The University of Mount Olive recently awarded the 2019 Dr. Thomas R. Morris Award for Excellence in Teaching to two professors. Tying for the title this year were Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Jennifer Gray and Barrow Chair of Biblical Studies and Professor of Religion Dr. John Blackwell. Gray and Blackwell were nominated by students and then selected by a faculty committee.
Gray, a native of Gaffney, South Carolina, who now resides in Goldsboro, holds a Ph.D. in psychology with an emphasis in psychology and law. She began teaching at UMO in the fall of 2015. Gray teaches courses ranging from psychological development to forensic psychology.
Gray says she feels her greatest strengths as an educator come from the high expectations she has for her students, and the fact that she sees their potential.
“I make connections with my students because I genuinely care about them, and not just as students,” she said. “I do not base a student’s value on the grade they earn in my class. I am also authentic, which means my students get to see me make mistakes and then take responsibility for it. When I first started teaching, I was terrified of making mistakes and losing credibility. However, I have learned that using my mistakes as an opportunity for growth is now one of my biggest strengths in connecting with students.”
Gray enjoys building relationships with students and colleagues.
“I especially like watching students who have struggled become successful, and sharing my love for psychology with others,” she said.
Gray’s support of her students goes beyond the classroom. She attends her student’s soccer, lacrosse, basketball and softball games, as well as track and field events to cheer them on. She says she also enjoys watching her students perform in musical and theatrical events on campus.
“These events allow me to see another side of my students that I can then incorporate back into class examples,” she said.
Gray’s favorite style of teaching is through active discussions with students where they relate information they are learning in class to societal problems or their personal lives. Her advice to new educators is simple: “Find a mentor, and learn as much as you can from them... Watch their classes and see how they engage their students. Use compassion in all things, but especially with yourself – the first few years are hard.”
Gray and her husband, Terrence Hendrix, are the parents of two children, Liam and Ethan.
Blackwell, a resident of Mount Olive, obtained his bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and his doctorate of ministry from Claremont School of Theology, as well as his Ph.D. from Arizona State University. He teaches several topics related to both religion and the Honors Program.
Blackwell entered the teaching profession because he said he sees teaching and learning as lifelong experiences.
“Being a professor is integral to my own journey of learning and becoming fully human,” he said. “I am an insatiable learner, and I have a lot to learn. Being a professor allows me to reflect on my own humanity, character, role in life and journey in this world. I also feel that I am better as a professor than anything else I have done vocationally.”
Blackwell says he feels his greatest strengths as an educator are building the class into a community, leading dialogue, and connecting what students are studying to their lives and to the world.
“Many students have a deep interest in discussing difficult human issues with maturity,” Blackwell said. “The subjects I teach lend themselves to the most difficult human issues. I never express shock or horror over what they bring up. I try not only to welcome sensitive issues, but to also help students understand that they have the spiritual capacity to embrace and resolve some of life’s most difficult issues.”
Blackwell, who often bakes brownies for his students, and attends their athletic and artistic events, says he hopes his students feel a sense of being valued.
“I cannot be sure that students will remember the contents of what we learn together, but I hope they remember the experience of learning together in community,” he said. “I hope they remember being treasured as fellow-learners, and I hope they will carry at least some of this experience into their lives and continue the wonder-filled journey of learning.”
As a professor in the Religion Department, faith is pivotal to Blackwell’s job as an educator.
“I am constantly thinking and reflecting on the presence of mystery and how, through the study of literature and the arts, I can offer students authentic experiences of mystery,” he said.
Blackwell feels the biggest challenge facing education today is “helping students use their education to build community instead of polarizing our world,” he said. “Our country is too often paralyzed by actions of recrimination. We all need for education to help people learn to live in peace with our deepest differences and to be mindful of the common good. God has created a world rich in diversity. Just as diversity is essential for a healthy agriculture, it is essential for healthy community.”
Blackwell and his wife, Nancy, are the parents of daughter, Jamie, and son, David. They also have a daughter-in-law, Chynnene.
The Morris Award is named for Dr. Thomas R. Morris, a long-time friend and generous supporter of the University of Mount Olive. Morris is a native of the Nahunta area of Wayne County where he and his family were active members of Union Grove OFWB Church. With the vision of an education, he worked his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon graduation from medical school, he was an optometrist and civic leader in Goldsboro until his retirement. He now resides in Wilmington.