Before They Were Educators: Dr. Chris Cooper

From racing the Leadville 100 to working as the Political Science and Public Affairs Department Head, Dr. Chris Cooper has done it all.

Before moving to the Washington D.C. area in the fourth grade, Cooper lived in Spartanburg and Columbia, S.C. Outside Washington D.C., he grew up in a suburban neighborhood very involved in politics.

“I was surrounded by politics,” said Cooper. “Pretty much all of my friends’ parents worked for the federal government, and everyone got the Washington Post at the doorstep every day. We probably thought about politics more than people do in other places.”

After graduating high school, Cooper attended Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He earned a degree in political science but not without a few changes to his major.

At Winthrop, Cooper majored in English, social science education, psychology, sociology and finally political science.

“Everyone else in my family had been an English major,” Cooper explained, “so I had started off thinking I would be one, too. I’d been really interested in politics, but I’d never thought of it as a major until I took a class.

“I think it took me a while before I understood the science part of political science,” Cooper continued. “But, I was always a sports geek growing up, and the stats you use in baseball are, in some ways, like the stats you use in political science.”

Cooper graduated from Winthrop, and although he struggled with the decision, he decided to attend graduate school and pursue his long-term dream of becoming a professor.

“I knew I wanted to be a professor, but I was scared to say it because it sounded like a lot of school,” said Cooper. “Both my parents had masters degrees, but nobody in my family had a Ph.D., so that seemed hard to get.”

Cooper completed his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. Since 2002, he has been an active part of the Western Carolina University faculty.

“It’s been a great place to live, and I enjoy it immensely,” said Cooper. “People ask why I ended up here, and the reality is that I applied to 50 jobs, and this is the one that I got and that I liked best. But I stayed here because I love the area, I love the students, and I love this university.”

At WCU, Cooper has worked for the Center for Regional Development, directed the Master of Public Affairs program and the Policy Institute, and is now the head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs.

“I’ve done a lot of different things,” said Cooper, “and they have all been really interesting in slightly different ways.”

In addition to his service, Cooper is also a widely-published researcher. His works are featured in journals of sociology, geography, public administration and political science.

“I try to see the blurry lines of disciplines,” said Cooper. “I think that’s where interesting things happen. I’ve always been interested in how people do the things they do, and that’s all political science is. We talk about what people do politically and how psychological, economical or sociological principles apply to politics.”

In his spare time Cooper likes to kayak, bike, play tennis and even brew beer with a few other professors on campus for the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative.

In 2007, he raced in the Leadville 100 in Colorado, alongside professional cyclists like Floyd Landis.

“It was 12 hours on a bike at 13,000-feet elevation,” said Cooper. “It was crazy.”

Just this April, Cooper welcomed a new addition to his family, his firstborn son, Jack Miller Cooper.

“I have no idea what I’m doing-and neither does my wife,” Cooper joked.

For students unsure of their majors, Cooper advised, “It’s okay to try, and it’s okay not to know what you are going to do when you’re 18-years-old. Sometimes students are too concerned about what will guarantee them a job, and the reality is that very few majors can guarantee that.

“You’re going to get the best job if you do the best work,” Cooper added. “The best major is the one you’re going to perform the best in.”

Most of all, he encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities in college, when they do not have mortgages, children or pets to worry about.

“Be open-minded,” Cooper said. “Study abroad. Try not to look at liberal studies as a chore. Spend more time outdoors, and ride the new mountain bike trail on campus.

“And talk more politics of course,” he made sure to add. “You can do that on a river or a bike.”