Meet Bill Johnson: The Dream Dean

04/21/2017 09:40 am ET

Bill Johnson is the kind of person whose encounter you won’t soon forget. He’s not like the many folks you may come across on a daily basis, exchanging pleasantries and going on about your business.

At first, you listen to him and think, “Who does this guy think he is?”

Bill Johnson, Student Success Navigator in the School of Health and Human Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Gre
Photography by Chris English, UNCG University Relations
Bill Johnson, Student Success Navigator in the School of Health and Human Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG)

Keep listening… because before long, you’ll be thinking, “Wow. This guy really knows who he is.”

Bill Johnson is a Student Success Navigator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). He manages the Life Design Center, an on-campus space in which students can work, talk, and play their way into clarity. For the past nine years, he’s been working primarily with freshmen who have no idea what they want to do with their lives. He calls it “life design work” and got the name Dream Dean because of his belief in nurturing the deep-seated, whimsical, and massive life dreams that many of us have forgotten existed.

The traditional college/university advising model includes helping students select a major, and then guiding them through which classes to take during each semester so that the students graduate within the 4-year ideal of the institution.

Bill thinks that model is insufficient and ill-informed, and college/university retention rates tend to agree. U.S. News & World Report wrote that as many as 33 percent of freshman students won’t return for their sophomore year. The reasons for not returning vary, but Bill happens to believe that the underlying cause is lack of purpose. Students who lack clarity about the direction of their lives are far more likely to drop out of school at the first sign of a challenge.

In response, he has developed a semester-long course called "What Could I Do With My Life" that is structured to help students do just that – find their life purpose, and then select majors and life courses in response to that renewed clarity.

And it’s working.

During nearly every year since Bill launched his Life Design program at UNCG in 2008, graduation rates for students in his program have surpassed the University average. This is one of several measurable outcomes that Bill and his team have celebrated.

He eats, breathes, and lives purpose-driven work, and he teaches his students to do the same. If you ever have the opportunity to meet his collegiate protégés, you’ll hear the same story over and over again:

“I was about to drop out of school, honestly. But then I met Bill. I took his class, and now I know what I want to do with my life!”

“I hated school, but a friend told me to try Bill’s class. I learned so much about myself, my goals, and my dreams, and now I love my major!”

Some students just come by his office to hang out. And Bill loves it.

He and I got together on a Saturday afternoon in April so I could learn more about why he does what he does, and how he got there.

I’m as nontraditional as they come,” he shared. Receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Administration from the University of Delaware (UD), the Dream Dean didn’t initially have any intention of doing life design work. In fact, he ended up getting a graduate assistantship while pursuing his Master’s in Physical Education, also from UD, and was later offered a full scholarship to a doctoral program in Sports Sociology at the same university.

But, when he was 3 courses and a dissertation away from finishing the Ph.D. program, Bill quit. And that marked the beginning of a new direction for his life.

One day, he had been walking around campus, and saw an ad on a bulletin board that read something like this: “Do you like working with students? If you want to help people figure out what they want to do with their lives, contact us!!

A believer in synchronicity and the wisdom of intuitive nudges, Bill noticed the excitement that the ad evoked. UD’s Arts & Sciences Advising Center was looking for students to work in the advising office. That same day, Bill went to speak with the Assistant Dean and before he knew it, he was volunteering 10-15 hours/week.

“There was something I loved about helping people figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with mine! There was not a single person throughout my academic career who asked what I now know is a vital question: What do you like to do?”

So Bill joined the advising team and within a few months, he was working as a full-time Academic Advisor in the College of Physical Education and Recreation.

Since then, Bill has worked a number of similar jobs, all geared toward helping students figure out who they are, what they love, and how they can create purposeful lives for themselves. Much of his work is based on the Japanese concept called “Ikigai,” which means “a reason for being.” Bill guides his students through exercises that help them discover where their interests and life experiences converge into a sort of “sweet spot”… one’s life’s work.

Students take classes like “Redesign a Life You Love” through which they engage in activities that resonate with their passions, and challenge their courage. Like Yunhwan Kim, whose Free Hugs project landed him several news segments and recognition on the UNCG website. Yun’s Free Hugs facebook video has now received over 39,000 views!

Despite the widespread impact he has had on enormously diverse audiences, Bill is aware of the perception cast upon him as a Black man in the South, though he has never allowed it to be a crutch. Instead, he has used the doubts of others as fuel to, in his words, “Be better and do better. Always be better.”

Twice a year, the Dream Dean hosts a 4-day workshop/training that is open to the public. Those who complete the workshop receive their Certificate in Life Design Catalyst Coaching and a notebook of resources that they can weave into their own work. I am a trained Life Design Catalyst Coach, and have incorporated several of the exercises learned through the certification program in my own Deftable™ workshops.

The next Life Design Catalyst Coach Training Program will be held May 16-19, 2017 at UNCG. People will attend from all over the nation, and even across the seas. You can check out this Life Design Catalyst Manifesto video or his website for more information on the training. Scroll to the bottom to read gobs of testimonials from people who have had the pleasure of being immersed in the Dream Dean’s energy, enthusiasm, and intentional questioning. Bill has clearly found his Ikigai, and the Life Design Catalyst Coaches who have been trained under him sing his praises.

Bill loves spreading hope and offering words of encouragement that fuel the confidence needed for people to transcend fear. He left me with a few pieces of sage advice:

“Remember that the more great work you do, the more naysayers will emerge. Be purposeful, but be strong and resilient because well meaning people will oppose you when they see you doing things that they have never seen done before. Find people who believe in you, and who are in full support of the work you do. I ascribe to the belief that the 5 people who you spend the most time with are a direct reflection of you. Choose wisely.”

Amen, Sir. Amen.

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