Oswego to Tufts
SUNY Oswego alum Dr. John Barker, ’95, has been named the dean of undergraduate and graduate students at Tufts University.
As dean, Barker is responsible for the co-curricular activities at Tufts; he oversees all activities outside the classroom from studying abroad to residence life and everything in-between.
“I love the day-to-day interactions with the students and I love the strategic planning that goes along with a broad and complex division,” Barker said. “It’s great, it’s challenging, but it’s extremely worthwhile.”
But at the core of his position, he has a broader goal.
“I want to make sure we create a seamless transition of educational opportunities for all of our students and make sure they can navigate the system of higher education,” he said.
Barker’s drive to serve his own students comes from his experiences at SUNY Oswego. After he graduated from Penfield High School in 1991, the Rochester native wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his future.
“I was a first generation college student,” Barker said. “I found Oswego. I applied to some SUNY schools, visited Oswego and it clicked for me.”
Barker’s main focus in high school – basketball – continued to be his primary concern when he began college, playing on the men’s basketball team his freshman year. That was, until he met Dr. David King, former chair of the history department and current dean of graduate studies.
“Being a first generation college student, I didn’t know how important grades where when I first got there,” Barker said. “But I found where my passion was, I loved history and I really excelled. A lot of that has to do with Dr. King.”
During his time at SUNY Oswego, Barker could often be found in King’s office, discussing their mutually shared favorite subject. In the process, Barker learned important skills that helped him get through college, an initially unfamiliar setting for him.
“I sat in Dr. King’s office for hours talking about history,” Barker said. “He helped me realize how important writing was and how important articulating an argument was. He spent countless hours with me and helped me in countless ways.”
“Everything I learned was grounded in Oswego. It was instrumental in giving me the framework to move forward.”
Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Students
“John was a very talented young man who was struggling to find a path toward a meaningful career,” King said. “His time with me became more than a professor and student relationship and more of a friendship.”
Those discussions led King to introduce a new path in his education that Barker hadn’t considered before, the history master’s program at Oswego. At King’s suggestion, he applied.
Linking History and Education
“I loved the seminar classes and getting to focus on topics much more in-depth than the introductory courses,” Barker said. “But the topics I was really passionate about were Lyndon B. Johnson, civil rights and the access to education in the 1960s.”
That subject, tied with the guidance he had received from King throughout his own undergraduate education, swayed Barker from his initial goals of earning a doctorate in history.
“While in the program, I decided I wanted to go on for a Ph.D. in higher education,” he said. “I knew I wanted to help students like me who didn’t know how to navigate the system of higher education and not leave it to chance that they might meet someone like Dr. King.”
Barker applied to the University of Rochester and transferred in 1997, focusing his studies on policy issues in the access and quality of higher education. He was only one paper away from his master’s degree, but knew his future was in education.
“I wanted to develop programs to help students move through the education system and give them the skills to ensure they could succeed,” Barker said. “I didn’t want it to be a chance opportunity, but to be part of the system of higher education.”
At the University of Rochester, he worked in residence life and was the assistant director of the McNair Scholars Program, which supports the aspirations of disadvantaged students who are seeking graduate degrees.
While finishing his doctorate, Barker was offered a position as the assistant provost of higher education at the University of Florida. After he earned his doctorate, he took the position and created the Office of Academic Enhancement there, designed to help students of various backgrounds understand the education system.
From Florida, Tufts University called with an offer. Barker accepted his position in December 2011 and, as he puts it, the rest is history. But he is quick to admit that it might not have been, if it wasn’t for the strong foundation he had during his undergraduate education at Oswego.
Building Strong Foundations
“Everything I learned was grounded in Oswego,” Barker said. “It was instrumental in giving me the framework to move forward.”
King is quick to credit Barker’s character, not just his school, as the catalyst for his success.
“His personality, energy and persistence helped him to succeed,” King said. “I am very proud of what John has accomplished and the positive influence he has had on others.”
Both King and Barker believe that degrees in liberal arts and education help students develop many transferable skills such as writing, persuasion, analysis, communication, leadership and collaboration.
“The reality is that these degrees help you develop all of these skills that can apply to many careers,” King said.
“Liberal arts gives you the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that lends itself to so many different careers,” he said. “It’s the way you think, not the major you have, that is important. A liberal arts degree teaches you how to think.”
King considers stories like Barker’s to be one of the most rewarding aspects of his own career in higher education.
“John has been an amazing role model to other young people,” King said. “That is one of the most gratifying things about pursuing a career in education, watching your students succeed.”
Despite all his success, Barker still thinks about that last paper. The topic?
“Liberal and social policy and its influence on the American family,” Barker said. “Who knows, maybe I’ll finish it.”