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Building community is key for Chicago alumnus

June 7, 2022 - Beth Brauer

headshot of Troy Calkins

Troy Calkins (‘88) graduated from James Madison College with a degree in international relations and earned his law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1991. He is the former executive vice president and chief legal officer for Workiva Inc., a software development company.

When Troy Calkins (IR ’88) was an elementary school student in Holt, Michigan, his class took a field trip to the Michigan State University Planetarium. Following their visit, they toured parts of campus and ate lunch in one of the nearby dining halls.

One decade later, during the fall semester of 1984, Calkins entered Case Hall as a first-year student in MSU’s James Madison College. Overcome with a feeling of déjà vu, Calkins realized he had previously dined in the Case cafeteria.

“I had this bizarre flashback…. It was really a full circle moment for me,” Calkins said. 

Attending MSU became the obvious choice for Calkins who was a National Merit Scholar and graduated from an Ann Arbor high school.

“I applied to two colleges: Harvard and MSU. I thought about Harvard just to see what would happen, but attending school out-of-state didn’t seem feasible,” Calkins said. “I was always academically inclined, and everyone expected me to go to college; however, I didn’t have much perspective on how to get there.”

Calkins recalls having to navigate quite a bit on his own, which was the impetus for his recent gift to James Madison to create a bridge program for first-generation college students.

“There’s a lot of good to be done in terms of increasing the diversity of the college-educated population,” said Calkins.

As a first-generation college student himself, Calkins’ desire to help students at-risk of not completing their education is personal.

“I look back and think about some of the guys I knew as a freshman who dropped out. They didn’t drop out because they couldn’t cut it academically,” Calkins said, “If they had had someone who was a resource to them — someone they could go to when they found themselves in a stressful situation, they might have avoided that.”

Troy Calkins sits in his dorm room in Case Hall.
Troy Calkins sits in his room in Case Hall. 

Calkins looked to some of his JMC professors to be that resource, crediting the late Doug Hoekstra, professor of American politics from 1969 to 2006, and his academic adviser Michael Schechter, professor of international relations from 1975 to 2012, who offered important advice about life, suggesting Calkins ought to “let the lenders worry about how you’ll pay back your law school loans.”

After practicing corporate law for nearly 30 years, Calkins divides his time between Chicago and Key West. He enjoys retirement but says he’s willing to re-enter the workforce “should something intriguing come along.”

In the meantime, he remains active as a ‘house husband’ to his partner of more than 28 years, Dr. Robert Liem, a pediatric hematologist, parenting his canine and feline children, tending to the aquatic life in his saltwater aquarium and supporting other philanthropic causes like the Point Foundation, which offers college scholarships to LGBTQ+ students.

At the heart of his commitment to first-gen college excellence, Calkins and his husband are passionate about opportunities to promote growth and a sense of belonging, especially for students who do not have a strong foundation of supports.

“Diversity is an important issue to me, and I mean that in a broad sense,” said Calkins. “It’s really important to foster as many different types of communities as possible. It can be challenging if you don’t come in with some sort of built-in community.”

In addition to the challenges of navigating college and career development, Calkins was keenly aware of the obstacles that would exist had he decided to live openly gay in college.

“When I was in college, I knew two students who were out. One was harassed a fair amount, and the second guy was basically pushed out of the residence hall after he came out halfway through his first year. I don’t know whether he graduated.

It was a very different world then. The idea you could be an openly gay man and go to law school and get a job with a major law firm…that just didn’t compute,” Calkins said.

During law school, Calkins attended a gay student organization for the first time and describes being a nervous wreck. “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.”

Calkins came out at work in the late 1990s and despite some challenges, he says the reception was generally positive. However, he recognizes that living in a major metropolitan city allows him to experience a level of comfort not all possess.

“For people who don’t live in these bubbles that tend to be so accepting, [Pride] takes on a different meaning. It can be affirming to see others show their support. Early in life, Pride Month was helpful for me to believe it was okay to be who I am,” said Calkins, “I think it is a great impetus to meet people like yourself and to build those relationships.”

Creating opportunities and networks for students is hugely rewarding for Calkins. “I want people to feel more at home. Building community can increase the odds of having a successful college experience.”