This fall, we encourage new and returning Longhorns to explore the many student-serving centers, programs and initiatives within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE). In this first installment of this Q&A series, we are shining the spotlight on Dr. Devin Walker, director of the Sweatt Center for Black Males and interim director of Global Leadership and Social Impact.
Since 2013, he has taken hundreds of students on study abroad trips to South Africa, China, Costa Rica and—most recently—Dubai/Abu Dhabi. We caught up with the UT Austin alum (M.A. ’15, Ph.D. ’18, College of Education) to learn more about his inaugural DDCE trip to the Middle East, what he has planned this fall for the Sweatt Center for Black Males, and his words of wisdom for incoming students.
Could you give us a quick summary of the DDCE’s first trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
The trip happened back in March during spring break week, and our group—75 in total—spent five days in Dubai, three in Abu Dhabi. A big focus of the trip was to show them the rich culture, incredible architecture, and the fascinating mix of old mixed with new in Middle Eastern society. Some of our stops included the World Expo, the Presidential Palace and the Sheikh Mohammed Cultural Center.
While abroad, what teachable moment stands out in your memory?
We stayed in a really nice five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi, which was a first-time experience for many of my students. When they walked in, their eyes were so big when they saw the beautiful lobby with a view of the ocean. I used this opportunity to have a conversation with them about dreaming big and how, when we get older, our dreams can get stifled. This was the perfect setting for this conversation to happen. It’s all about the power of exposure.
What was an important part of this international learning experience?
A big part of the learning experience is navigating your surroundings on your own. During their free time, I told them to go out and explore and make the most out of their day. I wanted them to get comfortable with walking in the streets, taking the train and interacting with the people who were moving at the same pace as them. If you’re on a tour bus, it’s hard to get a feel for something, but if you’re on a train, you’re much more engaged. I’ve talked to seniors at UT who have never even been to the Greenbelt or Barton Springs—all these places that are so close. Once they see they can explore cities internationally, they can come back and venture into the unknown of their own worlds with confidence.
What is the biggest benefit from studying abroad in a non-Western country?
In American society, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Muslim culture. But if you get the opportunity to live there—even for a short while—you can gain an entirely new perspective on how people in different countries live and how connected we really are. It’s very eye-opening and humanizing.
What would say to a student who is unsure if they belong here at UT Austin?
First, you wouldn’t have come here if you didn’t feel deep down inside that you belong. Second, find your niche, your people, your tribe. Whether it’s a racial/ethnic/cultural group, or a group based on your hobbies and interests, find the people who allow you to be your full authentic self and who can help you reach your goals. Meet professors and go to their office hours. Make sure you’re connected to the people who can help you. And, I cannot emphasize this enough: apply, apply, apply for opportunities. The best thing about being at UT is that we have so many educational opportunities and resources for you to take advantage of—but first you must apply.
What important lesson would you like to instill in all your students?
Don’t let your ego get in the way of your greatness. What I mean by that is, students oftentimes are afraid to ask for help because their ego gets in the way. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you let yourself fail rather than asking for help and support. And don’t let your fear of rejection get in the way of applying for something; that’s your ego getting in the way. And lastly, don’t spend time with people who don’t have the best influence on you solely because they are more socially desirable to be around. Make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who want you to win.
What would you tell a student who is interested in joining the Sweatt Center for Black Males?
This is the place where you can be your full authentic self among a bunch of other young, brilliant Black men. We have a lot of opportunities to help our Sweatt Center students broaden their horizons with our global trips as well as internships and other professional development opportunities. To steal a motto from the Sweatt Center’s former director Dr. Sutton: You are not in this alone.