Bryan White ’78

Bryan White ’78Bryan White ’78 doesn’t believe in luck. He believes in a higher force that guides each of us—and he’s confident that this force was hard at work when it led him to Virginia Wesleyan University. White grew up in the Washington, DC, area and came to VWU as a biology major in the late 1970s. Today, he teaches undergraduate biochemistry to animal sciences majors and genomic biology at the graduate-level at the University of Illinois and serves as director of the Mayo Clinic and University of Illinois Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare. In 2015, he was among 79 microbiologists elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He lives in Illinois with his wife of nearly 40 years, Barbara (Britt) White ’78, and their son, Corey, who is named after White’s best friend and VWU classmate, the late Corey J. Hansen ’78. He recently shared some nostalgic insight into his Wesleyan experience.

On choosing Virginia Wesleyan

Your life always goes in interesting ways. I basically chose Virginia Wesleyan because Corey Hansen ’78, who was my best friend, was going there and he said I’d like it. For a 19-year-old, that’s probably a pretty good decision-making process. It was really guidance from above, if you will. He said I’d like it, so I applied and got in—that was a life-changer for me as a student.

On VWU biology and chemistry professor Dr. Betty Jefferson Harris

I was fortunate to be introduced to Dr. Betty Jefferson Harris.* She was my advisor, but she was my mentor, and there’s a difference. She turned me on to biology and microbiology, which is the career I’ve taken since I left Wesleyan. She really came into Wesleyan and built that biology program to funnel students into professional degrees, whether in the true professions, the medical professions, or whether they were PhDs. She introduced me to Phil Hylemon, who was at the Medical College of Virginia (Virginia Commonwealth University), and I ended up doing my Ph.D. under his mentorship. She helped me with that process of getting into graduate school and with making the decision to do that instead of medical school. When I got here to Illinois, I tried to teach my biochemistry class like she taught her biochemistry class. That’s a huge testament to her. She was an inspirational teacher and an inspirational mentor. She touched a lot of people. That experience was life changing. Some may call it luck, but I believe that there’s somebody up there guiding all of this and we just follow His path. I was fortunate to be on the same path with Betty Jefferson Harris.

*Dr. Betty Jefferson Harris was a professor of biology and chemistry at Virginia Wesleyan from 1975–2000. She passed away in 2004.

On the value of a “small college difference”

I think that’s another thing that made me successful, and that’s what makes Wesleyan successful—small classes, knowing your professors on a first-name basis. Some of my classes my last year had three students. We met in the professor’s office; there was no reason to go to a classroom. That sort of hands-on interaction is so different from what we have at Illinois. I’m fortunate at Illinois that I did teach a class that was only about 25 students for a long time, which is a small class here at Illinois for upperclassmen. In the last few years it’s grown into 60-70 students out of necessity, and I can’t teach it the same way. At Wesleyan you don’t have to compromise teaching style or interaction style with students because the class size is small enough that you can be very interactive, very one on one. It’s the small class size, it’s the intimate learning atmosphere, and it’s having advisors who are mentors. At Wesleyan you’re going to have the opportunity to be mentored as a student, as opposed to being advised as a student. There are key differences between those two words.

On meeting his wife, Barbara (Britt) White, at Wesleyan

Within a month of getting to the Wesleyan campus, I met Barbara. She was Barbara Britt ’78 back then. We started dating in October, and we were married the day after graduation. I don’t recommend that, by the way. We also didn’t think very far ahead and actually got married on Mother’s Day. Our flowers were 50 times more than they ever should have been, in terms of cost, once you threw in a wedding, plus Mother’s Day, plus graduation weekend. It was a good idea because all the family was going to be there and wouldn’t have to travel twice, right? That was our philosophy, but it was pretty stressful. It’s turned out to be an interesting thing here in Illinois, because our commencement is on that weekend as well. So I’ve had Sundays in May which have been my anniversary, commencement, and Mother’s Day, all in the same day. It doesn’t happen very often, but they do converge once in a while. Barbara and I have been married for 38 years now, and we’ll be married 40 years in 2018. And I met her within a few weeks of being on campus. So, you know, you get to a campus and get assigned to an inspirational mentor and you find your lifelong mate—things settle down and you become a pretty good student.

On best friend and classmate, Corey Hansen ’78

Corey Hansen, who was my best man at my wedding and my best friend, passed away 21 years ago. After graduating from Wesleyan, he went on to receive his doctorate in education from George Washington University. My son is named after Corey, and I hope he shares some of his courage, conviction, and heart. We were best friends in Northern Virginia, and he was the reason I went to Wesleyan and all of these wonderful things happened.

On Virginia Wesleyan shaping the person he is today

If I had not gone to Wesleyan, gosh knows, I’d be driving a truck. I was not a stellar student before I got to Wesleyan, let’s put it that way. I flunked out of my freshman year in college at a different school in Virginia. It was a bad choice. I tried to play sports, and I chose the wrong major. It just wasn’t a good choice, so I flunked out. So I went back home and went to community college for two years. That’s when Corey said, “Hey, you should come down to Wesleyan. You’ll enjoy it here.” If I hadn’t gone to Wesleyan, I really don’t know where I’d be. From what I can gather from Wesleyan, from my visits and what I keep track of when I can, is that it still has that same core value and it still provides that same thing for the students—that guidance that’s hopefully going to shape the rest of your life. It certainly did for me. I think any student who goes to Wesleyan will succeed if they put their mind to it. First they have to do the job, but the resources and environment are there for them to succeed.