“The University of Michigan holds a special and dear place in my heart, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without U-M and CEW+ behind my name.”
Dean Debra J. Barksdale shapes the next generation of nurses as a nurse practitioner, certified nurse educator, Professor of Nursing, and Dean of the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Her story begins with a role model: growing up in rural Virginia, Barksdale remembers watching the beautiful, poised Diahann Carroll play the title character in Julia, a late ‘60s sitcom about a Black nurse and her son. The sitcom was the first to feature a Black woman in a non-stereotypical starring role.
When she enrolled in college at the University of Virginia, Barksdale pursued nursing, imagining her life taking the shape of Julia’s. After graduating, Barksdale rose quickly through the ranks working at a large hospital in the area. Barksdale then enrolled in a master’s program at Howard University and later earned a place on the faculty at Howard, where she taught nursing for several years. She describes her teaching style as interactive and engaging, which stood out from the lecture-focused pedagogy dominant at the time.
While at Howard, Barksdale observed how stress impacted the health of her most vulnerable patients, particularly Black patients. She remembers expressing her disappointment in the lack of available research on this topic to one of her mentors, who replied that if Barksdale wanted to see the research, she’d have to conduct it.
So, while caring for her young daughter, Barksdale moved to Ann Arbor to earn her PhD in nursing from the University of Michigan. At the time, Barksdale hoped that a PhD would help her “impact the health of more individuals and families.” Her research examined “how racial discrimination and financial strain bear on emotional responses … as well as physical ones.” Barksdale received the Margaret Dow Towsley Scholarship from CEW+ in 2001. Barksdale attributes her later career success to the support of U-M and CEW+: “The University of Michigan holds a special and dear place in my heart, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without U-M and CEW+ behind my name.”
After graduation, Barksdale pursued a career in academia, earning many “firsts” in her career. She became the first Black faculty member to become a full professor with tenure in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Nursing, and she has recently become the first Dean of color in UNC-Greenboro’s School of Nursing.
As a university administrator, Barksdale has influence above and beyond individual classrooms. In her view, teaching and research involve not only what goes on in the classroom or the lab but also how the academy trains teachers, practitioners, and researchers. “I don’t see these activities as discrete,” Barksdale says. As a dean, she develops talent in students and faculty members through mentoring and facilitating professional development programs. She spearheaded a faculty leadership mentoring program through the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) intended to develop the leadership skills of nurse practitioner faculty belonging to underrepresented groups in the field. As a leader in academia, Barksdale says, “I help others develop the confidence and competence to teach and lead academic programs.”
In her advice to students, Barksdale emphasizes the importance of finding good mentors. She also urges students to stick to their values and act as an advocate and ally for others, even if that means you have to go against the crowd. “To whom much is given, much is required,” Barksdale says.