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John Wilson John Wilson

A “Perfect Match” at SDSU Leads Alumnus to Leadership Role at HBCU

John Wilson learned IT when the field was in its infancy. Three decades later he’s a top manager at Spelman College.
By Fowler College of Business News Team

“I wanted to somehow marry the two disciplines if I could. SDSU offered an information systems degree which perfectly matched my interests.”

Like many other youth growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s, John Wilson thrived on playing video games like Pong, Breakout and Space Invaders. The games sparked his “interest in all things computer” and, while still in high school, he was determined to pursue a technology career. 

“My parents made it clear early and often that if I wanted to pursue a career in computers, college was the only way to get there,” said Wilson, a native of the Harvard Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles. “I’m not sure it was true at that time, but it worked, and I desperately wanted to go to college.” 

When it came time to select a which university, Wilson made San Diego State University his college of choice based, he said, on its good reputation, location and “beautiful setting.” 

A high school counselor urged Wilson to consider additional options in case admission to SDSU proved difficult, he said, but “I took that as a challenge and applied in spite of the counselor’s admonition.” 

Once he was admitted to SDSU, Wilson then had the challenge of determining a major course of study. After careful deliberation he selected an information systems degree (now management information systems or MIS). 

“I was interested in programming, but I was also intrigued by business and using technology to address business problems,” said Wilson. “I wanted to somehow marry the two disciplines if I could. SDSU offered an information systems degree which perfectly matched my interests.” 

Making the right choices

Once he started taking courses at the then College of Business Administration (now Fowler College of Business), Wilson realized he’d made the right choice.

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“The information technology industry was in its infancy  and I was excited to be on the leading edge of it. I enjoyed the specificity and the logic computers required to do their work,” he said. “The point was driven home when a professor in one of my first computer classes said ‘computers only do what you tell them to do.’ When I heard that, the light bulb lit up for me and I realized that making computers do what I wanted was exactly what I wanted as my career.” 

Wilson also pledged the SDSU chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and served as the president of the Pan-Hellenic Council, an eight-member organization from historically African American fraternities and sororities that plans events and community service activities. 

Taking his shot at Polaroid

After Wilson earned his degree in MIS in 1990, he took a job at Polaroid Corporation where he worked in Los Angeles until he was promoted to a management position and required to move to Boston in 1995. Aspiring to move into upper management, Wilson earned his Executive MBA at Northeastern University (also in Boston) in 1996 which provided him the opportunity to travel and study in Europe as part of his capstone experience. 

By 1998, the harsh New England weather prompted a move to a milder climate — Atlanta — where Wilson and his wife have remained ever since.

“It also represented my transition from the private sector with Polaroid Corporation to my first job in higher education,” Wilson said, “when I became a business analyst in the central IT department at Emory University.” 

In 17 years at Emory, Wilson rose to an IT senior manager and then became IT director at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Three years later he learned of an opening at Spelman College, one of the nation’s more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), for chief information officer and vice president of technology services.

Contributing to the mission of Spelman College

His wife Sharon is an alumna of the college, and Wilson’s interest in the position grew as he researched its history and saw an opportunity to make a contribution.

“The mission of Spelman College is to prepare Black women to go out into the world and do great things. My wife was a living example of what that training really meant,” said Wilson. “By the time the interview process started, I was more than convinced that the role would be an excellent fit for my skillset.” 

Wilson was hired in August 2019 and calls it “the best move I could have made.”

“What makes Spelman great is the dedicated faculty, students and administrators, as well as the laser beam focus everyone has on the mission: Preparing Black women to change the world,” he said. “The mission remains in sharp focus every day, and as the father of three daughters, I get it and I am very proud to be a part.”

Wilson noted that many of the skills he used and learned as a student at SDSU have served him well in his role at Spelman. 

“My primary role is that of a leader and my first taste of leadership was as the Pan-Hellenic Council president while at SDSU,” he said. “I represented the council’s needs and concerns to the university’s administration and learned how to seek common ground among disparate viewpoints while remaining loyal to my organization and its beliefs. It was a delicate balance at times, but the skills I learned during that experience remain with me today. I would not have traded that experience for anything.”