Faculty Stories: Derrick Willis

Derrick Willis

Program: Anthropology

Derrick Willis worked as a medical anthropologist, educating people in his community about HIV. He wanted to make a difference, having lost his oldest brother to the disease. Now he encourages anthropology students to pursue what gives them meaning in life.

“When I was getting my master’s, I had so many opportunities to work with nonprofits in the medical anthropology arena. It took a while for me to get my Ph.D. because I was offered positions to run different programs like HIV prevention. I had so many cool opportunities to apply what I learned in the classroom, to make a livelihood and make a difference in my community. I bring those experiences back when I talk to my students, and I show them how they can make a difference.”

Willis joined the anthropology faculty at COD after teaching at both four-year and community colleges in his home state of Michigan. He wanted a full-time position and COD needed someone with the experience and expertise to develop a new Business Anthropology certificate. With its diverse study body and innovative, cutting-edge programs like 3+1, COD was a great fit for Willis.

“COD is not your mom and dad’s community college. There is a chance for me to do really good work. I have students who have transferred from here go to Columbia University. I have people in the Honors program. I have students in my methods class who are getting a chance to present papers at the Society for Applied Anthropology. The type of students we get to mold and shape is a real high caliber. We can raise the bar and they can meet it. COD for me is a no-brainer. I’m very happy to be in a place like COD.”

Willis learned early on the value of education from his father, a share cropper turned automotive welder who wanted more for his children. Losing his brother to HIV and realizing the breadth of its devastation, particularly in the African-American community, prompted Willis to take action. He turned to Wayne State University, where he met an anthropology professor, Dr. Andrea Sankar, who would become his mentor and advisor.

“I wanted to know how to get involved, get educated and talk to my community. I wanted to see how I could be the change agent in my own community around this issue. So I got educated and met Dr. Sankar, who was doing research in this area. She took me under her wings and made me who I am today. She really showed me a lot, what it meant to be a professional as an anthropologist.”

Willis wants pay it forward and inspire his students. He hopes to develop an exchange program overseas, allowing him to do more research and provide some really great experiences for his students.

“The idea of working with students has been a real passion, a calling. I find that education is transformative, where you start out and where you end up. I’m always looking for ways to apply those things my students read about in books and see how it fits in their real lives. When they see that and the light clicks on, you see them getting excited about learning.”

More about the Anthropology program