Derrick Willis, alumni spotlight

Derrick Willis, alumni spotlight

Derrick Willis, alumni spotlight


Derrick Willis entered graduate school at Wayne State University with goals of serving his community and honoring his parents’ legacy. He believes education is transformative. “Through education, we get to be change agents and not just passive products of our culture,” said Willis. Professor Willis learned that firsthand through his family and in classes, seminars and research projects he had the opportunity to work on while at Wayne State University.

He is the son of a sharecropper who was forced to drop out of school in third grade to work full-time in the fields. His father married and left rural Georgia and headed to Detroit to work in the factories at Chrysler. Prof. Willis understood his father wanted more for his children because of opportunities we had through education.

At WSU, the education Prof. Willis received from his mentors, Dr. Andrea Sankar and Dr. Mark Luborsky, has had a profound impact on his life. Lessons learned in the classroom, on research projects, through life experiences and later as a teacher assistant have molded him into the professor he has matured into at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL.

Professor Willis was hired by the College of DuPage (COD) in the Fall of 2011 as an applied anthropology professor to create a Business Anthropology Certificate Program at this community college. The hiring committee explained to him that they had interviewed prospective hires for two years without filling the position. Upon seeing his experience working on research projects in graduate school, as well as his teaching experience at WSU with its reputation regarding applied anthropology, Prof. Willis was interviewed and hired.

Students in the Business Anthropology Certificate Program take a year-long methods class involving developing a research project, conducting the research, analyzing the results and submitting abstracts to the Society for Applied Anthropology. Recently, all seven current students had their abstracts accepted for the SFAA in Albuquerque, NM, Pittsburgh, PA, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Willis has been recognized for his teaching excellence by his peers and students through receiving the Outstanding Divisional Faculty of the Year award in 2013-2014. In addition, he has received the Innovation Award from the IDEA Center at College of DuPage based on research a recent group of his methods class students conducted on a funded study exploring how students use the library and make it more accessible. One student from this study attended Beloit College in Wisconsin to earn her bachelor's in psychology. She has returned to the community to work at the Rush Medical Group as a research assistant on a federally funded project to study seniors and risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

This student remembers the article Professor Willis assigned in his methods class about the retirement process and rituals, which was written by Dr. Luborsky. This article piqued her interest in gerontology. Professor Willis feels that his journey in education has come full circle. He now prepares and encourages his students in the words of Gandhi to “be the change they want to see in the world” as opposed to seeing themselves as passive products of their environment.