SPEA assistant professor Cullen Merritt strives to make a connection with each student who enters his classroom.
“You don’t have to move mountains” he says. “Students often just want a word of encouragement and to know they have an advocate.”
That approach has made Merritt a memorable and impactful instructor for many who walk into his classroom. This year, it also earned him a special honor from IUPUI’s Black Student Union.
Each year, the BSU selects a faculty member as the recipient of its Advocate of a Dream award. They choose someone who exemplifies the values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and uses their professional role to positively impact the lives of students. The BSU presented Merritt with the award during the 50th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner in Indianapolis, the largest event in Indiana honoring Dr. King.
SPEA student Sierra Dobbins nominated Merritt for the award. She took two of his courses during what she calls one of the best semesters of her college experience.
“Dr. Merritt has been influential to black students across campus,” Dobbins says. “He has beaten statistics placed on him by society and encourages his students to do the same. I am so grateful to have built a relationship with such a phenomenal black faculty member.”
The selection committee agreed. Merritt says he is honored and humbled that this particular group of students felt he was deserving of the award.
“I’ve had multiple black students mention I was the first African American educator they ever had,” Merritt says. “I think there is a sense of comfort when you see someone who looks like you.”
Merritt recalls having only three educators who looked like him throughout his academic career—one in elementary school and two in college—but they made a significant impact on his future career in academia.
“Representation matters and inspires,” Merritt says. “I believed I could someday be in their position and make an important contribution to society because I saw their example.”
Multiple studies back up Merritt’s point. One such study found that both male and female black students who have at least one black teacher in their early years are more likely to aspire to college.
To Merritt, the connection he makes with students is more than skin deep. He says their shared life experiences build empathy and understanding. Yet he’s quick to point out that instructors of different races can—and should—be advocates for all of their students by building relationships with them.
“I think it’s the moral thing to do,” he says. “You end up learning about their experiences and perspectives, which provides knowledge that can make you a better instructor.”
Merritt says investing in students not only improves an instructor’s professional performance, it can have a lasting personal impact as well.
“I think my students may not realize how much they inspire me,” Merritt says. “In particular, when I see black students, I see a younger version of myself. It makes me proud to know they will have a positive impact on society.”
Many students credit that positive future impact—at least in part —to the environment Merritt creates in his classroom and the ripple effect it has across campus.
“Dr. Merritt can create a movement of leaders and achievers,” Dobbins adds. “He is a great role model and leader for those in the black community and is more than deserving of this award.”
Yet Merritt keeps his eye on the road ahead. He says while this honor is humbling and serves as confirmation of his current efforts, it’s also a charge for the future.
“An award should not signify an ending, but rather a lasting commitment,” Merritt says. “It’s given me impetus to be more intentional about how I interact with and inspire all students. It doesn’t take much to change the trajectory of a student’s future and I can honestly say it’s simply the right thing to do.”