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Meet 2019 Forward under 40 Award Recipient Lavar Charleston MS’07, PHD’10

In the international movement to create college opportunity for all, LaVar Charleston is making waves of change. Colleges and universities at home and abroad look to him for his voice and award-winning scholarship exploring how more students can access higher education.

UW Major: Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
Age: 39 | McFarland, Wisconsin
Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Diversity, Engagement, and Success; University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

In the international movement to create college opportunity for all, LaVar Charleston is making waves of change. Colleges and universities at home and abroad look to him for his voice and award-winning scholarship exploring how more students can access higher education.

Charleston is an expert about the kinds of support that students need to stay enrolled and succeed in college and about how to help them prepare for grad school. He’s also studied how to motivate more students from underrepresented groups toward career paths in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

While at UW–Madison, Charleston was part of the team that helped launch Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB), which promotes equitable environments for learning and working in higher education.

Charleston, who lettered in football as an undergraduate, also helped to develop Beyond the Game, a curriculum that helps student-athletes plan for careers outside professional sports. The program, which has been used at UW–Madison, was designed to help African American, male college athletes more strongly identify with the academic side of their student experience.

He also taught courses on leadership and intersecting identities for his home department, Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA).

“UW–Madison and ELPA literally changed my life,” Charleston says. “ELPA has effectively given me the tools to influence policy, practice, and innovative change at the local, national, and even an international level. UW–Madison seems to take the spark that students have and expand it until it lights up every
corner of the globe.”

This summer, Charleston is set to mark his two-year anniversary at UW–Whitewater, where he works to improve the student experience for every Warhawk. As assistant vice chancellor, he guides a portfolio of about 15 programs — precollege, undergraduate research, honors, community-based learning, study abroad, support for underrepresented students, and more — all designed to engage students in learning and campus life.

“I truly believe UW–Whitewater is one of Wisconsin’s hidden treasures,” he says.

Photo by Andy Manis

Q&A with LaVar Charleston

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best piece of advice I have ever received came from my mother. She always told me that I could do whatever I put my mind to. She would quote Scriptures like, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” To this day, whenever I am faced with difficulties, even something as simple as achieving a bench press weight that I have been striving for, I remember this advice and quote this Scripture to myself in an effort to achieve whatever goal is set before me.

What are you reading now?

This may be a bit embarrassing, but I have more books on my reading list than I have ever read. Because the nature of my work entails lots of reading and keeping up with current literature (e.g., manuscripts, journal articles, academic texts), I rarely read for fun. In fact, even the books I attempt to read for leisure (e.g., Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele, one of the last books I’ve read) often inform my work. If I am engaging in leisure time, I would honestly rather veg out on some action/sci-fi flick like one of the Marvel movies. One of my nicknames as an undergrad was Colossus, only spelled with a “K.” If you know anything about Marvel, you are likely familiar with this character. I am a huge fan, so as opposed to the next hot book coming out, I look forward to the next Marvel or DC Universe flick.

What is the one thing every UW student must do?

UW students must actively engage with their support systems. While we know that it takes a level of aptitude to be academically successful, research has informed us that student success is also largely socially constructed. It is important to have a cadre of mentors and support including peers, family, friends, staff, and faculty. I truly believe in the old adage that it takes a village. We could and should rely on each other during hardships … both academically and socially. We must use every tool available to not just survive college, but to thrive in college. As college administrators and folks who work in the higher education system, we must create these spaces and engineer these support systems for all students; particularly our first generation and historically marginalized students.

What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?

Life is too short not to pursue your dreams. Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” No matter how difficult the path, pursue your dreams. We do not grow when things are easy; we grow when we face challenges. The obstacles we face do not block the path, they are the path. So in short, I would tell graduating seniors not to wait for good things to happen to them … go out and make good things happen. Moreover, if you are still trying to find yourself (as many of us are), I found that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. You cannot go wrong.

What occupies your free time?

My free time is occupied taking care of my rare and exotic fish. I breed freshwater stingrays and have many other rarer fish as a hobby. Keeping and watching my fish is almost therapeutic for me. It is not uncommon for me to grab a glass of wine, sit in front of one of my fish tanks, and decompress from the stresses of life. I find it very relaxing. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I love to ride motorcycles, travel, and engage in adrenaline-yielding activities like cliff jumping.

What was your first job?

My first job was actually at a day care center. My stepmom opened a center called Triumphant Tots, and I assisted her in caring for the kids. I truly enjoyed that job as I truly love kids … as long as I can send them home to their parents at the end of the day.

If you could trade places with any person for a week — living or dead, real or fictional — who would it be?

I consider myself a closet thespian; I absolutely love the arts … acting, singing, you name it. I would love to trade places with Lin-Manuel Miranda, since he has brilliantly combined history and his passion for music and the arts (as in the play Hamilton), and he still seems to be grounded in community. I am truly impressed with his work.

What is your favorite quote?

I have many quotes that I like. Being a native Detroiter, I will have to go with the quote I mentioned earlier from Henry Ford, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” It is simple yet powerful.

Who is your hero, or who or what inspires you?

This is a tough question as several folks for several different reasons inspire me. If I had to select one person, I would probably say my brother Dr. Larry Charleston IV. He is only 14 months older than I am, but I often joke that he is the smarter, slenderer, more disciplined version of me. His discipline to commit to multiple endeavors and diligently work towards greatness in each of his efforts is remarkable, and I will forever admire him because of it. He is a neurology professor at the University of Michigan, and I am extremely proud of him.

What’s next for you?

This is an excellent question. None of my trajectory heretofore was planned. I am diligently committed to the work of creating equitable and inclusive working and learning environments, and wherever this commitment takes me, I am genuinely open.

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