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There are few people you encounter who believe wholeheartedly in a cause and who have dedicated their entire life to one organization or one community. Christine Wilkinson is a model for that distinction. Wilkinson is ASU’s senior vice president and secretary, the first female minority to hold that title. She has an unwavering commitment to the betterment of Arizona.
Wilkinson’s career at ASU and achievements span decades. Throughout the years she has inspired generations of educators, leaders and creators. She has collaboratively worked to solve problems and find ways to better our society, her reach extending into surrounding Arizona communities.
Because of her contributions to education and her community, Wilkinson is being inducted Thursday to the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame as a Living Legacy. Living Legacies are exceptional, inspirational women who have reached a high level of professional accomplishments in their chosen endeavors. She took a moment to chat with ASU Now about this honor.
Question: What do you think is your most significant contribution to ASU or the Arizona community?
Answer: I think most people don’t have a singular achievement that probably made the difference. I hope that what I have done — and always with other people, always with my colleagues — is prepare future leaders, improving lives, improving the welfare of our community and making it a better place to live. I’ve had the absolute fortune and opportunity to be at a place where the focus has been on preparing future leaders in all parts of society. All of which I have been involved touches on that, including my involvement in the community, my involvement with nonprofit organizations that I do believe are making a difference.
Q: What led you to choose a career in education?
A: My father and mother were significant role models. My father was a professor and coach at the university for many years, before I ever arrived. Having grown up here, I felt I wanted to be in education. I initially thought it would be in secondary education so I prepared to be a high school English teacher and high school counselor.
Q: Who were your role models, both toward the beginning of your career and now?
A: My parents were clearly my role models and mentors very early on and both by what they did, how they raised my sister and me and what they did professionally and in the community. All of that really made a difference. I think now, the people who influenced me have a strong positive value system and are grounded. It could be someone who is being the face of the university at the front desk or those who are developing programs or are in senior-level roles. You are really influenced by the people you’re around, and I have been absolutely blessed by those who I work with daily and they clearly make the difference.
Q: On a similar note, did you have mentors that help shape your career?
A: “Mentors” is an interesting term because I think for some individuals you can form a relationship, of mentoring somone or being mentored by someone, but I often see where over a career you can actually watch individuals and in a different way be mentored by them and they may not even know it. You watch how they administer. Do leaders, by their action, follow what they say? Do they take the time to listen? I think, for as long as many of us have been in administration and a leadership role, we sometimes don’t listen as much as we should or more carefully than we should so that decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Listening allows you to bring people along with you in a collective decision and advance.
Q: What achievements are you most proud of?
A: You know we can be proud of a number of achievements that we have worked on as a team with other people. If I were to say the areas in which I have a personal feeling of perhaps helping somebody, it’s those individuals come back. I just had someone come up to me today and say I gave them an opportunity to go to college. She knew that I probably didn’t even know that — how I met with her and her family and gave her an opportunity has made the difference in her life. That always takes me aback because I think that’s part of what we do. To have someone remember that 30 years later, just absolutely made my day.
The same in the community — there’s over 1,000 nonprofits in the metropolitan area and I think they’re all doing very hard, very serious work, and the ones I’ve chosen I hope are ones that, in each case, we’re trying to impact individuals directly and not through multiple organizations but directly. Whether it’s the Red Cross and helping with disaster relief or the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization or Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, which I have been or am currently actively involved in now, I can see what difference they make and see a number of different challenges that continue. We need a lot of people to help in those areas, but wherever we can make a difference is terrific.
Q: You’re being inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. What do you see as the biggest issues for Arizona women in the next few years?
A: I think as Secretary Clinton said it best, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” I think for everyone we have to realize how important education is and that we’re challenged by a pipeline that we have to broaden every day, even now. I see at commencement when we ask how many [students] are the first ones to finish college in your family, and we still have the majority standing up. I get chills because I know it’s making a difference. So that’s men and women working on that.
I think for women there’s still much to be done, advancing women throughout organizations and in leadership roles and to understand one woman or one minority is not really representative of a whole. To ask them to be in that position is probably a bit unfair. If you have more diversity in your boards, in your departments, in your organizations you’ll hear different perspectives and you’ll have a better conversation and discussion before making a decision, but it’s just a broader discussion and it’s a richer one. I think there’s still room for improvement. Women need to be in more leadership positions and in many different areas. I think it’s good but … more. More diversity in general, beyond gender, is important.
Q: You are the first Living Legacy awardee in the field of education. What does this honor mean to you?
A: I was absolutely astounded. I understand now, I didn’t know at the time, the vast majority of the recipients are historical figures. I am the one of four people that’s living and I’m very happy to be in that category [laughs]. Happy to be in the living! To be selected for education, which I’ve always believed in and I believe it’s my life script, is really heartwarming. The fact that my community leadership was noted along with my role as an educator took me aback because I just think that’s part of what we do, it’s what my family has always done. I was very honored and humbled by the fact they had community leader and educator.
Q: What wisdom would you impart on women who want to emulate your success?
A: I don’t think there’s any one recipe for success. I have said that leadership involves many shapes and sizes and voices. By being soft-spoken doesn’t mean you’re soft-headed. Most of us are goal-directed, but we have to realize there are many paths to get to that goal. Sometimes when there’s a detour, you can still get back to it. Other times you find that detour leads you into another amazing opportunity. Above all, many voices and keep advancing.
Top photo: President and CEO of the ASU Alumni Association Christine Wilkinson speaks at a community dialogue put on by Los Diablos, a chapter of the ASU Alumni Association, in August 2016. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now