Ontario Wooden is Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success and Academic Outreach at North Carolina Central University, but he did not expect to have a career in higher education. He had planned to be an elementary school teacher and perhaps later on become a school superintendent. Ontario grew up in rural southwest Georgia (Albany, GA) and his desire become an elementary school teacher was inspired grandmother’s desire to be a teacher, but she was not able to realize that dream.
In his senior year of college, a friend was running for President of the Student Body and asked him to run along with her in the Vice President of the Student Body position. Ontario decided to run, and they were both elected. As Vice President of the Student Body, he had the opportunity to learn about the way that universities operate and had close contact with the President and Vice Presidents on campus. This experience totally changed the trajectory of his career.
Ontario Wooden obtained his college degree in Early Childhood Education at Albany State University and then went on to focus on higher education for his master’s and his PhD at Indiana University. He has been a leader in higher education administration for many years at Albany State University and subsequently at North Carolina Central University. He is passionate about helping people and particularly motivated by opportunities he has to support low income and first-generation college students.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
What I love is helping people. I got a phone call last night from a student that I met 16 years ago who is now married, has a daughter, and is working on a doctorate. He just wanted to have a conversation and catch up because of the support that I provided him as an undergraduate student. Just this morning a had a conversation with a former student who is a tenured track professor. Both of these students were from low income and first-generation college student backgrounds. I cannot put into words how much it means to me to see what some of these people are able to become and the fact that I had a small part in that. I love being able to see the results of supporting and helping people. At my core, that is important to me.
What keeps you motivated?
The more I come across students who have been able to achieve their personal and career goals, it overwhelms me. I am a big Chris Botti fan, and my wife and I went to his concert in New York City. I have a student that lives in New York and we got together with the student. He had a chance to meet my wife. We had lunch. The student went back to work, and we went with enjoying being in the city. I got a text message from that student yesterday. “I just sent an email to your work email. I’m applying for a graduate program. I need you to write me a letter of recommendation.” It is having the opportunity to support these students’ success that really makes all the difference and keeps me motivated.
How do you motivate others?
I love getting ideas from other people on how we should move forward. It is very valuable. It always works well for me. It motivates people when you value their ideas. All of the people you meet in higher education have been to college, and none of us have gone to college to keep all of this information to ourselves. We want to share ideas. It’s a way to get things done, to innovate, and to motivate.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
I think about all those folks who came before me who fought in the Civil Rights Movement to give African-American people a place at the table. John Lewis immediately comes to mind. He passed away last week. When you think about a young man in his 20s who could have lost his life being beat for marching for the right to vote in Alabama and being able to have a 30+ year career in the Congress, it’s just amazing. John Lewis’ story really shows us the greatness of our country. He was from Alabama, and I’m from Georgia, right next door, and his life and his career resonates with me. I don’t think he even realized that the sacrifice that he would make on that bridge would have this impact all these years later, but he was able to live to 80 years old and actually see that what he did wasn’t in vain. He inspired me.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
It has been a struggle. If you look at my CV, it’s like, wait a minute? You’ve gone through the tenure process and all that, and you’ve been an administrator the entire time? I maintain my work/life balance by making it my goal to accomplish three things each day. By Friday, you have accomplished 15 things. In two weeks, you’ve accomplished 30 things. In a month, you’ve accomplished 60 things. No matter how big or how small, you keep a sense of accomplishment in your mind.
There have been a lot of challenges in having a work/life balance but it helps that I married a girl that I told she was going to be my wife when we were 13 years old and this little bouncy one-year-old boy that we now have. That really helps me to put things in perspective.
It helps to also remember that sometimes being pushed off your path is putting you on your path.
What has been the hardest obstacle you’ve overcome?
Part of what helps me to have relationships with students and what gives me some credibility is that I was 26 years old before I met my father. That is a shared experience, a difficulty that low income and first-generation college students can relate to. Some of these students have never had a parent or they had a parent die when they were much younger. It encourages them they maybe they can become an attorney, or an MD, or become a professor. It was a hard obstacle for me to not know my father, but I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my entire life being angry or try to find the answer to all of the questions and circumstances around us not meeting. The fact that I would be able to use this as a way to share and connect with students, to encourage and motivate them, that has reaped benefits not only for students, but it’s also helped me. You start to realize that in every person’s life there are things that we all have to work though and overcome. You can either be bitter about them, or you can decide to use that energy in another way. It’s been a connecting point for me and my students.
What trends in your industry excite you?
We have been so focused on things we would no longer be allowed to do, but in a post COVID environment we can look for new ideas and make some things happen and not have to change everything up. Right now, we may not be able to send students abroad, but we can use the technology that is available to create virtual study abroad experiences. Virtual study abroad is a trend in the international student space right now and that we would like to have some students involved in.
Explain the proudest day of your professional life.
When I was 33 years old, I became the Dean of the University College at North Carolina Central University. Being a Dean on a college campus is an accomplishment. Inherent in that success was the opportunity to continue to have a direct impact on the success of the students and the success of the institution. For me, it is not about what can be accomplished solely by me, but again, through the collaboration between my team, the faculty, the staff, and definitely from students doing the work that they needed to do to reach certain goals. I have gone on and taken on additional titles in higher ed and I’ve accomplished a lot of things since then, but this one was one position that had my heart because it meant so much to me to achieve it.