Health and Wellbeing
Chris Smith Comes to Charlotte Ready to Utilize Past Experiences
By Wyatt Crosher, Assistant Director of Communications for Student Affairs
Chris Smith’s journey to becoming UNC Charlotte’s new associate vice chancellor for student affairs with health and wellbeing started at a conference he attended as a college undergraduate.
Before coming to the University, and before getting to travel to help fight Ebola and Zika viruses in Africa and Atlanta, Smith first had to choose the public health route. A lecture by a professor from Tuskegee University, his now-alma mater, set that all forward.
“He gave me the high-level overview of what public health is,” Smith said. “It was enough of a tipping point for me to decide that, instead of treating disease at an individual level, I want to prevent it at the population level. And that put me down my path.”
Prior to his arrival at Charlotte on Nov. 1, Smith has held various roles within multiple universities, as well as more than a decade of time working for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He said this new opportunity at Charlotte feels like an amalgamation of everything that came prior.
“I've worked at the federal government level, and I've worked at a small college,” Smith said. “Finding an opportunity to blend those two here at a place like UNC Charlotte is most exciting."
Smith was born in Augusta, Georgia and earned a bachelor in clinical laboratory science at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. He then received his master in public health at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, concentrating in behavioral science and health education, with a specific focus on health disparities.
After two years working for the National Cancer Institute, Smith transitioned to the CDC, where he participated in a public health management fellowship in Georgia and Kentucky.
Smith’s work with the CDC eventually led him to Michigan, where he was a public health advisor that helped run the state’s immunization program.
"While there, I did some really exciting things like deploying to West Africa during the Ebola virus response, as well as down to Atlanta for the Zika virus response the following summer,” Smith said. “I really got a chance to blend my skills from a prevention and public health system management viewpoint.”
Then, as Smith told it: “I married a college faculty member, and that changes your life all the way.”
Smith’s wife ended up at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. The timings lined up with Kenyon’s creation of a director of health and counseling position, and Smith started at Kenyon in Fall 2017. He was promoted to senior director of wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic, a position he held until accepting his role at Charlotte.
“It was a fortuitous thing for the campus public health guy to be there and to use that skill set [during the start of COVID-19], not only to keep the college open, but then to think about the future,” Smith said. “It's one thing to manage a pandemic. It's another to already start projecting beyond that pandemic as to how we lead and have some of the infrastructure things that we need to make sure this campus was the best place possible for our students and employees.”
Eventually, Smith and his wife wanted to move closer to home for his two children. That’s when Smith saw the Charlotte position open, an application process that excited him from start to finish.
Chris Smith (far right) with family, including his wife, Arianna (third from right) and daughters Georgia (fourth from right) and Rue (second from right)
Aside from the location, Smith was intrigued by being in the UNC System, and by the relative youth of Charlotte as a University compared to its peers.
“This is one of the younger campuses within the system, and I like that because that means that there's some things already established, but its path forward is not fully created and carved out,” Smith said. “I like having that opportunity to grow. There's a wide open array of things that could happen to really make this campus the cutting edge.”
Kenyon College has a current enrollment of less than 1,900 students, so the transition to Charlotte’s total enrollment of over 30,000 could take some time. But Smith has made a major career transition before, going from his work with the CDC into that position at Kenyon.
"It was bananas. That's the best way I can describe it,” he said. “In the state of Michigan, we were serving a 10-million resident population. To transition into a small school like Kenyon College that wasn't even at 2,000 students enrolled, with a budget that was significantly less, you figure out how to do good program operations. Charlotte’s a huge campus compared to Kenyon College, but it's still not as big as 10 million residents of a state, so taking my time to develop and cultivate those relationships will help me long term.”
After a little more than a month on campus, Smith said he has been surprised at how small the campus can feel, and how quickly relationships can grow. Already, Smith has worked with Charlotte’s Student Government Association (SGA), meeting with the full general assembly with the intention to try and get an idea of what this large student population wants from its Health and Wellbeing unit.
But as for long-term goals for himself or the unit, Smith is not ready to commit to anything until he feels he gets a larger understanding of Charlotte as a University.
"A lot of my staff have already asked me 'What's our vision? What's our goal?' Transparently, I've told them, 'I don't know yet,'” Smith said. “When I hire new folks, they get a cursory sponge period where they just get to soak up the institution and the culture. I think that’s one of the best things I can do: Learn some of those contextual things so that they become our foundation and we can build on that.”
After a career path that has winded through Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, Smith is ready to begin his journey at Charlotte, stepping into a campus he is excited to call home.
"This is an opportunity-rich environment," Smith said. “I think the novelty of what happens here, and the innovation, both make me feel like this is home."