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Meet the Blackshears, the FIR family with an 'open door'

<p>The Blackshear family sitting in their apartment in Trinity Dorm on East Campus. From left to right: Aiyana, John, Amoli, Andwele, Kimberly and Aza.</p>

The Blackshear family sitting in their apartment in Trinity Dorm on East Campus. From left to right: Aiyana, John, Amoli, Andwele, Kimberly and Aza.

Raising four young children in a freshman dorm isn’t exactly typical. 

For John Blackshear, the faculty-in-residence in Trinity dorm, it has meant befriending students, serving as their mentors and talking philosophy. 

It has also meant humoring drunk students and making sure they don’t wake the children at night. 

“They would try to talk to us and communicate with us as if it’s like a Tuesday afternoon,” John said. “But it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, so they’re trying to have intellectual conversations with us and they’re swaying side to side.”

John, dean for academic affairs, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and an adjunct instructor in psychology and neuroscience, has been part of the faculty-in-residence program at Duke since 2016. The program gives free rent to faculty that live in campus residence halls and aims to promote more exchanges between students and faculty. 

He joined the program after a colleague approached him about it. 

At the time, John was living outside Raleigh with his wife Kimberly—dissemination and outreach coordinator for the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy—and four of their six children: Andwele, 7; Amoli, 6; Aiyana, 4; and Aza, 1. The long commute to campus cut into their ability to spend time there, so he bought in, spending two years in Giles dormitory on East Campus before moving to Trinity Residence Hall last year. 

“We wanted to be much more proximate and engaged in things that were going on beyond hours that we were at work, but it’s very hard to do that when you’re off in Raleigh, or you’re [at] Wake Forest, especially when you have young children,” John said.

‘We sort of live inclusivity’: Raising a family at Duke

The Blackshears’ apartment in Trinity is, in many ways, a picture of typical family life. A Mac desktop sits at a cluttered desk in a combined kitchen, living room and dining room. Family photographs adorn the walls. Toys are scattered around a playmat made of colorful foam puzzle pieces. 

The difference, of course, is that the other tenants in the building are college students.

There is a give and take that comes with raising a family in a dorm. In return for students being quiet at night when getting back from parties or a night out, the children stay out of the hallways on weekend mornings so that students can sleep in. 

At the same time, John said that living at Duke is an opportunity for the children to encounter people with a variety of life experiences. They meet students while they are out riding their bikes and bring them back to meet their parents. One student let them help her bake bread based on a recipe that her grandmother used in Costa Rica. 

“We’re a blended family, we’re a multiracial family, we’re a multiethnic family… we sort of live inclusivity,” John said. “Living on campus gives our kids an opportunity to live that in a very active everyday way.”

John is black and Kimberly is white, and his efforts to introduce his children to diversity did not start with the faculty-in-residence program. 

John and his first wife sent his two oldest children, 24-year-old Akinyemi and 21-year-old Afi, to international schools, he said, so that they could have a life experience that was not “American-centric.”

The Blackshears are very much involved with on-campus life. Aiyanna said that she likes taking the “slinky” bus to get rice and mango lassi at Tandoor. A student once took Andwele on a play-date to the Innovation Co-Lab, Kimberly said, and he has taken part in student assignments from a mock German lotion commercial to a video about education and bullying. 

For one assignment, a student took him to a debate class and tried to convince him that the moon landings had been faked. Andwele was unconvinced.

“You had to pick a topic and convince somebody, even though they know it’s true, that it’s not true,” said Kimberly, also the dissemination and outreach coordinator for the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “[The student] failed because he couldn’t convince Andwele… he thought it was going to be really easy, and Andwele kept offering all these counterpoints, and all these students are around cracking up.”

'The comfort of an open door'

Among other duties, faculty-in-residence are expected to hold weekly events in their apartments. John has brought speakers from Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College, to Larry Moneta, former vice president for student affairs. In addition, the family buys donuts for students every Sunday morning. 

Yet John said that the most meaningful part of being a faculty-in-residence is the spontaneous interactions, the “hundreds and hundreds of exchanges with smaller sets” of students. 

Senior Axel Herrera Ramos said that he had an ongoing pool rivalry with John, whom he just calls “Blackshear,” during his first year at Duke. He lived in Giles and frequented the pool table in the common room. When John saw him there, it was inevitable that the two would play a best-of-three match.

“I can say that I’m better than Blackshear,” Herrera said. “I can say I’ve beaten him more times. He may disagree, but my record is better.”

John laughed as he recalled the competition. 

“[Herrera] dominated the pool rivalry,” he said, “and I dominated the trash talk.” 

Sophomore Ishaan Kumar, who lived in Trinity last year, said that the Blackshears are very comfortable having students in their home. They go on with their lives: cooking if they need to cook, telling off the children if they need to tell off the children. 

Although Kumar went to many of their weekly events last year, he said, he often just dropped in to say hi to the children or grab a banana.

“It’s the comfort of an open door,” he said. 

On one occasion, the Blackshears brought the open door to him. Kumar recalled waking up to hear someone banging on his door and shouting “Police! Police! Open up!” 

He opened the door to find Kimberly dragging John away down the hallway and a friend standing red-faced outside his room. Kumar had been in danger of sleeping through breakfast with the friend, and the dean had decided to take matters into his own hands.

Although there are many of these moments of levity, there is also a weightier side to the Blackshears’ relationships with students. 

“We’ve had students who have popped up to this door at 11:00 at night and popped in that chair and were like ‘I’m really struggling,’” John said. “And we stop and we look and we attend and we help them through.”

Junior Melissa White, who lived in East House her first year, said that her academic adviser sent her to John when she was struggling with organic chemistry during her first semester. 

John and Kimberly listened to her as she had what she called a “mental breakdown” in their apartment and then got to work. She said they helped her get a tutor and continued to encourage her throughout the semester. When she got her final grade back, a B+, Kimberly baked cookies to celebrate. 

John welcomes helping students with their struggles. 

“That’s a gift of a job,” he said. “That is not a burden… that’s not a thing that weighs on the job; that is an absolute gift.”

For him, the dual roles of friendly pool rival and worldly mentor are integrally connected.

“I like to have a lot of laughter because I know that if… I’m doing this right, I’m going to have some more heavy and complicated conversations with students,” he said. “And I have to be in that space where I can do that and also I don’t get so associated with the heaviness.”

'Like my family here': A bond that goes both ways

John and Kimberly have taken students with them to concerts. Their Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas festivities are open to those who are unable to go home to their families. They once brought a student to the beach with them when she had nowhere to go during a break.

This openness creates bonds that endure after students move to West Campus. On a Saturday afternoon last month, the door to the first-floor hallway of Trinity hung open, and multiple students came into the apartment to say hello. Among them was sophomore Anita Li, who participated in John’s Spring Breakthrough course last year.

“[The Blackshears] are awesome. They’re so amazing,” Li said. “I make my way all the way from Edens to come visit. That’s dedication.” 

White tries to visit the family at least twice a semester. Herrera has come back for the children’s birthday parties. Kumar comes to play basketball with the kids, go bicycling with them or take them on walks around East Campus. 

“Their kids are very much like my own siblings,” Kumar said. “Both in their personality and the way I interact with them.”

White echoed the sentiment: “[The Blackshears] really are like my family here.”

John said that although he and Kimberly will have to move back off campus at some point, they hope to make an impact on campus that lasts after they are gone. And so far, John said that his years as a faculty-in-residence have been the best part of his time at Duke. 

“It’s intangible, you know?” he said of the position’s rewards. “It’s not like money, and it’s not status or any of that. It’s just, we get to be proximate to some of the most amazing learners in the universe.”

This opportunity has not been lost on the children. Andwele has already decided that he wants to go to Duke for college, staying until he gets his Ph.D., Kimberly said. He wants to live with the family during his first year on campus so that he can eat both Marketplace food and his mother’s cooking. 

Food is not the most important thing to him, however. When his parents asked him what his favorite part of life on campus was, he answered brightly. 

“That I get to have amazing Duke student friends!” he said. 

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect that John Blackshear and his first wife chose to send their oldest children to international school. An earlier version implied that he and Kimberly made the decision.

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