It’s (Not) Just Semantics: The Power of Words, No Matter How Few

Diya reflects on a career talk by Dr. John Blackshear at Duke University, highlighting the power and significance of words and names, the overcoming of personal challenges, and the importance of understanding and connecting with individuals beyond their traumas in the field of psychology and medicine.

On the day of Dr. John Blackshear’s career talk, the Huang Fellows group chat lit up in anticipation and excitement. Even after only one year at Duke, it seemed most of the Huang Fellows knew Dr. Blackshear in some capacity, whether he was their faculty-in-residence in Trinity dorm, a familiar face walking his dog on East Campus, or a DJ at many of the campus social events. And without a doubt, Dr. Blackshear’s career talk exceeded our expectations. He narrated his life story from childhood to the present with deep emotion and eloquence, interweaving humor and wisdom throughout his talk.

Dr. Blackshear described his life and career much like a tree, starting with his roots and family. For him, his mother and grandmother were key advocates for his education and development. They enriched his childhood, grounding him, despite the strong winds of negative circumstances. What stood out to me was that Dr. Blackshear spent the time to ask and learn the names of the Huang Fellows. He then described how he was one of nine John Blackshears in his family tree and that his children’s names all have special meanings, such as “victorious warrior” and “spiritual teacher.” Dr. Blackshear’s emphasis on the meaning behind names reminded me of mine. My name, Diya, means light in Hindi. To me, it symbolizes positivity, hope, and wisdom– qualities I seek to embody. Dr. Blackshear’s emphasis on the meaning of names hinted at a theme that emerged throughout his talk: there is power in the words we use, no matter how few.

“The art of public relations is giving the most amount of information in the least amount of space that leaves people wanting more.”

After sharing his roots, Dr. Blackshear described what he called “knots on his tree”– challenges he endured and grew stronger from. Some of these challenges stemmed from childhood trauma to which Dr. Blackshear spoke of the importance of therapy in healing. Others were seemingly less influential such as a D grade in his public relations class or his aversion to music theory. However, as we soon found out, each knot, no matter how small, strengthened and fortified the growth following it. For instance, after receiving a low grade in his public relations class in college, Dr. Blackshear recalls an important takeaway, “The art of public relations is giving the most amount of information in the least amount of space that leaves people wanting more.” This advice came back to him years later during a graduate school interview (along with his music theory knowledge, which he begrudgingly held on to) and helped plant the first seeds of connection with his interviewer. Being able to succinctly speak to his identity and interests, Dr. Blackshear was accepted to graduate school at Georgia State University. Perhaps the most influential impact of the challenges Dr. Blackshear faced is the career that resulted from it. In addition to being Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Dr. Blackshear is a clinical psychologist. He takes his personal and educational experiences to counsel a variety of people, from Duke students to offenders on death row. Dr. Blackshear’s ability to draw from his roots and branch out to others is key to helping his patients. A big part of this, he emphasizes, is recognizing that “people existed before their trauma, and thus are not of that trauma but of something bigger than that.”

Hearing these words, it took me some time to wrap my head around the meaning. I realized the seemingly small syntactic difference between being of trauma and having trauma corresponds to a notable difference in mindset: while the first implies that a person wholly belongs to their trauma, the second suggests an identity separate and unique from the condition. In helping his patients see the latter point of view, Dr. Blackshear helps patients heal by reconnecting them to their identities.

In the context of science and medicine, Dr. Blackshear’s philosophy has significant implications. It indicates that how a physician communicates with his/her patients powerfully shapes how that patient views himself and his condition. Does the physician attribute the condition to the patient or the circumstances the patient endures? Is treatment focused on fixing the problem or understanding the human being? It is these shades of semantics that Dr. Blackshear drew our attention to that reveal the power of words in forging connection and reaffirming identity.

As aspiring researchers and physicians, we have the responsibility to communicate our messages clearly and succinctly. The words we choose should embolden patients to heal in ways that best serve them. Whether our values lie within our names or deep within our roots, each word, sentence, and interaction can sustain and nourish our life trees and those of the people around us.

Diya Patel, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian AppleDiya Patel is a first-year student from Hillsborough, NJ, intending to pursue a major in Biology with minors in Computer Science and Environmental Science.