The University of Alabama

Developing Ethical Leaders in Alabama

By Kristen Moore

Joshua White didn’t discover the depth of love he had for his home state until he became a member of the Blackburn Institute in 2011. His experience as a Blackburn student strengthened his desire to understand Alabama and its culture in a completely new way.

“The Blackburn Institute is different from other leadership programs at UA because of the diversity of members, the meaningful conversations and the in-state travel experiences that are part of it,” explains White, a senior majoring in economics and finance from Trussville. White, who serves as the student chair in the Blackburn Institute, says his involvement in the leadership program has been life changing and has shaped his plans beyond graduation.

Unlike other leadership development programs at UA, the Blackburn Institute focuses specifically on improving the quality of life in the state of Alabama while promoting ethical leadership and cultural understanding among its members.

Dr. John L. Blackburn

Created by the Division of Student Affairs in 1995, the Blackburn Institute was developed in honor of the late Dr. John L. Blackburn and his contributions to the University campus and community. The Institute supports Blackburn’s belief that relationships across generations are the link to progressive and ethical change. Blackburn himself described membership in the institute as “not only an honor but a lifetime commitment to becoming a change agent in one’s community.”

The Blackburn Institute Communication Chair Hayden Gunter, a junior majoring in civil engineering and economics from Opelika, says his experience in the institute has inspired him to stay in Alabama after graduation and commit to improving the state. “Blackburn confirmed my choice to reside in Alabama because it’s my home and I care about the issues Alabama faces,” Gunter explains.

Gunter has learned more about Alabama through the Burt Jones Travel Experience, which he describes as transformational and inspiring. “We generally visit rural and urban areas in Alabama each year. Last year we traveled to Troy, Parrish and Montgomery,” Gunter says. “These experiences expose us to unique issues in each location while teaching us to become aware and open to other perspectives and opinions.”

Dr. Philip Westbrook

Blackburn Institute Director Dr. Philip Westbrook is committed to introducing the Blackburn students to the people, places and history that impact the state today. Through Alabama 101, an Alabama awareness class, Blackburn students learn about healthcare, education, agriculture, economic development, and business and industry.

“To be a leader in the future, you have to understand the issues today and the history of how we got where we are,” Westbrook says. “Alabama 101 teaches students the basics and the Burt Jones Travel Experiences connect them with leaders and exposes them to the diversity of issues in Alabama.”

Gunter’s experience traveling to new areas in Alabama further supports his devotion to the state. “Learning about the good in Alabama makes you want to stay and learning about the bad makes you want to make a change,” he explains. White adds, “The Blackburn Institute teaches you how to work with different people from different backgrounds. You learn to have dialog rather than debate and establish a common ground with anyone.” This sense of community is what makes the program so special.

Gloria “Genie” Smith further explains how the program helps establish relationships and cultural understanding. Smith, a junior majoring in quantitative economics and English from Birmingham, and the student vice chair in the Blackburn Institute, attributes her open-mindedness to the program. “I have become more open-minded, more enthusiastic about others’ opinions and more eloquent about how I express my opinion. The Blackburn Institute is made up of a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students offering members the ability to learn and grow with people they may not interact with otherwise.”

Westbrook says the institute provides the foundation for students to understand how they can contribute to society as a whole. “Our goal is to help people see the deeper issues in Alabama so they have purposeful and meaningful conversations to understand one another and to lead to resolution of issues and action to improve the quality of life for all citizens,” Westbrook explains.

The Blackburn Institute has become a thriving global network of more than 400 leaders with the shared commitment of achieving Alabama’s fullest potential. White, Gunter, Smith and many more Blackburn students will leave the Blackburn Institute with the knowledge and relationships to help them commit to making a difference in Alabama.