The Dean Duke Was Looking ForDean John Blackshear spoke to the Hunag Fellows about his career starting from studying psychology to becoming dean of students.
Early in the talk, I quickly learned that psychology was much different from the psychology that I was exposed to in high school. My prior experiences in psychology involved a lot of neuroscience and famous experiments that robustly linked behaviors to stimuli. Dean Blackshear showed that psychology is not only the theory and science behind the mind and human behavior but also that its power lies in practice and in fieldwork. During his first therapy session, Dean Blackshear described how exhilarated he was by the freedom of not having to turn in a “performance” and where he could “let go of all positions” that he needed to hold. From his work at the women’s prison to his work with Black men affected by the AIDS epidemic, Dean Blackshear’s stories of his practice showed that psychology was an “alive” art that was fundamentally healing and empathetic.
However, Dean Blackshear’s educational journey was beset by racism and other challenges. For example, Dean Blackshear described being given a slower curriculum than the rest of his class in fifth grade despite being a high achieving student all throughout elementary school. This was far from an isolated incident, and even in his process of applying to Georgia State’s graduate psychology program, his friends and family raised concerns of racism in the department which had only graduated one Black Ph.D. candidate in the past. Even on his first-ever visit to Duke, Dean Blackshear described how he fell in love with the school but was told that he was “not the kind of student that Duke is looking for.”
Yet, in the face of this adversity and racism, Dean Blackshear’s story does not turn combative but remains empathetic and devoted to caregiving. In his interview with the director of his graduate psychology program, Dean Blackshear recalls vivid discussions of all sorts of music which played a large part in both of their lives and allowed them to connect over shared emotions and experiences. Dean Blackshear also told us about an early counseling session at Duke where he was asked for his academic credentials, echoing the previous experience of being told that he was “not the kind of student that Duke is looking for”. However, he would not only go on to help this student at this session but also continued to help this student to graduation. Dean Blackshear went on to add how this relationship continued to blossom in the future, humorously adding the incredible amounts of updates and baby photos of the students’ families that he has received to date.
Ultimately, Dean Blackshear’s resilience, intelligence, and dedication to the field propelled him through these obstacles and beyond. As someone who hopes to one day work as a healthcare professional, I admired and learned a lot from Dean Blackshear’s empathy, lifelong learning, and devotion to his work and family. Despite a busy schedule, he ended his talk expressing his genuine desire to connect with us at Duke, and with a slow return to normalcy in the fall, I am excited to hopefully continue these discussions with Dean Blackshear, as well as our other speakers, in person.
Matthew Lee, Huang Fellow ’24
Matthew is a Trinity student from Cedar Falls, Iowa interested in majoring in computer science.