“I am always thinking how can I build spaces so that it supports the people who come from the communities that I care about, and I do that unapologetically; I don’t apologise for that, but I don’t put a sign on my chest saying this is what I do.”
By Sharmain Grainger
It was author of ‘U.S. Army Mage Corps: SWORD,’ John F. Holmes, who said that “there is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” This quote can be applicable to a number of life situations, including those of today’s featured individual, Dr. Terrence Blackman.
Some persons may ask why. Well, maybe it’s for the simple fact that instead of staying the course of making the big bucks on Wall Street back in the day, this man with an absolutely brilliant mind decided that he would much rather help the vulnerable of the society in which he lived, elevate themselves through his tutelage.
Can you imagine channeling your career in a particular direction just so you can help others when in reality you really don’t have to? Well this is what Dr. Blackman did when he was at the peak of a thriving Wall Street career.
Now in my mind this has made Dr. Blackman the quintessence of a ‘Special Person’, and today we at Kaieteur News say hats off to this son of the soil who migrated many years ago, but has continued to make Guyana especially proud.
Even as he was being a servant to the people, Dr. Blackman’s leadership ability became even more evident, which allowed him to evolve not only as a professional, but as a human being with an even bigger heart to serve.
Today Dr. Blackman, a Mathematician in the true sense of the word, is the Dean of the School of Science, Health and Technology at Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York. He has held that position for the past three years, but before that was the Chairman of the Mathematics Department, and even before that, he was the Professor of Education, Research and Policy at the University of Denver.
Prior to that, in a programme established to “enhance and recognize the contributions of outstanding scholars” he was appointed a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]. Reflecting on this accomplishment recently, Dr. Blackman confided that, “In a sense that was the high point of my career.”
However, a quick glance at his lengthy and very impressive CV will tell a story of a man who has embraced academia with unyielding passion over the years, but yet was able to find the time amidst it all to lend support to help others find their way academically and by extension, professionally.
Some of you are well-acquainted with his name, for he is a solid product of our local education system, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten from whence he came. This Queen’s College (QC) Old Boy, and others from his alma mater, both local and overseas, are currently on a mission to restore and maintain the school’s sports field. This is a project that Dr. Blackman feels particularly enthused about, as he recalls all too well how as a boy he was able to utilize it in his quest to become a rounded human being.
“It’s this place that is important to me, the field and the culture; how kids get the chance to kind of make their talents…I was very athletic, I played cricket for Queen’s College; I opened batting for the under-16 and under-19 teams. I was a captain of the basketball team, I played hockey, and I was the captain of our debate team too,” Dr. Blackman proudly asserted. He chuckled with delight as he called to mind the younger version of himself taking full advantage of the gamut of extracurricular activities QC had to offer.
“It always seems to me that you have to create a space where young boys and girls who possess particular talents, especially those who don’t come from rich families, have a chance and a place that they can go to and experience something that is first class and something that is world class, so that they too can build themselves up. They don’t have to become a professor, or become a teacher for a bunch of people, but they have an opportunity to become their best possible self,” Dr. Blackman theorised.
It is just this thinking that has been Dr. Blackman’s driving force over the years.
“I am always thinking how can I build spaces so that it supports the people who come from the communities that I care about, and I do that unapologetically; I don’t apologise for that, but I don’t put a sign on my chest saying this is what I do,” Dr. Blackman added.
Born Terrence Richard Blackman to parents Terrence, a land surveyor, and Joan, a school teacher, on Saturday, December 28, 1968, he is the eldest of three children. He grew up in North Ruimveldt, Georgetown, close to Festival City, and recalled that his family was among the first set of people to move into that section of the city after it was
built in the 1970s.
He also remembers spending a great deal of time in Third Street, Alexander Village, where his maternal grandmother lived after she married and moved away from the Pomeroon. His father’s side of the family hailed from Lodge in Georgetown.
Dr. Blackman, who has fond memories of his childhood, recalled attending a small elementary school in Alberttown, Georgetown called St. Christopher’s and the Central Primary School, where he wrote the Common Entrance examination back in 1979 to gain a place at Queen’s College.
What is interesting to note is that while in First Form, the young Terrence Blackman, who was well known among family member
s and friends as “Amegah”, had quite a difficult time with the very subject he now masters – Mathematics. He however had an ardent inclination for writing, and was sure at one point that he was one going to become a writer.
However, in recognition of his shortcomings in Mathematics, Dr. Blackman recalled that he was tutored by one his mother’s very good friends [Ms. Matthews] who was very good at Math. He recalled having tutoring sessions on Sundays, owing to the fact that Ms. Matthews was a Seventh-day Adventist.
It was during these very thorough tutoring sessions, that the young Terrence Blackman gained a true awakening to the world of Mathematics and never looked back.
“I really got to understand the language of Mathematics and I became one of the better students at Queen’s College at the time. So it started there; but I didn’t lose my interest in writing…” he said.
“In a way Mathematics is sort of like writing, it has its own syntax and grammar, and you learn how to read it, then it becomes much easier to do it,” Dr. Blackman said of his journey to better understanding Math. He became so versed in the subject area that he developed an ability to explain it to others in much the way his tutor did.
After completing secondary school, a young Terrence was faced with having to decide where he would further his education. This was at a time, he recalled, when many young people were opting to pursue studies in countries like Russia, China, or in Eastern Europe but, according to him, “I didn’t feel like I had the cultural connection to those places.”
However, since he had an aunt living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, he opted to apply to The Brooklyn College, where he was accepted. He remembers leaving his parents and siblings behind, like many youths did back in the mid-1980s, to pursue higher education.
However, due to some financial challenges regarding his tuition, Dr. Blackman recalled that his parents decided that they would relocate the rest of the family to the United States in order to better support their eldest child. This translated to his father retraining as a nurse and his mother continuing to earn a living as a teacher upon migration.
Their support was certainly not in vain, as their son continued to excel.
“When I st
arted off at Brooklyn College, because of ‘A’ Levels I was pretty advanced in terms of what the College required,” Dr. Blackman shared, even as he recalled becoming a part of a Club called the National Black Science Students Organization. The entity was one that offered support particularly to persons of African descent since, at the time, being a non-white meant it was that much harder a task to advance academically.
“I was the, sort of, Academic Coordinator as an undergraduate, and part of my thing was to help the other people who were part of the club to get through the courses that were necessary for entry into medical school, entry into graduate schools, etc…I didn’t start off majoring in Math, but I majored in Math because I figured it would be easy, so that I could get the time to spend in writing classes,” Dr. Blackman recalled.
But as the Academic Coordinator for the Club, he would find himself being tasked with having to tutor persons in Math, and this resulted in him becoming even better at Mathematics. So advanced he became that he was given a chance to even indulge in independent research in the subject area, which helped him to evolve even further.
OTHERS OVER SELF
His eventual entry into the world of work was as a Stockbroker on Wall Street. Of course as a young Mathematician, his aim was to make as much money as he possibly could. However, even though he was young and very ambitious, for some reason he was overwhelmed by the sense that he was not using his talent appropriately.
As fate would have it, when he deiced to take some leave from his Wall Street job, a friend of his, Dr. Susan Hom, extended an invitation to him to engage in some tutoring at a community college. The task would entail him tutoring students in the area of mathematics with the aim of helping to improve their economic standing.
The programme was one designed to cater specifically to single parents who were on public assistance “in hopes that we would teach them to get through the Math exam for their
entry into College and have an opportunity of getting into the nursing programme.”
His tutoring support should have lasted a mere few weeks, but by the end of the programme, Dr. Blackman recalled that he developed a greater desire to want to help even more people find themselves academically.
This was due to the fact that one of his students, a woman, around his aunt’s age, was so emotionally affected after she failed the exam that it caused an awakening in him of the direction in which he thought he should go.
“I realized then, I can’t be walking around with a fancy pinstripe suit on Wall Street when people who look like me were struggling through whether they could add some fractions or do some simple algebra…so I left Wall Street and went to graduate school and started to train to become a professor in Math. I realized then how much I didn’t even know, and so I studied really hard,” Dr. Blackman shared. His further evolution eventually contributed to him becoming a founding faculty member of the undergraduate degree programme in mathematics at Medgar Evers College where he served on the faculty for many years. He is also credited with being the creator and founder of the Medgar Evers College Math Society and the Co-Founder and Director of The Dr. Frank Ragland Math Masters Institute, an initiative designed to engage middle school students in Central Brooklyn in the development of their mathematical interests and talents.
He has also been lending support to Queen’s College in the form of Math camps and the University of Guyana, too, since he is convinced that young people from Guyana can gain access to top institutions such as MIT.
“I know this because I have gone there, so I don’t have any questions whether they are going to be able to do it, because I’ve done that.”
And in case you were wondering, Dr. Blackman’s life is not only centered around all things Mathematics, as he also makes the necessary time for fun and family, which includes his 23-year-old son Madiba, a graduate of Howard University who is preparing for medical school, and his 12-year-old daughter, Sasha, who he intimated is one of the best Sixth Graders playing the flute in New York City. A natural progression of excellence, one would say!
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