UWT grad, 19, humble, smart, prone to doodling

Staff writerJune 14, 2013 

When Cristopher Claeys was 4, his mother, Annie Starwich-Claeys, took a college anatomy class – and he read the textbooks she brought home.

“The next time he wasn’t feeling good, he said, ‘Mom, my uvula hurts,’ ” father Scott Claeys said.

The couple knew early on that Cristopher, their first of three children, was special.

“We had to keep him challenged – and I’m not sure he’s been challenged yet,” Scott Claeys said.

On Friday, Cristopher was one of a record 1,386 graduates from the University of Washington Tacoma.

He’s 19.

In a few weeks, he will start work at Microsoft as a software development engineer.

None of this seems a big deal to him. It’s not that Cristopher doesn’t appreciate what he’s accomplished. There’s no false humility or a sense of superiority in his conversation.

“What got me here was a love of learning,” he said. “I never really had courses that were too hard. If they were tougher, I just spent more time on them. I’ve learned to do school well.”

Cristopher went straight to college from Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, earning high school and university credits at the same time. Over six years at UWT, he commuted from Puyallup and took computer programming, organic chemistry and all the medical school prerequisites. There were classes in Chinese history, oceanography, math and women’s studies.

Along the way, he found time to climb Mount Olympus, the highest summit in the Olympic Mountains, buy and begin restoring a ’79 Porsche, swim with his high school water polo team and work at UWT as a tutor in math and science.

Oh, and he doodled.

“I doodle in class all the time. If I just listen to lectures, I get bored,” he said.

“Sometimes I took a Rubik’s cube to class. I’d ask the professor first, explain that I was paying attention.

“I found not taking notes allowed me to focus more on what was being said.”

It worked. Entering his final quarter, he earned just below an A average, and his final project was ambitious.

“Cristopher came up with a computer system (using a) shower curtain rod and tested it in Clark’s Creek,” his mother said. “It was raining, so he sat there with a tarp over his head. It worked – it measured the flow, water velocity and depth and ultimately could allow seeding of the creek with salmon.

“He wants to make a difference.”

So here is Cristopher Claeys, 19, with a college degree, a high-paying job, a girlfriend and a Porsche. What’s next?

“I have a lot of interests, and don’t think I’m through with school,” he said. “For now computer programming interests me. I can see getting a master’s in chemistry.”

On the list of possible paths to follow, say, when he’s in his 20s? Medical research, nuclear fusion and astrophysics.

Nothing seems to intimidate him, in part because of the way he learned to handle difficult college-level courses at age 14.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve thrown my heart into,” Cristopher said.

Some gifts were natural. He was reading at 18 months, and reading non-fiction books by age 2. When he turned 8, he was reading at a college freshman level.

What may have served him best, however, was Cristopher’s curiosity. There isn’t much that doesn’t interest him, and that turns into a pursuit for knowledge.

Hiking led to mountaineering, which pushed him into mountaineering courses. Soon after turning 16, he began an Internet search for a car he could both afford and restore. He found one, in Canada, and has been working on the classic Porsche since.

“I didn’t learn to drive until last year,” Cristopher said, laughing. “Until then, I never really needed to drive anywhere.”

Having made friends in Tacoma, he plans to get an apartment here and commute to the Microsoft campus in Redmond by carpool, bus or train.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter, the next challenge,” Scott Claeys said.

“I’m proud that he wants to do something that will make a difference, that he enjoys helping people.

“Cristopher can take a difficult subject and explain it to an average person – like me.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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