Santa earns doctorate from UNC Charlotte

From January to mid-December, Santa Claus traditionally fills his time preparing for the holiday season. Making gifts, checking lists and … earning a Ph.D.? Titus Hopper, career readiness coordinator for Cleveland County Schools, spends his days encouraging students to stay engaged with school. Lately, he has been spending his evenings taking classes as part of UNC Charlotte’s Educational Leadership doctoral program. Known as a passionate and gregarious leader, Hopper uses his joy and warmhearted nature — as well as his long white beard — in his other role: Hop the Black Santa.

Hopper, a Shelby, North Carolina, native, understands hardship and the effect a community can have on adolescents. After losing his mother when he was just 5 years old and his father as a high school freshman, Hopper leaned on other adults to help him figure out his path in life. Following the urging of a high school guidance counselor, Hopper attended North Carolina State University, where he graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees in biology and science education.

After graduating, he began his career as a middle and high school math and science teacher. In 2011, he joined the North Carolina Principal Fellows program and two years later, graduated from UNC Charlotte with a master’s degree before beginning his journey as a school administrator. While serving as principal of Shelby Intermediate School, Hopper and his superintendent recognized a need within the school system and the career readiness coordinator position was created. In his role, he helps prepare students for life after high school. He also works with students who are on the verge of dropping out or have dropped out to keep them engaged in school.

Hopper observed that his professional influence grew as he achieved higher levels of education, which brought him back to UNC Charlotte.

In 2016, after struggling with child loss and infertility for five years, Hopper and his wife Michelle were blessed with twins. During a photography session celebrating families who had overcome similar fertility challenges, his white beard piqued the interest of the photographer, and he was asked if he would do mini-sessions as Santa Claus. Without hesitation, his wife volunteered him for the task. At that moment, Hop the Black Santa was born.

As with many aspects of his life, Hopper dove in head-first: buying a suit, creating a website and social media accounts — which landed him gigs at private parties and events for celebrities like Nick Cannon, Brittany Bell and Lala Milan — and eventually enrolling in Northern Lights Santa Academy.

The weekend-long workshop in Atlanta brought Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses and elves together from all over the country for networking and education, albeit a different kind of education than he was accustomed. Everything from beard care and suit maintenance to reading and voice inflection was covered. The nonstop, three-day weekend culminated with each attendee receiving a diploma.

When Hopper receives his doctoral degree from UNC Charlotte Friday, May 12, he will add another academic achievement to his already impressive list. He will get to incorporate his passion for guiding others — and training in voice inflection — as the commencement speaker for the ceremony.

For Hopper, transforming from the young man from Shelby to Hop the Black Santa, Ed.D., allows him to reflect on those who helped him get to this point in life. As he says, it takes a community to raise our children, and the number of people who helped him succeed in life is almost too long to list. But one thing is certain, they’re all on the Nice List.