Chancellor’s Medal to Chris Hays

“An innate fire that is impossible to quench.” 

This comment by Nhi Tran, undergraduate academic adviser in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, was echoed by others who supported Chris Hays in being named the recipient of the University of Washington Bothell’s 2021 Chancellor’s Medal. 

The annual award recognizes those who have been a consistent source of inspiration for faculty and fellow students alike, and have overcome significant obstacles or endured major burdens in order to complete their studies. 

Hays is not only graduating this June with a major in Law, Economics & Public Policy and a minor in Human Rights, he is doing so also having served this past year as a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council for Students, a participant in the highly selective Washington, D.C., Human Rights Seminar, a legislative intern and an active volunteer with the Outdoors for All Foundation. In his junior year, he was the treasurer of the UW Bothell Law Society as well. 

Poised and prepared 

The human rights seminar is a competitive University-wide program that involves extensive research skills and a strong commitment to human rights issues around the world. In his application to the program, Hays wrote about researching the impacts of the suppression in Saudi Arabia of expression regarding women’s rights. 

Typically, the seminar culminates in a trip to Washington, D.C., where students meet with federal legislators, diplomats, think tanks and representatives from the departments of State and Defense. Due to COVID-19 restrictions this year, the seminar was held virtually. The online format could have led to a more casual atmosphere, but Hays displayed a “welcoming and extremely professional presence at every single meeting,” according to Jung Lee, assistant director of Academic Services in the School of IAS. 

“Chris played a critical role in creating and supporting a close-knit community of researchers,” said Lee. “He set a great example by beginning his presentations with concise information about his research, asking clear questions and following up with more information or clarifying questions.” 

Dr. Ron Krabill, the professor in the School of IAS who directed the seminar this year, was especially taken by Hays’ “exceptional gesture of always choosing a virtual background from the organization with whom we were meeting, whether our briefing was with a U.S. senator, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation or a diplomat with the German embassy. 

“It was a small gesture,” said Krabill, “but one which nearly every speaker commented on and a good indication of the care with which Christopher consistently approaches his work.” 

Engaged and enthusiastic

After an extensive and selective interview process, Hays was asked to serve on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for Students on behalf of commuter students. His unique perspective helped shape the placement of accessible parking that allowed students with disabilities to use their cars more easily to get around campus. He also helped raise issues of accessibility and universal design in conversations regarding campuswide budgets and other major initiatives affecting students. 

“From our first meeting,” said Chancellor Wolf Yeigh, “Chris was fully engaged with the process, honestly interested in University service and frank and open about his perspectives and positionality within our institution. 

“He is open to learning from others and is also very self-aware,” Wolf added. “He is a young man who could use so many excuses to not do, to not succeed, to not even try. And yet, he reminds me each time we chat that most obstacles come from within. 

“He tries, he does and he succeeds.” 

Able and accepting

Growing up with cerebral palsy, Hays faced many barriers to success. From an early age, people consistently doubted his abilities. There were questions about whether he would be able to walk, to speak or to take care of himself and live independently as an adult. 

The hardest barrier to overcome, Hays said, was “having the ability to love and accept myself.” 

Constantly feeling like an outsider, Hays sought the advice of a therapist when he was 19 years old. That was 10 years ago, and Hays considers their ongoing relationship as one of the most profound of his life. “It has allowed me to unearth a myriad of wisdom beneath the many feelings and experiences I had growing up,” he said. “No matter what topics we covered, I found myself returning to one core principle: It is solely upon me to master my own positive inner dialogue and self-worth in order to truly reach my own happiness. 

“When I am at my best, fully applying this philosophy, I am empowered to tackle challenges that I previously perceived with fear and anxiety.” 

He continued, “This mindset affords me the ability to accept criticism without defensiveness, which in turn allows me to honestly reflect upon what was said, providing more effective and constructive growth. This advice, that turned into a tool then developed into a skill, is something I work to perfect daily, just like any other athletic or intellectual skill. 

“This skill has allowed me to equip myself with unique strengths from the struggles I have faced and lessons I have learned,” Hays said. “For me, this has specifically translated into being a strong team member, and that is something I never thought I would be capable of, given my disability.” 

Champion for change

Hays credits his UW Bothell experience with showing him the struggles faced by other communities and with opening his eyes to his own privilege. Throughout his life, he has had strong advocates championing his success — such as his mother when he was younger and now faculty, staff and friends at UW Bothell — and he has met students with disabilities who haven’t had the same support. 

“I feel a sense of responsibility to give to others from what UW Bothell gave to me,” said Hays. “I have honed my capacity for leadership here to be the change I want in the world. 

“I want to enable students like me to succeed, just as what was done for me. I will be their champion.” 

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