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robertsDebra Roberts, Ph.D.
April 2012

Winner of the Faculty Senate’s 2012 Exemplary Teaching Award, Dr. Debra Roberts is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology who has a passion for teaching and mentoring.  Consequently, she strives to help students identify and pursue their own passions, especially their intellectual goals.

The first in her family to attend college and the daughter of immigrants, Dr. Roberts has committed herself to being a role model and mentor for students since she joined Howard’s faculty in 1999.  Having earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Temple University, she has made fostering the development of young people the focus of her research as well as her teaching.  Indeed, one of her first significant research projects grew out of a collaboration with Dr. Wade Boykin at Howard’s Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR).   Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the project examined the impact of poverty, culture, school, and family on the psychosocial development of African American children.

As a researcher and a teacher, Dr. Roberts has devoted much of her energy to the academic development of African American students at Howard.  She says, “To this end, my classrooms, as well as my research lab, are places where ideas are generated and the cultural research we do helps to empower the communities that we study and serve.”  In the classroom, she often uses video clips from TED talks to stimulate discussion and lyrics from world music to prod students to talk about the psychological impact of culture.  “I encourage discussion in even the largest classes of 200 plus undergraduates,” Roberts states, “because I want students to make connections between the material in their textbooks and their experiences in the real world.”  Student evaluations attest to the success of her approach, for they confirm that her students appreciate, above all, “the instructor’s interactive style” and “her use of real life examples to help us understand the material in the text.”


robertsOne of the most successful elements of Dr. Roberts’s teaching is mentoring. “I view teaching as an opportunity to take my mentoring into the classroom,” she remarks. Whether she is in the classroom, lab, or office, Dr. Roberts shows concern for students’ lives as well as their minds. For instance, Dr. Roberts recalls, “I have cooked many Caribbean dishes for those who may be away from home for the very first time, grieved with others as close friends and relatives passed, accompanied some on their very first trip on an airplane (and sometimes their very first trip out of the city), and helped some to pick out attire for their very first conference presentation.” Indeed, she has not only encouraged students to present at conferences, but given them access to her data, provided financial support, and introduced them to important scholars in the field. Because she is “committed to training the next generation of researchers and educators,” she has volunteered as a judge for the College of Arts & Sciences’ Undergraduate Research Symposium since its inception in 2005 and mentored students in the National Leadership Alliance’s research programs as well. No wonder she earned the HU Faculty Senate’s Exemplary Mentoring Award in 2005 and the National Leadership Alliance’s Mentor Recognition Award in 2007. According to Dr. Roberts, both teaching and mentoring are part of her “mission of paying it forward” in the hopes that her students, in turn, will dedicate themselves to “effecting positive change in communities of color.”

Dr. Roberts’ dedication has changed lives. Some of her Introduction to Psychology students have changed their major to Psychology because of her course and asked to work in her research lab. Some students are pursuing graduate studies in Psychology, including one who earned a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship. Others have won post-doctoral fellowships, and some are tenure-track professors at other institutions. One student wrote, “One semester with you had a lifetime impact.” Yet another wrote, “Watching and learning from you has inspired me even more to get my Ph.D.” Dr. Roberts comments, “The most gratifying thing is that most of these students are first-generation college graduates (in some cases, high school graduates), and I am elated that I could play a role in helping them navigate the landscape of academia that must have seemed so foreign just a few short years ago.” However, she concludes, “The greatest reward is collaborating with students to advance our knowledge of development and psychological processes.”






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