Lessons from Dean Gary Bennett: Embracing Exploration and Advocacy to Drive Tangible Change

Aubteen Pour-Biazar finds inspiration in Dean Bennett's humble approach, diverse career path, and commitment to societal impact, solidifying his resolve to contribute to politics and policy.

Dressed in a sharp gray suit and a closely-knotted tie, Gary Bennett, Dean of Arts & Sciences, initially exuded a presence some might find intimidating. Yet, as soon as he began speaking, his warm and approachable demeanor put our small cohort of Huang Fellows at ease. Instead of delving into his own career path or listing his accolades, Dean Bennett surprised us by starting the evening with a simple request: to hear our stories.

What struck me about Dean Bennett was his humble demeanor. Despite his impressive accomplishments and prestigious position as the Dean of Arts & Sciences at Duke University, he approached the talk with a genuine and down-to-earth attitude. By encouraging us, the student audience, to share our experiences first, he created a welcoming atmosphere for open dialogue.

As I listened to Dean Bennett’s story, I couldn’t help but feel a strong resonance with his journey and the values he emphasized, particularly his unwavering commitment to making a high-level impact through his work. His trajectory in life, though seemingly linear on the surface, resonated deeply with me. Like him, I entered college with several academic interests, from biology to political science, unsure of my ultimate path. Dean Bennett’s exploration of various fields during his time at Morehouse College echoed my own curiosity and willingness to explore different disciplines. It was during this exploration that he discovered his passion for psychology, a subject that would shape the course of his career.

“…making a high-level impact reinforces my belief that pursuing a career in politics and policy is not only an opportunity to address the systemic inequalities and challenges faced by communities but also a responsibility to advocate for tangible solutions and prioritize the well-being of all individuals.”

Dean Bennett’s moment of uncertainty after graduation from Morehouse College, torn between medical school, law school, and graduate school, mirrors my own uncertainty about my post-graduate plans. I find solace in knowing that even successful individuals like Dean Bennett have faced similar crossroads and made difficult decisions about their future. Ultimately, he chose to pursue a graduate degree in clinical psychology, a choice that led him down a path of invaluable experiences.

While training as a Clinical Psychologist, Dean Bennett witnessed the inequities his patients faced, and he was enlightened to broader societal issues at play. So, to make a difference on a larger scale, Dean Bennett pursued a post-doctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health.

This realization resonated strongly with my own motivations for entering the realm of politics and policy. As an American-Iranian born and raised in Alabama, my passion for politics has been nurtured by witnessing the deficiencies in my home state’s support for everyday families. From a regressive tax structure to inadequate investments in public transportation and healthcare, state lawmakers have, for far too long, served big-money interests while turning their backs on those most in need. Relying on divisive rhetoric fueled by culture wars, lawmakers have drawn attention away from actionable issues while squandering state funds – as my state continues to rank close to the bottom of nearly every national ranking related to quality of life.

Dean Bennett’s commitment to making a high-level impact reinforces my belief that pursuing a career in politics and policy is not only an opportunity to address the systemic inequalities and challenges faced by communities but also a responsibility to advocate for tangible solutions and prioritize the well-being of all individuals. Dean Bennett’s story has solidified my determination to work tirelessly toward creating a more equitable and just society, where the needs of the people are prioritized over partisan interests and where meaningful change is achieved through strategic action and effective policies.

A turning point for Dean Bennett came when he was serving on the faculty at Harvard University. A State Legislator approached Dean Bennett and asked him about what actionable steps the legislature could take to reduce health disparities among the people of Massachusetts. Unable to provide a quick answer, Dean Bennett was disappointed by how his academic work had created a disconnect with the healthcare challenges faced by middle-class and low-income Americans. This moment of self-reflection and disappointment reminded me of the immense importance of community engagement and the imperative to serve those most in need when pursuing a career in politics and policy. Dean Bennett’s reaction served as a powerful reminder to stay focused on my main driver: impact.

To grow his impact, Dean Bennett co-founded several digital health startups aimed at directly improving patient health. His entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to tangible change inspire me to think creatively and proactively seek innovative solutions to the challenges we face in healthcare and beyond. After joining Duke, he established the Global Health undergraduate major, a testament to his commitment to empowering future generations to make a difference.

As the Dean of Arts & Sciences, Dean Bennett’s goal to bring Duke University forward aligns with my own ambitions. His emphasis on driving change and fostering a culture of impact within an academic institution demonstrates the potential for enacting high-level transformation even within seemingly traditional arenas, reinforcing my belief that pursuing a career in politics can provide a platform to initiate meaningful change on a broad scale.

Aubteen Pour-Biazar, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian AppleAubteen Pour-Biazaris a first-year student at Duke University studying Public Policy Analysis.