From Dishwasher to Doctoral Student: Professor Charlie Ferguson Receives Alumni Award

April 21, 2021

There will always be brainy bookworms and virtuoso valedictorians. But that was not Charlie Ferguson. “I was a really, really, really bad student,” he admits. “Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. There was no way college was going to be in my future.”

Ferguson is receiving the Mack Easton Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor given by the CU Denver Alumni Board. Ultimately, he earned not one, but three university degrees—although his educational journey was uniquely circuitous.

“I was a really, really, really bad student … There was no way college was going to be in my future.”

– Charlie Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Integrative Biology

While Ferguson did graduate from high school, he barely made it. “I had a 2.001 GPA,” he said. “I wasn’t stupid. I just didn’t apply myself.” So he got a job as a dishwasher at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, where it soon became clear—at least to his supervisor Dorothy Beebe—that he was not dishwasher material. “She called me into the office one day and said, ‘What the heck are you doing? You’re smarter than this’.”

Beebe convinced Ferguson to apply to be an x-ray technician. “I started the program having no clue,” he said. He finished and worked as an x-ray technician for about 10 years, when another supervisor, Martin Forth Smith, called him into the office one day and said, “What the heck are you doing?”

portrait of Charlie Ferguson
Charlie Ferguson before and after–from “bad student” to full professor at CU Denver

Professors Inspire Love of Science

So Ferguson started college in 1979, attending CU Denver at night, where he planned to study biology, because of his work in the healthcare field. “I had no idea what I would do with a bachelor’s in biology,” he said. Luckily, there were two professors at CU Denver, neurobiologists Gerald and Teresa Audesirk, who inspired him. “The way they presented the material, it just captured me,” Ferguson said.

The professors asked Ferguson to work in their lab. “That led to getting into the master’s program,” he said. Ferguson worked with the Audesirks on their neurotoxicology research, studying environmental lead pollution’s effects on the brain. With his master’s degree in hand, Ferguson then became a health careers advisor at CU Denver.

Not long after, “someone left unexpectedly, and I started teaching human anatomy,” Ferguson recounts. “I originally had no idea I was going to go into teaching, but after my second lab, I thought this is what I might be called to do,” he said. When someone at the university discovered that Ferguson was teaching an upper-level course without a terminal degree, Ferguson had to go back to school—again.

“At the ripe age of 41, I started my doctoral degree. I was married, had a daughter, had just bought a house, and my wife was pregnant.”

– Charlie Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Integrative Biology

“At the ripe old age of 41, I started my doctoral degree,” Ferguson said. “I was married, had a daughter, had just bought a house, and my wife was pregnant!” Even so, he earned a PhD in four years and continued teaching at CU Denver, which he calls “an institution of redemption and second chances.”

“I would not have been able to do any of it if it hadn’t been for two things—amazing faculty members and night/weekend classes,” Ferguson said. “CU Denver gives people a chance to make something of themselves,” he added. “That’s what attracted me to teaching here and what kept me here.”

Advocating for Underrepresented Students

Ferguson is passionate about advocating for students, especially those who have extra challenges: first-generation, full-time workers, parents and caregivers, financially disadvantaged, veteran, immigrant, and other marginalized students. “I used to keep my transcripts, and I would show my students it took me four tries to get through Organic Chemistry I,” he said.

Before he retired as a tenured professor, Ferguson decided he needed to honestly pass Organic Chemistry I, so he enrolled for the fifth time. “I sat in the back and I worked with the professor one on one—and I got a C.” Ferguson turns his own educational experience into inspiration for his students. “When they tell me they can’t do it, I say you’re talking to the wrong guy. It’s going to take hard work, but it can be done.”