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Grit and grades: Christopher Wilson brings both academic rigor and a real-world perspective to the classroom

By Elizabeth Exline
April 02, 2021 • 4 minute read

Christopher Wilson, College of Health Professions, is a recipient of University of Phoenix’s 2020 Faculty of the Year Award. Of more than 1,300 nominations from students, faculty and staff, only 15 faculty members receive this annual recognition in honor of their excellence.

When Christopher Wilson took his kids to the Oregon State Fair in August 2004, he wasn’t thinking about school. He wasn’t thinking about his own background, which included a difficult childhood and 15 years of military service, part of which was spent in the Bosnian War. But that visit to the fair would prove as transformative as those experiences.

“I saw the University of Phoenix (UOPX) booth,” he recalls. “After many starts and stops in my life with college, I simply wanted to complete my degree. UOPX and Portland State became the two places I was considering, and UOPX won because of the systems they have to support students. I didn’t have that support anywhere else.”

“Also, I felt like I was directly involved in my education. It was empowering.”

Wilson would go on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Human Services (BSHS) from UOPX in 2008 and his Education Specialist and Master of Science in Leadership degrees at other universities. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Education with an emphasis on Leadership in Higher Education. Wilson has, as he says, been going to school forever. And it was at UPOX where he discovered this thirst for knowledge.

Detour to the classroom

Wilson’s path to teaching was as circuitous as his road to college. While today he teaches traditional and competency-based Master of Health Administration courses at UOPX, as well as middle school math and science in the East St. Louis School District in Illinois, he hasn’t always worked in education.

In addition to his time in the Army National Guard, Wilson has worked at the Oregon State Hospital as the director of education and development, and at the Medicaid office of the Oregon Health Authority. He served as a program chair for UOPX’s College of Healthcare Administration (now College of Health Professions) from 2015 to 2018, and he was a driving force behind the founding of the College of Health Professions’ honor society, Upsilon Phi Delta, which now has upward of 2,000 members.

Perhaps most tellingly, Wilson doesn’t mention any of this himself. “Christopher also collaborated on many other initiatives,” says Rich Schultz, Ph.D., who is the chair of the College of Health Professions and faculty supervisor. “He is fondly remembered as a team player, leader, subject matter expert and an altruistic professional!”

A force for change

Dr. Schultz, who has worked with Wilson in multiple capacities, also serves as a member of Wilson’s dissertation committee and supervises him within the College of Health Professions. As a result, Dr. Schultz is uniquely positioned to understand what distinguishes Wilson in the classroom.

“Christopher … provides the safety net for failure, which he translates into learning moments from which student successes are soon realized,” Dr. Schultz explains.

Wilson’s own observations bear this out. His favorite courses to teach often center on ethics.

The Master of Health Administration (MHA) class on authentic leadership, for example, opened Wilson’s eyes to the impact these course discussions can have on students. “We do an asynchronous video chat where students can post responses,” Wilson explains. “That’s been received so well by the students because it changes and challenges them.”

This point was driven home for Wilson when he saw one response in particular. An African American student — grappling with the concept of leadership against a backdrop of protests around social justice — laid bare the situation and his struggle in his video. You can hear children in the background as he pauses in between thoughts, trying to find a path forward from this intersection of personal emotion and academic theory. “It hit me that what we were doing was special,” Wilson recalls of seeing the video for the first time.

The UOPX difference

This example is part of a bigger trend around UOPX courses that Wilson appreciates. “We have bigger, more complicated conversations about the issues in the world today, but in an academic environment,” Wilson says.

These conversations may be inspired by Wilson’s course material and approach, but he notes that it’s the students themselves who really bring the classroom experience to life. He has had doctors and pharmacists in his class as well as students with less professional experience. But everyone, he says, learns from one another.

“The student who’s a pharmacist and the student working at the convenience store learn from each other,” Wilson says. “A lot of students want to get this degree to validate their knowledge, but they also have to figure out what they don’t know.” There are, he points out, career paths in healthcare that go far beyond hospitals. And for any given student, engaging with peers can be part of figuring out which path is the right one for him/her.

Perhaps because of seeing this in the classroom, or perhaps because of his own multifaceted background, Wilson is a champion of UOPX’s MHA competency-based education (CBE) program, which translates real-life work experience into college course credit for qualifying students. (Wilson teaches organizational leadership and dynamics as well as authentic leadership.)

“We meet students where they are and raise them up,” Wilson says. Where other schools might specialize in pedagogy, UOPX excels in andragogy, or the art of teaching to adults.

After all, the thrill of teaching lies in finding, as Wilson puts it, that “spark” in a student. It’s Wilson’s favorite part of the job, and it’s why his UOPX students describe him as both demanding and supportive.

It’s also largely what has kept him going on his own career path, even when the world told him he wasn’t smart enough or good enough. Wilson is the first in his family to earn a college degree, and he has had, he says, encountered his fair share of closed doors along the way.

“I’m the grittiest person,” he says. “And so are our students.”