Baker Harrell is more than an award-winning entrepreneur. He is a force for change. This year, Harrell’s Austin-based nonprofit, It’s Time Texas (ITT), will improve the health of more than 5 million Texans in over 550 communities by empowering people to work together to become healthier. The nonprofit is quickly gaining ground across the state, with more than 50 partners and 2,500 participating schools and organizations.
So what led an already successful champion of social change back to the College of Education to earn a doctorate? Harrell explains that the choice, while proving a true challenge, was integral to his continued success.
As CEO of It’s Time Texas, I work in the public health field, which is a very scientific sector. While it is certainly not required to have an advanced degree to be successful in this field, I believed that pursuing a Ph.D. would allow me to more deeply understand and better address the complex challenges that we are tackling at ITT. In many ways, ITT is my master’s and Ph.D. work come to life.
My doctoral research focused on social change approaches to improve population health. My dissertation tracked major societal shifts in the U.S. that have likely contributed to the “obesogenic” social environment in which most Americans now live. I compared and contrasted social marketing and social movements as potential approaches to address this issue.
By attending the College of Education, I became more proficient as a lifelong learner and deepened my understanding of who I am as a person (especially my many limitations) through the process. Earning my Ph.D. was the dying wish of my grandfather, for whom I am named, and that was definitely the most special aspect of crossing the finish line.
After completing my master’s degree in health education at UT Austin, I wandered the university as a “homeless” Ph.D. student for nearly two years, taking classes in a variety of departments. When I could not find a department that would allow me to pursue the interdisciplinary course of study that interested me, I decided that I would discontinue my studies. Around this time, I ran into Dr. Jan Todd, with whom I had bonded early in my master’s work. When I told her about my situation, she informed me that she had recently created an interdisciplinary Ph.D. track in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education for “unconventional” students like me. If not for Dr. Todd, my journey would have been cut short.
I think the breadth of disciplines that are housed within the College of Education makes it uniquely fertile ground for students who, like me, are interested in the new knowledge and innovations that can only be generated within the intersection of disparate fields, theories, and disciplines. More specifically, I so enjoyed and benefited from the opportunity to work with and learn from many talented professionals within the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, and I am forever grateful to Dr. Todd for giving me the freedom, encouragement, and support to pursue my rather circuitous academic journey.
Because I was working full-time while pursuing my master’s and Ph.D. at UT, I would say that my ability to constantly apply what I was learning in school in the professional sphere was incredibly helpful. I was fortunate to have wonderful professors who helped shape me professionally and academically. In addition to Dr. Todd, Drs. Bartholomew, Hunt, Kohl, Lambdin, Loukas, Stanforth, Steinhardt, and Vandewater were all hugely influential in making my experience at UT a transformative one.
Life After UT
In my role as CEO of ITT, I am blessed to serve alongside an amazing team of change agents who work each day to make it easier for Texans to lead healthier lives and build healthier communities.
Shortly after graduation this past May, my wife, Lisa, and I found out that she is pregnant with our first child—a girl. She is due in January. We are equal parts freaked-out and overjoyed. I will continue to wake up each day seeking to be the best husband, leader, friend, human, and soon-to-be-father that I can. The rest will take care of itself.
Advice for Students
For a prospective doctoral student, I suggest that you fully understand your personal and professional objectives for pursuing a Ph.D. and design your course of study (and your curriculum/dissertation committees) to precisely align with and advance those objectives. I encountered fellow students throughout my doctoral studies who reported feeling led by rather than leading their courses of study. Pursuing a Ph.D. is likely one of the most significant investments you will ever make; as such, you should be unapologetic in making that investment work for you.
For current students, I strongly advise you against leading an organization while pursuing your studies. It can be done, but it hurts. A lot. But if you’re in the middle of it and it’s your passion, do not quit. I lost count of the number of times I came close to quitting. Develop and nurture (and constantly thank) your support team—you will need them. And stay closely connected to the reasons you decided to pursue your Ph.D. in the first place—those reasons are your “north star,” so make sure they continue to shine bright in your mind.