The Interview USA
University of Rochester
Vice President for Student Life

John Blackshear

In today's fast-paced world, the value of a university education goes beyond mere academic achievement; it lies in the creation of a holistic learning environment that nurtures students intellectually, emotionally, and socially. This ideal is at the heart of the work done by John Blackshear, Vice President for Student Life at the University of Rochester.

John sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to share his insights on everything from the need to foster dialogue and engagement across diverse perspectives to the importance of integrating student support across an entire institution. 

John’s Journey

Max: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your current role.

My name is John Blackshear, and I’m the Vice President for Student Life at the University of Rochester.

Max: You recently moved to Rochester from Duke University. What’s the most exciting thing about your new role?

I’m glad to have the opportunity to bring all the gifts Duke has given me over the past 22 years – my background in both the academic environment and student affairs has primed me to look for ways to make a difference when coming into a new role. Often, universities look for someone who has grown up in Student Affairs, but I don’t really have that background. I’ve always worked across both academia and student experience. Since arriving here, I’ve found a culture of excellence. Rochester is known for academic achievement: the world’s largest laser lab is here on our campus, and our Eastman School of Music and Hajim School of Engineering are outstanding in their fields. I’m excited by the opportunities that brings, and my ambition is to center student life across the university. Previously, student life has been delegated to the school level, but now we’re aiming to adopt an integrated approach that spans the whole university.

Max: What are the key areas to address when trying to create an integrated approach to Student Life?

We’re starting with accommodation, looking at our housing policy and how that shapes the student experience. At university, most learning takes place outside of the classroom, and much of that happens around where students live. So we’re thinking about how we use common spaces and study rooms, and how we can use those spaces to encourage students to engage in rigorous debate and dialogue. We want student spaces to be multi-dimensional: where people meet, people talk, and people learn. We need to treat the whole of campus life as a holistic learning opportunity. I’ve learned that if universities want to reflect the excellence of humanity, they must become more diverse. So our campus needs to reflect that, and a great way to approach that is through dining.

We try to offer food options that reflect our diverse student body: that’s not only a great introduction to different cuisines, but it’s also more nutritious, helping to improve students’ health, mental readiness, and performance. Finally, we’re also making sure our services are adaptable enough to meet our students’ changing developmental needs. For emerging adults, depression, anxiety, and body image concerns have been issues for a long time, but the why is different. We can’t just look at the numbers – we have to understand the underlying causes and what we can do to address them. Above all, we want our students to understand they are part of a community; whether they’re from Michigan or Bangladesh, they need to know that they belong here and that they are what builds our university. 

Max: How do you get your key messages across to make sure students are aware of which behavior is or isn’t appropriate?

That’s an interesting question. My two older children went to international schools, and as a parent, I realized that a bidirectional adaptation needs to take place. I don’t want to bring students here from all over the world and tell them they need to become American. If universities are going to become diverse institutions – whether that’s bringing marginalized, indigenous, or international students – then universities need to become that diversity. The key to that is having a robust faculty which also reflects that diversity and staff who actively engage the students. Most of our students know about diversity, but not all of them have had to live with it – taking classes and sharing living space with a wide range of people. It’s about finding common ground; we don’t want to dictate how people act or engage with the university, as long as they respect the customs of others and our codes of conduct.

Max: We live in a time of increasing polarization. How can we encourage students to build dialogue across difference?

I like to talk to everybody about everything – I think that’s why I was chosen for this role. I try to be a conduit through which people can engage with the university. When it comes to diversity, I don’t let anybody off the hook. Diversity doesn’t just mean People of Color or people from marginalized groups: everybody is a part of the diversity of humanity, so we all have a responsibility to get engaged. We’re in a time of international protest and strife, and that makes it difficult to reach across the divide – but that makes it even more important to foster engagement. We want to build bridges and bring different perspectives together so that we can make our community stronger together. 

Max: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Never question whether you belong; you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Your part is to figure out how to exist in this moment for the good of all. Finally, never let fear govern your values. If you fail, think of it as an opportunity to learn something new.

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Max Webber
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