New York City is home to the infamous 42nd Street, the world's most renowned theatre district, and the aspirations of triple-threats destined to be the next big things. Every thespian hopes to make his mark in this Great White Way, and Nathan Walker, who ventured from the Rocky Mountain state of Nevada to the Big Apple with a zeal for dramaturgy, is no exception. The dual doctoral and Master of Divinity student has created a lasting impression in the short time since he arrived. "I'm completely living my dream," he joyfully expresses. Like the song says, if he can make it here, he can make it anywhere, and Nate certainly succeeds at doing just that in New York, New York.
His story began in Munich, Germany where Nathan was born and reared until relocating to Nevada with his mother at the age of two. A natural-born star who spent most of his youth performing, Nathan's gift moved him further west during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school when his talents resulted in the American Conservatory Theater offering him the chance to train with the company as one of only two awardees of the honor. Nathan was following in the footsteps of famous actors like Winona Ryder whose presence had graced the A.C.T. stage just a few years earlier. High school graduation a short while later meant a re-location to Boston, Massachusetts where Nathan enrolled in Emerson College in Fall 1994 to study theater education and performance.
After earning an undergraduate degree as well as a pre-K - 12 teaching certificate, Nate returned to Nevada to teach theater to others with a love for the stage. He instructed students at both West Nevada Community College (where he had taught while at Emerson during summer vacations) and Lake Tahoe Community College. His roster of courses included Appreciation of Theater, Scriptwriting, and Acting I, II, and III while he counts "Babes in Toyland" and "Singin' in the Rain" among the productions with which he was involved. Age was no deterrence for the youthful academic whose students were typically older than he. Nathan jokingly recalls a little mischief he incited in one of his classes when he sat among his pupils on the first day and pretended along with them to speculate about the type of professor they would encounter. "Who's this professor?" Nathan laughs when talking about the questions he raised along with those who would soon learn the truth. When they did, it sparked wonderful dialogue between Nate and his students about the construction of knowledge and the authority to teach.
Nathan worked with the two institutions for five years when a pivotal experience altered his life course. He decided that he was ready to build a family and wanted to adopt a child. Although the interview screening process was progressing smoothly, things came to a screeching halt when the panel inquired about his plans to marry. When Nathan responded that his wedding plans would also reflect the input and opinion of a same-sex partner, the reviewers "started to literally close their folders." His sexual orientation did not meet Nevada's definition of family. "The culture of Nevada was not very accepting of gay men," says Nate, and the disappointment prompted him to consider a change of scenery that had until then set the stage for his life. "It was difficult," he says, "because my goal was to stay [in Nevada] and begin a school." Nevertheless, an intrepid spirit navigated him to Driveaway, an auto transport company that moves cars from state to state. With "everything I owned on my back," Nathan and a friend began a cross-country trek from San Diego, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and once they arrived in the D.C. suburb, Nate thought to give New York City a chance to be his new home.
Stepping out of the Port Authority and into the heart of Times Square, one of his first stops was the Times Square Brewery , formerly located at 42nd and Broadway. Nate went inside to inquire about employment, and was hired as a busboy. A bus ride two days later to explore his new environs took him to nearby New Jersey with a drop-off near the Shakespeare Apartment Company. How fitting a residence for the newcomer! Nathan secured both employment and shelter within a mere three days, the seeming ease of which he calls "really serendipitous."
Busing tables at the brewery paid off in the long run. An auditor who was working with the establishment approached him one day and said, "I hear you're this crazy busboy who wants to start a college." The two talked for an hour about Nathan's vision of starting his da Vinci College, and as it turned out, the auditor worked at New York University. She invited him to interview for an academic advisor position at NYU, and this fortuitous meeting resulted in him being hired as an advisor for 900 students who were enrolled in continuing and professional education online courses at the institution. In addition to helping students, Nate trained faculty on how best to enhance their pedagogy for a Web-based environment.
A year into the position, another window of opportunity opened when a friend submitted a videotape of his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in nomination for a grant sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Judges liked what they saw, and Nate's winning performance meant representing the Nevada Arts Council as the state's top theater artist. Nathan decided to work temporarily during the one month he had off between leaving his university position and going back to Nevada. A placement at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons led to full-time employment as the fellowships coordinator which P&S told him they would make available to him upon his return from his home state. So, Nate headed back west in Summer 2000 to work with teachers and organizations as they incorporated theater arts education into their curricula during the grant period, and then returned to a new job in New York.
As a full-time employee of Columbia University, Nate was privileged to have tuition exemption. That motivated him to take a class at TC as a non-degree student that same Fall. He loved his first course at the College, How Adults Learn, taught by Lee Knefelkamp of the Higher and Postsecondary Education program. The class enabled him to take adult developmental theories and incorporate them into his plans for da Vinci, and he eventually enrolled in the M.A. program from which he graduated in May 2002. "They were lovely," he says of the faculty with whom he worked, "and they invested in my idea about da Vinci College." In addition to lauding Professor Knefelkamp, Nathan calls Professor Kevin Dougherty "magic." Dougherty once told him, "I really care about how you think," a statement that truly touched Nathan, and he believes "having that kind of mentorship is invaluable." He applied to remain at TC as an Ed.D. candidate in Higher Education and says, "It was a total honor to be accepted."
Although he loved his classes and was learning about the administrative aspects of a college, he felt he lacked the know-how needed to work with people, an integral aspect of overseeing a school. Nathan wanted to learn how best to "help people build a system in which they can live and learn together," and felt that doing so necessitated "traits inherently ministerial." Desiring to couple this with his TC studies, he applied and was accepted into the M. Div. program at Union Theological Seminary. Nathan believes his degree, which will be under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association, will allow him to "build a movement" and "facilitate . . . a culture" that is uniquely da Vincian.
With an anticipated graduation date of Spring 2008, Nate's current field education placement is at the Fourth Unitarian Society as Director of Religious Education. In this role in which he oversees a staff of five, he has "built from scratch" a religious education program that includes training parents of diverse faiths to raise their children in ways that reflect their belief systems and values. Nate suggests that one "think of it as a non-dogmatic, progressive Sunday school." He works closely with the children's chapel (even teaching the children of TC Professor Frances Vavrus) and has also facilitated workshops with young adults in their 20s and 30s, like Building Your Own Theology. Similar to his experiences in teaching older persons at the community colleges in Nevada, he continues to offer insight and counsel to those who years exceed his own. He finds to be a "really rich" experience. "I was finally able to find a seamless transition [between my interests, coursework and practice]."
Another such experience was his involvement in the creation of TC's Student Senate. In Fall 2000, he and a small group of friends were sitting in the study lounge located on the first floor of Main Hall brainstorming "how to build a governance [for the College] from scratch," thus, the humble beginnings of the Senate. He currently serves as one of two TC representatives to the University Senate, a 106-member body comprised of liaisons from Columbia's schools and affiliates. A major accomplishment of which he can be proud is successfully advocating voting rights for TC in the University Senate, a privilege not previously granted because of the College's affiliate status, despite the facts that TC students' degrees are awarded by Columbia and that the College adheres to its rules and regulations. "We had no say in things that concerned us," says Nathan, and he wanted to help the university group "diplomatically deliberate why TC did not have voting rights." His efforts proved victorious when, on December 12, 2003, the Structure and Operations and Student Affairs committees passed a resolution in favor of his appeals. The lack of a quorum prevented the official acceptance of the modification, but nevertheless, attendees unanimously agreed about making the policy change. Even those who had previously opposed the revision were verbally supportive of it, like one individual who urged the drafting of a resolution to note that those at that meeting were in consensus about the decision. Other University Senate representatives before Nate had tried unsuccessfully to secure voting rights, including an attempt in the 1980s, but TC will now have the privilege by Spring 2004.
And his dream for da Vinci College? It is well on its way to becoming a reality. Nathan established the da Vinci Foundation, a 501 c(3) organization, in 1998, and works closely with its west coast-based Board of Trustees which acts as the fiscal agent and its east coast-based Board of Academics which considers the educational initiatives the Foundation seeks to pursue. The Foundation intends to purchase 500 acres of land in the Lake Tahoe area on which to build the da Vinci campus, a transaction already approved by the governing county. Three schools will comprise the college-the School of Inquiry (for the sciences), the School of Thought (for the humanities), and the School of Expression (for the arts). Its vision-through the act of creating, da Vincians will use inquiry, thought, and expression to invent themselves-reflects one primary goal: just as cite means "to put in motion; rouse; summon," students will be beckoned to invent themselves as they embark on their individuals paths for the future. Nathan himself has done just that, leaving the comforts of Nevada to start a new life in the City, refining and edifying his scholarship in the process with the aim of helping others do the same. For a newcomer who had no idea of what New York would hold for him, Nathan has no need to implore it to "come on, come through"--it already has.