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Alum Charlton McIlwain: Influencing the Social Landscape

August 13, 2010

The Profile in Excellence award is given by the OBU Alumni Association to a former student who has "demonstrated recognizable accomplishment in his or her profession, business, avocation, or life service in such a way as to bring pride and honor to the University." Each year, Profile In Excellence recipients are featured in OBU Magazine.

It has been said that education is wasted on the young -- that it takes many years after a college experience before a person can truly appreciate the opportunities available in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.

For professor and researcher Dr. Charlton McIlwain, a 1994 Oklahoma Baptist University graduate, the appreciation began before he ever left Bison Hill.

As a family psychology major, McIlwain was a senior sitting in Dr. Oscar Jeske's class one day when he raised his hand with a question.

"He called on me with one of his classic 'What on earth could you possibly want to ask me now?' looks on his face," McIlwain recalled. "I asked, 'What would one do after he or she graduated with a degree in family psychology if he or she did not want to go to graduate school?'" The professor stared at his student in silence for a moment and then replied, "Nothing."

"That one-word reply probably shaped my future career trajectory more than anything else," McIlwain said. "I'd barely gotten by with a 2.7 GPA. I'd never even thought seriously of going to graduate school."

McIlwain put Jeske's claim to test. Following graduation from OBU, he moved to Oklahoma City and assumed the role of a counselor at an in-patient juvenile detention center.

"After getting bitten trying to restrain a kid on one occasion, hit in the eye by a wild punch trying to break up a fight on another, and then refusing to chase a couple of kids who ran away from the facility, I decided this was not really for me," he said.

The next job he took was as a counselor at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. A client alleged that the owner of the facility had engaged in inappropriate conduct. McIlwain reported the alleged conduct to the state medical licensing board and was summarily fired.

The experience ended his interest in counseling as a career, but indicated to the young graduate that his professor had given him an accurate expectation, preparing him for additional education and a larger task. The second sign he was well prepared at OBU came during a master's degree program in human relations at the University of Oklahoma.

"The professor assigned us a 20-page final research paper, and many of my classmates seemed taken aback by the scope and rigor of the assignment," McIlwain said. "Needless to say, I'd done that assignment a dozen times in my two years at OBU. No sweat. Maybe it was just to make myself feel better, but I started comparing my 2.7 OBU G.P.A. to the 3.5s and 4.0s of my classmates in my program."

McIlwain became involved in politics while completing his master's degree and pursuing his Ph.D. degree in communication. He served as campaign press secretary for Ed Crocker in 1996. Although he had never done such a job, he learned the ropes quickly (but his candidate lost). Two years later he worked as the communications director for Laura Boyd, who ran for governor. (She lost.) He later worked as the communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party. In 2000, he was selected to be a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

"Despite the love of politics I developed over those years, I ultimately decided I wanted to pursue an academic career," McIlwain said.

He interviewed for and landed a job at New York University, moving to Manhattan about two weeks prior to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He has been in New York ever since and was promoted from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure in 2009.

As a professor at a research institution, he spends most of his time doing research, writing and publishing work. He also teaches; usually one undergraduate and one graduate course each semester.

McIlwain's research is related to issues of race, media and politics. His work, he said, involves "trying to understand the myriad ways that media shape and are shaped by our attitudes, the language we use and the ways we think and talk about race in America. I am interested in the ways that we are socialized to think about or, in many cases, avoid talking about issues of race and racial discrimination and the ways that our socialization influences other aspects of social and political life."

He said the big challenge is trying to engage people in discussion about a topic many people would rather avoid altogether.

"It is a challenge to try to engage people in productive conversations about the ways that race still impacts the life chances of so many people in this country, when many people would rather believe that racial problems no longer exist or believe that it is counterproductive in the first place to even talk about racial distinctions."

He finds the same challenge rewarding. As McIlwain is often interviewed for stories in national or international media, he has the opportunity to connect more people with the conversation.

"The reward of my work is to have those moments when people are actually engaged - when people are willing to say, 'I will bring my intellect and my passion to bear on this topic, despite whether one agrees or disagrees.' In short, it's rewarding to know that I'm having some small influence on people - even if all that means is that I've gotten to engage in this aspect of civic life rather than just check out."

McIlwain's wife, Raechel Adams, is a passionate advocate for civil rights. She is senior attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she litigates class action cases on behalf of employees who have been discriminated against by their employers. In October 2008, the couple was blessed with a baby boy, Marcus Adam McIlwain, who is passionate about food, Elmo and extreme toddler sports such as attempting swan dives off the kitchen table.

Looking back, McIlwain said OBU professors Dr. Katherine Hale, Dr. Jeff Liles and Dr. Tom Dowdy were instrumental in shaping his worldview. They first piqued his interests in issues of social justice - issues he chose to focus on in his career.

"Each, in their own unique way, and from their differing backgrounds in communication, education and sociology, respectively, really pushed me to think creatively about the world around me, my role and responsibilities in it and the choices I would make to influence my social landscape," McIlwain said.

Odus Compton, then director of OBU's Baptist Student Union, was one of the people McIlwain respected most on campus.

"I admired his approach to spirituality, his ability to empathize with others and his willingness to always say what was on his mind or what he thought you needed to hear at the time," McIlwain said.

He also appreciated the support of Dr. Juanita Johnson, professor emerita of nursing, who, at the time, was the only African American faculty member at OBU.

"In the specific area of research and teaching I do, OBU really provided a context -- a set of experiences -- that I would be able to look back on critically when I think about issues of race and ethnicity," McIlwain said. "OBU was not the most racially diverse, but few schools -- especially of its size -- are. But in many ways it was living and learning and building relationships in that context that really provided me the kind of perspective I have on issues of race, especially as it relates to issues of religion and spirituality, social responsibility and the like. Looking back, I certainly wouldn't have traded it for anything."

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.