Teacher, advocate, mentor
Botswana Blackburn, honored with a prestigious Kemper Award, has a student-centered philosophy to teaching
It’s been 30 years since Botswana Blackburn first stepped onto the University of Missouri campus. She arrived from Kansas City to attend the Missouri Scholars Academy, a program that invites 330 of the state’s most gifted incoming high school juniors for a chance to experience Mizzou.
At the time, Blackburn had her young heart set on becoming a journalist — and on escaping Missouri for a college experience much farther away, ideally at Northwestern University or Syracuse University.
But her three-week experience with the scholars academy changed her idea of a dream school.
“When my senior year of high school came,” Blackburn said, “I knew the University of Missouri was where I was meant to be.”
Today, Blackburn is director of the Bachelor of Health Science Program and an associate teaching professor of health sciences in the School of Health Professions at MU. She has come full circle and is back in the classrooms at Mizzou, where her student-centered philosophy of teaching is grounded in a belief that faculty and students should be equal partners in the learning process. Blackburn gears her teaching toward real-world applications, so students understand how their course work plays out in the workplace. She also believes in building relationships with students outside the classroom and works tirelessly as an advocate and mentor.
“I try to treat my students the way I would want someone to treat my child,” Blackburn said. “Parents are dropping off their children at this strange, new place, and these young adults are being independent for the first time.
“I want to help them make that transition and make it as smooth as possible,” she said.
This spring, Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright, administrators and staff surprised Blackburn with the 2019 William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, which includes a $10,000 award. Kemper Fellowships are awarded to five outstanding teachers at the university each year. This year marks the 29th anniversary of the Kemper Awards.
Blackburn was born in Louisiana, but moved with her family to Kansas City, Missouri, when she was in elementary school. Her parents worked for Honeywell — her dad as an engineer and her mom in configuration management. Both her grandmothers attended college, and one of her grandfathers was sheriff of Madison Parish, Louisiana, back in the days when an African American lawman wasn’t allowed to arrest a white citizen who broke the law.
Education was a high priority for Blackburn and her younger sister, and she took her family’s expectations to heart.
“I was very studious,” she recalled. “Academics were important to me.”
Blackburn also was the news editor of her high school newspaper, drum major for the band and a member of the Honor Society.
After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from MU, where she studied broadcast journalism, political science and health education, Blackburn returned to Kansas City for a job with the city’s health department. She eventually married Joel Blackburn, an emergency room physician, and the couple relocated to Iowa. While there, Blackburn worked for the Iowa Department of Health and earned a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After Blackburn and her husband moved to Columbia, they had a daughter and son, and Blackburn stayed home with the children. In 2011, she joined the School of Health Professions as an adjunct professor and a year later as a full-time assistant teaching professor of health sciences.
It didn’t take long for Blackburn to make an impact on students, colleagues and the campus.
“Dr. Blackburn is one of the teachers our undergraduate students most respect and admire for her commitment to their own personal success at MU and after graduation,” said Rosemary Hogan, former chair and an associate teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Health Sciences. “This is evident by the speed at which her classes fill each semester and her willingness to be a role model and informal advisor to so many students on campus.”
Outstanding course evaluations and a constant stream of students waiting to meet with her are proof Blackburn is making a difference in the lives of her students, Hogan said.
“She has a unique capacity to listen and show compassion, while also pushing students to meet their potential,” she said.
Former Mizzou student Miranda Schloman was at a crossroads in pursuing a degree and future career when Blackburn took her under her wing. Despite being a student who often shied away from speaking up in front of her peers, Schloman was a willing participant in Blackburn’s classroom.
“Dr. Blackburn’s passion and positivity for teaching encouraged participation in her classroom,” she said. “She would set the tone of her classroom to be open and discussion-based at the beginning of each semester, which allowed students to believe their viewpoints were valid and welcomed.”
To keep her courses relevant and fresh, Blackburn is constantly updating her materials. Students discuss current events and controversial topics, such as flooding in northwest Missouri, climate change or the vaccine debate, and examine how these often hot-button issues affect public health.
“It is this connection between the classroom and the real world that sets her teaching apart from her peers,” said Kristofer Hagglund, dean of the School of Health Professions. “Her instruction elicits a recognition that what they are learning matters. They begin to appreciate how they will be able to use their knowledge and abilities to improve the health and well-being of other people, many of whom are vulnerable because of illness or injury. This recognition begins their transformation from students to health care professionals.”
Blackburn also believes in the importance of extra- and co-curricular experiences in enriching student learning so she has taken a leadership role in nearly 20 different service activities or committees at MU. She is the campus advisor for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Eta National Honor Society and the MU chapter of UNICEF. She also serves as a leader with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, the Health Professions Freshman Interest Group and the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program. Plus, she volunteers regularly with the Boys & Girls Club in Columbia and is a member of the Links Incorporated, a civic organization for professional women of color.
“As a female faculty of color, she has been instrumental in providing a safe space for students of color to thrive,” said Hogan. “But importantly, she has made her mission to provide opportunities for all students she comes into contact with to feel the same sense of belonging she felt in her initial visit to campus at the Missouri Scholars Academy.”
Blackburn said she endeavors to be mindful of the influence inherent in her position.
“I want students to remember I had high expectations,” she said, “But that I also cared about their success, and I cared about them as people, and I wanted them to be the best health care professionals they could be when they left my class.”
Botswana Blackburn at a glance:
Blackburn earned her bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science and a master’s in health education and promotion from the University of Missouri. She earned her doctorate in education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She was honored with the 2016 Health Sciences Faculty of the Year award as well as the School of Health Professions Excellence in Education-Early Career award. She was nominated by MU Department of Health Professions for the Provost’s Junior Faculty Teaching Award in 2015.