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Award enables former teacher to enter Ph.D. program, focus on school social work research

For as long as he can remember, Chris Wretman, MSW ’12, wanted to be a teacher. But after nearly 10 years in the classroom—including as an English instructor with the Peace Corp in Russia and Japan—Wretman knew he was ready for something more.

“I remember thinking, ‘How can I use this experience that I’ve gained working with kids and students and apply it in different directions?’” he recalled.

The Iowa native eventually discovered his answer in the School of Social Work, where he received his MSW degree last year. Wretman is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program, where he is working to incorporate his experiences as a teacher with his interest in school-based social work research. Wretman is particularly interested in learning more about how physical activity in school impacts a student’s overall well-being, including academic achievement.

“I’m very much interested in using the school as a way to promote healthy lifestyles for kids because as many people are starting to realize, there’s a huge problem of childhood obesity in this country and in a lot of other countries around the world,” he explained. “And it seems to me and to others that a school, where our kids are legally required to be, is the best place where we can impact their health. So, if we do some prevention in schools and promote healthy lifestyles, that will benefit kids in the long term.”

Wretman’s research interest evolved from his time in Japan, where middle-school aged children often are required to participate in extracurricular activities, especially competitive sports. Although researchers already know many of the benefits of exercise, Wretman is intrigued with how such activity stimulates friendships and boosts individual self-esteem.

“What really interests me are the benefits that would come from being within a group and participating with your peers in an organized, structured school sponsored activity,” he said. “I also want to know how that would pay off socially for a lot of kids and if it would perhaps build social capital with teachers or within the school in general. And for those students who may have issues in the classroom, what happens if they excel in sports? Does that help them build leverage within the school?”

As a recipient of the UNC Graduate School’s Doctoral Merit Assistantship, Wretman said he is fortunate that he even gets to examine such health issues. Without the award, which covers School tuition and a stipend, a doctorate degree would have been unaffordable, he said.

“I know that in other schools, they can’t guarantee the level of funding that we have here at UNC,” he said. “So I know, without that guarantee, I wouldn’t have entered the program. This funding allows me to do the research that I’m interested in.”

As more colleges and universities compete for the best students, such funding will remain vital to Carolina’s recruitment efforts, Wretman added.

“I came back for my Ph.D. because I feel like UNC has provided me with all the resources and tools that I need in order to be successful,” he said. “I feel supported in every single thing that I do.”

For more information about fundraising priorities and the impact of private giving at the School of Social Work, please contact: Mary Beth Hernandez, Associate Dean for Advancement,