FIU Social work assistant professor to students: “If I can make it, so can you”

As a teenager, Dr. Courtney Wilson never imagined that he would graduate with a Ph.D. one day.

"School was probably one of the scariest things for me at that time," said Dr. Wilson as he recalls his high school years. He lived in New York City in a rented apartment with his single mother and two siblings. After their landlord passed away and due to a limited income, Dr. Wilson's family was forced to split and find new places to call home. Being the youngest in the family, Dr. Wilson stayed with his mom and lived in a homeless shelter in uptown Manhattan. "I was starting high school, living in a shelter and trying to make friends," he said. "I had friends asking to come over to my house after school, and I'd say no, not today. There was a lot of anxiety around it."

Experiences like these—although he didn't know it at the time—would help shape Dr. Wilson into the man, educator, and researcher he is today.

Dr. Wilson is one of the latest Social Work assistant professors to join the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work at Florida International University (FIU). He holds degrees from Syracuse University, Touro College, and a Ph.D. in Social Work from the University of Central Florida. His experience working with youth in New York City garnered him attention from a local New York television station, as well as his alma mater . Over the years, he's developed an interest in working with at-risk populations, communities, educational institutions, and city council members to increase opportunities available to marginalized groups.

We connected with Dr. Wilson to learn more about his life before FIU and how he got to where he is today.

Stempel College: Dr. Wilson, how did you end up working in social work?
Dr. Wilson: When I graduated from Syracuse University, I found difficulties finding a job that gave me purpose and paid enough. I worked as a case manager for about two years, and it was during that time I realized I wanted to do more in the mezzo and macro areas. My job at the time felt very limiting because there was only so much I could do for the people I was serving. That's what pushed me to get my master's in social work. So, I went to Touro College in New York City, and during that period, I went from wanting to get a better-paying career to wanting to make a significant change in people's lives.

It was during my master's program that I began to focus on educational outcomes for minority populations, helping teenagers get on the right track and helping them figure out what they want to do post-high school.

Stempel College: What inspired you to work with this age group?Dr. Wilson: I grew up in a family of four. I was the youngest and the first to go to college in my family. In high school, there was no direction whatsoever. It was challenging because I didn't have anyone to say, hey, this is what to expect, or this is what you should study. I felt like if I had more direction when it came to undergraduate study, I would've structured my goals a little bit differently.

Stempel College: How did you build trust with these teenagers?

Dr. Wilson: The best tool in my belt for that was the ability to understand where the students were coming from. As I listened to their stories, it became apparent that we shared similar upbringings and struggles. To connect with them, I shared stories of my own upbringing. I believe this gave them hope because there I was, a young black man who dressed in suits and carried myself well despite my past. Having them understand that I was more like them and not a kid who grew up with a medium to high-income class family with a mom and dad helped them see that if I made it, they could make it.

I've worked with countless students to help them pursue their dreams. For example, I helped one student get into Syracuse University from a high school that hadn't had a student accepted to Syracuse University in over 25 years.

Stempel College: Did you have any mentors along the way that helped you as you progressed in your career?Dr. Wilson: Christopher Weiss from Syracuse University has been instrumental in helping me keep a steady head. If it weren't for him, I probably would have left Syracuse to pursue a non-academic job. I wanted to model myself after him, which is kind of how the focus of social work started. He's not a social worker, but from what he did, I saw social work as being all-encompassing. He's working at the micro-level doing one-on-one student engagement, which is a bit different from what I wanted to do. For me, it wasn't just about working at the micro-level, I wanted to reach entire communities.

During my early to mid-twenties, I realized that I wanted to dedicate myself to something larger than me, which is why I pursued my Ph.D. I believe it was the best route I could take to do this.

Stempel College: What do you hope to bring to Miami and the community now that you are here?Dr. Wilson: I've always focused on education, educational attainment, and building educational capacity for youth. In Miami-Dade County, I want to see an increase in black and brown representation in higher education.
I want to be able to do that through my research as well. Additionally, I want to function as a mentor—as someone students can look up to and say, well, if you made it, I could make it. I want students to feel comfortable reaching out to me to discuss issues and barriers they may have that hinder success. I'd like to work with them to help them overcome those barriers and build capacity and resilience. Ideally, I want to help motivate and encourage students to push beyond the limits they've set for themselves and believe that graduate school or a Ph.D. program is achievable.

Stempel College: What's next for you?

Dr. Wilson: Right now, I'm working with colleagues and the Miami-Dade community to apply for grant funding aimed at increasing post-secondary educational opportunities.

Learn more about the School of Social Work at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.