University of Kentucky alumnus John Blaine started working at UK in 2015 in the Center for Interprofessional Health Education. Last September, he began his role as director of UK’s Center for Graduate and Professional Diversity Initiatives (CGPDI). He has been invaluable in helping students around the university continue on their path to success.
Tell me about yourself.
I'm originally from Harlan County, Kentucky, which is deep Appalachia, deep eastern Kentucky coal country. The main economics of that county was coal, and my dad was a coal miner. We moved to Lexington when I was about four or five, and I grew up on the north end of Lexington. After graduating from Bryan Station High School, I came to UK and studied secondary English education and graduated in 2007. I worked for one year at my high school alma mater as an English teacher before going back to school to get certified to teach elementary. After earning my certification in December 2010, I started teaching fifth grade at Tates Creek Elementary.
After a couple years, I came across an education specialist position at UK’s Center for Interprofessional Health Education. I read the description, which talked a lot about collaboration, effective communication and partnering with folks — everything that I love to do. So, I applied for the position, was hired and began in May of 2015.
How has your career progressed and evolved while at UK?
In my role at the Center for Interprofessional Health Education, I collaborated with faculty from all six health colleges plus the colleges of Social Work and Education to create preclinical and clinical education experiences for health college students, coordinated four courses, produced scholarship and interacted with all of the leadership in every single health college. Part of the reason I was excited about this current job with CGPDI, is because I have a great relationship with the health colleges. I spent almost four years serving their faculty and working with their students. My work with UK’s Center for Interprofessional Health Education allowed me to build a strong reputation as someone who can develop great relationships and problem solve. That reputation then allowed me to transition into my role as the pre-pharmacy adviser.
My time as the pre-pharmacy adviser really honed my skills for my current position as director of the CGPDI. UK College of Pharmacy is the number six pharmacy program in the nation, so it's a high-performing health college. As pharmacy adviser, I got to participate on admissions committees and in the interview process. I was learning what high-performing health profession colleges look for in students and how they assess those students. So, I've gotten a lot of experience on the admissions side in that role. Also, the College of Pharmacy does not have an undergraduate program, so it was essential that I develop relationships with colleges like of Arts and Sciences, Health Sciences and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, for example. It was also essential that I develop relationships with outside institutions because we have no preference on where pharmacy students complete their prerequisites. Because of that, I did a lot of recruiting and traveling to universities in eastern, western and northern Kentucky. I have visited most of the institutions in the state at some point or another including a majority of the community colleges. So, I've had a lot of experience recruiting in the state and at regional partners, developing relationships with advisers and helping students prepare for their professional programs.
I help students think through questions like, what kind of academics do I need to have? What are the prerequisites? How do I demonstrate that I'm a competitive applicant? How do I demonstrate intangible skills like communication, leadership and problem solving in my work? I was helping students understand what admissions committees are looking for. At the end of the day, they want prepared applicants, but more importantly, they want people who are passionate about their professions.
These programs are difficult and require a lot of time and money. It’s very important that when health colleges admit students, they help and retain those students to ensure they graduate. So, I was working on developing those skills, looking at how programs support students and how programs ensure that they have professional development. All of that knowledge is going to serve me well in this role. That's exactly what this job is about; helping to prepare students for professional and graduate careers and helping them think through what these processes look like.
How do you start the conversation with a student who isn’t sure what they want to study?
The conversation is always about your interests. It's never about a specific program or a specific degree because the reality is if you're not curious about what you're learning, if you're not passionate about what you're learning, you're not getting up at 6 a.m. to complete that lab report. You're not staying up until 1 a.m. to make sure that that homework assignment is done. Your curiosity and passion have to drive your decision-making because that's what enables you to be persistent. That's what enables you to be resilient because you're passionate about your field. So, the conversation with students always starts with them: tell me about yourself, let's talk about your interests, let's figure out what area of health care you're most interested in. Passion drives success; it has to be at the center of your success. Because if you're not curious about what you're doing, it’s going to be difficult.
How is the transition from your previous job to your role as Director of the CGPDI?
This role is about relationships. It's about understanding our partners’ needs and then being responsive to those needs. But it's hard to understand someone's needs if you don't have a relationship with them, if they don't trust you, if you haven’t established that you're going to be reliable and dependable. For me, a lot of this transition is forging those relationships, connecting with our campus partners, connecting with our health college partners and determining where they are on their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) journey. One of the things that's important to understand is that every college is at a different point. Some colleges may need help with recruitment. Other colleges may need help with developing a community, a climate, an environment. So, understanding what each partner needs and where they are on their DEI journey is going to be essential. That's what's going to make us responsive.
I think the main thing about this role is understanding that I need those partners. I'm not a dentist. I’m not an engineer. I can talk about it and understand the admissions process, but I'm not going to be able to talk in-depth about career decisions, or about that internship or residency and what a student can expect to learn. That’s why it’s essential that I'm connected with these campus partners and that they understand they are crucial — their expertise is vital. In this role, it’s important that I form positive relationships so that people know they are needed and that they are valued. Then we can help make sure our students are successful. I think at the end of the day, the commonality that I have with everyone is that we're focused on student success. Regardless of what college you’re in, you want your students to be successful, and that's what we're trying to figure out. How do we help underrepresented minorities? How do we make sure that they have the resources, the skills, the advice, the mentorship that they need to be successful in their programs and then to be successful leaders and practitioners once they enter the community?
What contributes to student success?
I believe mentoring is essential. Students need to connect with people who look like them, with people who are in positions of power. I'm a big believer in self-efficacy. I think self-efficacy is one of the things that really helps students. When you can see someone who looks like yourself doing well in a position of authority, that really lets you know that you can be there, that you belong. It’s important to help students understand that they are valued and that they belong. Seeing someone like them in those positions tells students, “this is here for you, too.” I think mentorship is one way to do that. Not only are we forming relationships with students, but we're also able to provide professional expertise. Mentors can share why and how they made their decisions, and they can give advice on where to apply, how to communicate and how to grow in their field. We have great faculty and staff who are excellent leaders and excellent mentors. In addition to guidance, they can also talk to students about academic preparation, study habits, time management.
The second thing that I would say is crucial for CGPDI is to start early. The main issue I see when it comes to graduate and professional programs with underrepresented populations is, these students are not aware of the possibilities. For example, students don't know that you don't always need to finish a bachelor's to start working on the doctorate, or that you can come into pharmacy after two years of undergrad and start working on a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, or that you can attend law school after one year of undergrad and start working on your job sooner. Our students don't know that information, and we need to help them understand what these professional paths look like starting early. We need to get them prepared and encourage them to think about professional careers. And we need to help them understand how different choices affect money and future opportunities. Earning more advanced degrees allows you to expand your career quickly. They allow you to move up.
Our students need to get exposed to professional careers early. Exposure can start at the middle and high school levels so students can start thinking about their future and goals. Students who start their professional path early on have the advantage of finishing certain courses and programs ahead of time. So, we need to make sure that we are getting connected and presenting these options and careers to our Hispanic communities and populations, our African-American populations, our indigenous populations much earlier.
My hope is that CGPDI helps students streamline that process and helps them understand what they need to do to be prepared. We work to connect students with good experiences and help them build their professional development, cultural awareness and their communication and problem-solving skills.
What is your “why?”
I think that when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, when it comes to affecting change within this nation, it's the practitioners and the frontline workers; it's the teachers, the accountants, the bankers; it's the engineers and the doctors. Those are the people who will affect change. I'm excited about this job because I'm producing practitioners, leaders and clinicians who are going to get out and do the work, who are going to become gatekeepers, who are going to become preceptors, who are going to become inspirations. That’s why I'm excited about this work. Change is slow. It's incremental, it takes time. But if we have people on the front line, if we have people opening doors for other underrepresented minorities, if we have people who can lead and show the path forward, that's how change becomes permanent. And that's how change moves from being incremental to being moderate. My main goal for this job is to produce the people who are going to have their boots on the ground and who are going to affect change: people who work with students and the public, people who work to ensure equitable and quality health care or accurate representation in court. These are the things that change lives and make an impact. That's why I'm excited about this work. Teachers are phenomenal, doctors are phenomenal, lawyers, scientists, artists, musicians and dancers are all phenomenal. I'm excited for these people to get out and start effecting change. And that's what's exciting about this work: I'm not only reaching pharmacy or health college students, but I also get to touch the entire campus no matter what you're interested in. If you’re a cellist, I'm going to talk to you about that ensemble; I'm going to talk to you about putting together a portfolio. I'm excited about that because there's going to be a young person out there who loves music and is going to see you and be inspired by you and know that they can do it. And then you're going to be able to open doors and you're going to be able to lead and you're going to be able to give back. One of my favorite quotes is, “there's no success without a successor.” And that's what this job enables me to do: to have that legacy, to create these practitioners who are going to be at the forefront of change.