Kristi Maldonado of Aberdeen has received a Transforming Lives Award from the Washington State Association of College Trustees.
The awards recognize current and former students whose lives were transformed by attending a Washington community or technical college.
Maldonado is the first recipient from Grays Harbor College in the program’s nine-year history. And, of the 34 honorees from all over the state, they were among just six who were chosen to give a keynote speech at the Feb. 17 awards event in Olympia.
“It is crazy by far, being recognized from across the state,” they told The Daily World. “Some of the others are doing amazing things. It was a room full of overachievers!”
Maldonado, 44, earned an associate of arts from GHC and will graduate Washington State University in May with a bachelor’s degree in communications, with an eye toward a master’s.
Their future wasn’t always so bright.
When Maldonado came out of the closet in South Texas as a teenager, their father kicked them out. Homeless and feeling hopeless, they came to Washington in search of a fresh start.
Maldonado later met Briana Sansaver, who was attending GHC at the time. They are now life partners.
“I volunteered with her for a Christmas toy drive for GHC students,” Maldonado said. “I had never seen a community college do something like that for their students.”
At that event, they also met Jen Gillies, who’s now the college’s Opportunity Grant Program coordinator. Later, when Maldonado enrolled in GHC under an Associate of Arts Direct Transfer Agreement, Gillies hired them under the work-study program.
Aiding in the effort to boost the campus profile of the Diversity and Equity Center was a highlight of Maldonado’s time at GHC.
“The DEC used to be tucked away in a nice remote small corner, off the beaten path,” said Maldonado. “The DEC team knew that nothing screams ‘support’ more than putting it front and center.” The team, led by Sansaver, successfully campaigned to get it moved into the Hub — the center of campus activity.
About a year after transferring to WSU, Maldonado received an offer from the WSU Global campus to manage the Diversity and Equity Group for global students, which they have done for the past three years. They enjoy their role “teaching on diversity, equity, inclusion and multiculturalism to better prepare our students for the diverse workforce and society they are about to enter.”
Even off campus, using the drag king persona Ceasar Hart, Maldonado has become an “out loud activist” for the LGBT+ community. For several years now they have operated Small Town Big Hart’s Drag Revue, producing and performing in shows from Hoquiam to Seattle — and, in the process, raising funds for causes ranging from Beyond Survival to GHC scholarships.
“Over the past five years, the (GHC Gender & Sexuality Alliance) yearly scholarship shows alone have generated over $10,000,” they said. “The goal is to plant seeds, spread love, acceptance and understanding that the LGBTQ community deserves every chance to feel safe, and not live in fear, because of who they love or how they identify.”
Both Maldonado and Gillies also serve on the executive board of Out & Proud Grays Harbor Coalition, the nonprofit behind Grays Harbor Pride and other advocacy efforts.
“It takes a lot to be openly LGBTQ+ and be active in this small community,” said Gillies. “I truly am inspired and get motivated by Kristi’s attitude.”
Looking back, Maldonado attributes that self-confidence to their time at Grays Harbor College.
“My life has been forever changed because of GHC,” they said. “It helped give me the voice to be the advocate I am today.”