From first-generation college student to professor: Find out how Antonio Bush did it

Posted | by Cassie Hazell |

Antonio Bush studies the experiences of underrepresented students, faculty and residents in the health professions at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ANTONIO BUSH)


Prior to graduating high school, Antonio Bush didn’t even know what a doctorate was.

Now, as an assistant professor at UNC with three degrees, his job is to help students like him and improve the way the Eshelman School of Pharmacy teaches those students. Ultimately, increasing minority representation in health professions should improve health outcomes for minority communities, he said.

“I take my position seriously as a black male faculty member,” Bush said. “In some cases, I've been told that I'm the first black male or black faculty member a student has interacted with. That's powerful.”

Bush is an assistant professor of educational innovation and research at the School of Pharmacy, a job that blends his expertise in education with his desire to help students from underrepresented groups.

But the path that brought him to the School of Pharmacy wasn’t always clear.

Bush, a native of Columbus, Ga., was the first member of his family to attend college, and he relied heavily on his teachers and guidance counselors to aid him in his application to Albany State University, a small historically black university in Georgia. He majored in early childhood education, and seriously considered suggestions that he attend graduate school before ultimately deciding against it.

“I was actually a bit afraid to apply,” said Bush. “I went to a small HBCU, and I was a bit afraid of venturing off. I never wanted to leave Georgia.”

Instead, Bush taught fourth grade for a year before changing his mind and applying to graduate school. He earned a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs at Indiana University, then went to N.C. State to earn his doctorate in educational research and policy analysis.

When Bush first arrived at N.C. State University to complete his doctorate, one of the last things he ever thought he’d be was a faculty member at UNC. The high-pressure life of a tenure-seeking professor seemed intimidating — especially to someone from a rural and minority background in a field dominated by white men.

“As a graduate student, one of the things I was always afraid of doing was being a faculty member,” Bush said. “You hear all the horror stories in your Ph. D. program and your graduate programs about it.”

After completing his Ph. D., Bush worked at Duke University as the Biocore program director for a year before coming to the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy as a postdoctoral fellow three years ago.

“(Going from) being unaware of what it took to complete a college application to now being a faculty member in the top pharmacy school in the country and one of the best universities in the world. It’s mind blowing,” Bush said.

“Stories are powerful”

Bush’s research is primarily concerned with understanding the lived experiences of underrepresented students, faculty and residents in health professions. He wants to know how students are exposed to the profession, what challenges they have faced and how they have become successful. While qualitative research is gaining momentum in academia, it hasn’t been used very frequently in pharmacy education.

“I believe that stories are powerful,” Bush said. “They convey reality and authenticity in a unique way and can be even more powerful when paired with quantitative approaches.”

The driving factor behind Bush’s research is his own background. Upon graduating from Albany State and moving on to get his master’s from a predominantly white institution, he began to notice how few other black male students there were in his field. He says he has a responsibility to help out students with similar backgrounds.

Bush says one of his favorite things about UNC is how much the university emphasizes innovative thinking. Bush won the 2017 American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy New Investigator Award and an international pharmacy education award at the 2017 Biennial Monash Pharmacy Education Symposium.

“It’s one thing to tell your faculty and postdocs to think big and be innovative,” Bush said. “It's another to expect them to do that and provide them with the resources, guidance and support to do so.”

Why Chapel Hill

Since arriving to complete his doctorate, Bush has fallen in love with the Triangle.

“The first thing I like about the area is that I met my wife here,” Bush said.

The vibrant art and music scene in the Triangle is also something Bush enjoys, as well as the region’s diversity. He says living in the region allows him to see his own culture and identity reflected and to meet and interact with people of other cultures and backgrounds.

Chapel Hill is home for Bush. The “horror stories” about becoming a faculty member never materialized for him, thanks to the culture of collaboration at UNC. He’s thankful for the experiences that led him to become a faculty member at the Pharmacy School, and glad he gets to work on research that will allow him to help students of his same background become successful in healthcare professions.

“I can honestly say that I have never been as professionally or academically fulfilled as I have been since I've been at UNC,” Bush said.