Kathleen Walker: Queen recalls breaking racial barriers

Homecoming Week always gets student mentor Kathleen Walker thinking about her days as an undegraduate.Twenty-two years ago this month, in 1988, Walker – then known as Kathy Smith – made campus history when she became the university's first African-American homecoming queen.

Walker never dreamed it would happen.

"I wasn't even going to apply because I didn't want to go through the whole process with the applications and interviews," said Walker. "Someone nominated me and at the last minute I decided to apply."

Becoming homecoming queen was so much bigger than Walker thought it would be.

"I remember standing there hearing fourth through runner-up (winners named) and the only thing that I could think was, 'Man, I can't believe I didn't even place,' " she said with a laugh. "I didn't realize that I had won until I heard my family applauding me in the audience."

The crown had benefits. She received a scholarship from a sorority because of her accomplishments.

"I got a call from the financial aid office informing me of this scholarship and I was really thankful and thought that's all right with me," Walker said.

"When I graduated from high school, I had plans on going away for college," she said. "But I had major surgery so I had to go to college close to home so that I could be monitored. I came to U of D and fell in love with the school."

In 1985 she was admitted into the Project 100 program, which is now referred to as the STAR program.

Having so much on her plate didn't stop Walker from beating the odds and making a mark on campus. As a commuter student, she felt it was crucial that she get involved.

Becoming homecoming queen was only one of her firsts. She was also the first undergrad to become a campus ministry intern and the first student tour guide coordinator.

Raising awareness for Hunger Week was a big priority for Walker, who helped to pass out food in the neighborhood weekly and worked closely with Focus Hope.

A mixture of all of these things helped her gain notice on campus.

Now as a mentor, Walker aims to give students guidance and a sense of belonging.

"I met Ms. Walker at the end of the school year in 2009," said freshman Raymond Lynem III. "She was very helpful and somebody I could come to."

Walker, a math and education major, graduated from U of D in 1990. She said she found inspiration from three key people on campus: history Prof. Kathy Bush, adviser Ron Naski and the Rev. Bernie Owens, ministry mentor.

"Kathy Bush made me a bold, fiery, passionate person about my students," said Walker. "Ron Naski taught me to be the teacher I became and how to have compassion and patience for my students, while Father Bernie Owens, my spiritual director, taught me to be true to my faithful spirit and allow it to shine."

From an early age, Walker knew that she wanted to impact the lives of others.

As a mentor, Walker always encourages commuter students to be social and get involved.

"I was very involved in campus ministry," said Walker. "I have a lot of great parts about my job, but the best part is helping to educate another young person. I would say that I am a compassionate optimist."

Though many years have passed since her homecoming title, Walker has fond memories of that moment.

"I was honored that the work that I put in on campus and in my life was recognized by so many other people," she said.