Caleb Willis is the Dean of Students at Eden Prairie Schools.
Born in Centralia, Illinois, a small town located sixty miles east of St. Louis, Willis relished his time in The Prairie State.
“I’m a country boy at heart,” he says with a hearty grin.
But in 2005, when Willis was fifteen, he and his family left Centralia and moved to Georgia, the aim being to showcase Willis’ budding basketball talents to a larger audience, in hopes that he could eventually earn a scholarship.
“When you grow up in the country, especially a small hick town like where I’m from, you don’t get exposure if you want to make it in basketball,” Willis says.
After arriving in Georgia, Willis impressed scouts and delighted spectators who would frequent his high school games, but unlike many of his peers, Willis didn’t play AAU basketball in the spring and summer, which limited the number of opportunities he had to show out on the hardwood and potentially garner enough attention to earn a scholarship.
“My parents couldn’t afford for me to play AAU basketball,” Willis lists as the reason for why he never linked up with an AAU squad.
Considering that Willis wouldn’t be able to subsidize his college education out-of-pocket, there was then an even greater importance placed upon him netting a scholarship offer.
“There were definitely some major barriers in the way of me getting to college,” Willis admits, but as a man who grew up in a religious household, Willis had faith that if he put in the work on the basketball court, eventually his goal of getting into a university would come to fruition.
That being said, Willis quickly discovered that achieving his desired outcome would require more than an unwavering self-belief.
“I used to go check the mailbox every morning for letters from colleges, but they didn’t come because I wasn’t playing AAU,” Willis says.
Following a stellar senior year of high school basketball, Willis was invited to try out for the University of Hawaii.
Unfortunately, he did not receive an offer to join the team, and with no other schools offering him a scholarship, Willis decided to take a break from school and basketball in order to refine his game, and his mental health.
“I worked on my mind, and I worked on my body because I got hurt my senior year. I tore my meniscus and gained almost fifty pounds, so I took the gap year to get myself back in shape,” Willis explains.
Soon after, Willis was afforded another opportunity to try out for the University of Hawaii, but once again the Rainbow Warriors did not extend him a scholarship offer.
Fortunately, Pepperdine University, a private school in Southern California, was willing to give Willis a chance, and after one tryout with the team, his basketball misfortunes were reversed.
“The crazy thing is I didn’t play that well at the tryout, but the coach talked about the intangibles that he saw in me, and he signed me based off that,” Willis says.
Throughout the course of the next few years, Willis experienced the inevitable highs and lows that come with being a Division-I basketball player, a journey that further reinforced his faith and the importance of allowing life to organically unfold.
“Everyone has an end result that they want to achieve, but the true wisdom, and what you learn about yourself comes during the process, not necessarily at the end,” Willis emphasizes.
Off the court, Willis majored in psychology, citing the fact that he has always been drawn to the intricacies of the human psyche.
At the same time, his decision to major in psychology was also made to benefit both loved ones and everyday people who never made it out of his hometown of Centralia.
“I saw a lot of my family members demoralized by racism. They didn’t get the same opportunities that I did, and I wanted to focus on how I could change that,” Willis shares, before adding:
“When I was a kid, I used to go to the park, and the most interesting people I found there were drug dealers, alcoholics, and addicts. Those were the people I was surrounded by the most when I was playing basketball, and they were always so kind to me. They were pushing me to make it out of the city and follow my dreams. That’s another reason why I chose to major in psychology, to serve them.”
For Willis, that commitment to helping others began right after graduation when he ventured north to Minneapolis and began working for an uncle who owned a group home business.
“I started working with people with developmental disabilities, and from there I got into the school system,” he says, and once Willis started working with kids, he didn’t want to do anything else.
Sadly, around that same time, Willis’ grandmother, an integral figure in his development, passed away.
“That was devastating because she was the one who kept me together when I was a kid. She was my protector from some of the things that I saw and experienced,” he mentions, “and when she passed, it changed me.”
Reeling from the loss of his grandmother, Willis figured that the best way to honor his grandmother’s memory was to double down on his commitment to helping others, specifically children.
Willis soon accepted a position as an EA (Education Assistant) at Metcalf Middle School in the Twin Cities, a role that would inadvertently give Willis even more clarity on how he could best help others.
“What I saw there were a lot of kids who looked like me and were in trouble, and almost naturally I started to mentor and counsel those kids,” he says.
Willis’ ability to support students was not lost on his peers, and one day a colleague sat him down and encouraged him to consider a path as a school counselor.
Several other colleagues agreed that becoming a school counselor would mesh with Willis’ interpersonal talents, and soon the Centralia native enrolled at the Adler Graduate School to pursue a master’s degree.
“If you’re going the psychology route you have to continue to get more education and specialize in a specific concentration,” Willis cites as a key reason why he went back to school.
As many educators can attest, juggling a master’s program with a full-time job is an arduous task, but one that if seen through can result in tremendous personal and professional growth.
In Willis’ case, he exercised resolve and persevered through the rigors of his program, graduating from Adler in 2018 and then accepting a job as a school counselor at Maple Grove Middle School.
Since then, his influence on students has been undeniable, but Willis also sees his presence as having a profound effect beyond the emotional support he gives inside the walls of his office.
“I’ve had an impact that most people don’t get to see because there are not a lot of black men in counseling or education,” says Willis, who in early 2022 left Maple Grove Middle School and accepted an administrative role within the Eden Prairie school system, a move that could help drive progress within an education system that Willis believes is outdated.
“Being able to see a black man in the position that I’m in is great for kids of color, and for white students as well because when you look at the history of education and the impact that it has had on the African-American community, as well as other communities like Hispanics and Native Americans, it’s been detrimental.”
For context, Willis is a proponent of intersectionality, a concept that one source describes as “the acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression, and that we must consider everything and anything that can marginalize people.”
“I believe intersectionality is important, in terms of how has housing affected people, and how have finances and access to mental health affected families. I’m really big on learning how history has impacted my people, all the way from slavery to Jim Crow and the civil rights era,” Willis explains.
Ultimately, Willis’ goal isn’t to take aim at the perceived shortcomings of the current education system.
Rather, he wants to reconstruct the institutional framework so that disadvantaged students aren’t merely navigating through an obsolete system, but thriving in one that was designed for their benefit.
“My goal is that when kids see me, they see hope for a brighter future and believe in themselves because they can accomplish whatever they put their minds to, no matter what barriers may stand in their way,” he says.
As for Willis personally, he has thought about one day becoming a principal or a district superintendent.
Whether those titles ever reside next to his name is unclear, much like Willis’ future was when he came to Minnesota years ago.
“I never thought I’d be working in schools. I enjoyed school but I never thought I would work in education,” Willis admits.
“That’s why I always give credit to God and the journey he has me on that has allowed me to have an impact.” QS
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