t take care of herself, let alone my sister and I, but my grandmother kept me grounded,” he said. “When it came to high school, no one spoke about college so, to me, the military was my No. 1 option to better my circumstances. I enlisted at 17, spent a year in the delayed entry program, graduated and left for boot camp.”
That was 18 years ago, and much has changed in Walker’s life. Now a sergeant major, he has served across the country and around the world, including two deployments in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He is married and has four children, ages 15, 5, 3 and 1.
He earned an online bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2014 from Purdue University Global, but he had always longed to learn more about computers and information systems. His search for an online master’s program led him to Colorado State University online.
“Wanted to be part of the CSU family”
“With me moving every three years, that limited my choices, so I narrowed it to three schools,” he said. “CSU’s program just stood out to me. The No. 1 thing was the name – I wanted to be part of the CSU family.”
His program in computer information systems required being part of several group projects. He was stationed in San Diego, so online meetings with fellow students were via Skype. That’s how he got to know Hillary Noble, who was pursuing the same degree while working in web development and design for CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“I first met Percy because we were assigned to a group project by our professor,” Noble said. “We met over Skype and were able to complete many group projects remotely as we had many classes together. We both have young children and similar work schedules, so Skype and email made our countless group projects manageable.”
Finding help – and friends – from 1,100 miles away
Between parenting, work and online classes, the challenges were substantial. Walker’s wife, Jamie, is a flight attendant, so he was often on his own with the children, and his chosen degree field was more of a passion than something he had spent years studying.
“There were so many times I wished I had stayed in my lane academically, so it was a real struggle,” he said. “I had always loved computers since I was very young, but getting that degree was very, very challenging.”
Walker, 37, said CSU’s Adult Learner and Veteran Services office provided invaluable help in navigating the process – “Without them I would have been lost,” he said – and professors were very accommodating of his schedule. At one point, during the middle of a semester, the Marines chose him for an anti-terrorism course, and his already full plate overflowed.
Faculty, staff go the extra mile
He credited professor Charles Butler, who has been on CSU’s business faculty for 35 years, with helping him stay the course.
“I remember Percy because you could tell he was a bright guy who was having some struggles,” Butler said. “It’s a really difficult balance being a student while in the military, but I’ve always felt that we owe a certain degree of responsibility to help our military personnel, and I was happy to help Percy.”
A big moment for Walker came in February 2017 when he had a free day between military assignments to visit campus and attend classes. It was the first time he had sat in a physical classroom since high school.
And when he graduated the following May, he brought his wife and family to Fort Collins. Noble, the friend he had never met but knew so well, threw him a graduation party.
“The way Hillary, her family and friends adopted me was truly amazing,” Walker said. “They were as proud of me as my own family. I’ll never forget that.
“When I look back, CSU was supportive of me in every way. I can’t see me having gone anyplace else. I definitely chose right.”