Brian is a three-time graduate of the University of Pennsylvania – first from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and later earning his masters and doctorate from the Graduate School of Education. Presently he teaches or co-teaches two courses including The History of Women and Men of African Descent at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as a pre-major advisor. He is the proud father of five children, four books, and one academic and cultural enrichment program, Ase Academy.
You have been with the University of Penn for quite some time. What has inspired you to stay? Please share a little bit about your experiences and career goals.
I got to Penn in ’89 as a student in the engineering school and didn’t really imagine at the time I would be doing the work I am now or pursuing a graduate degree after my undergraduate. A lot of the things I did in terms of community engagement, student organizing and leadership, and writing all paved the way for the work I’m now. I used my engineering degree for the first part of my career, I received my masters in education, and eventually decided to go back and get my doctorate; I started to get involved with the nonprofit leadership and community and that is how I became involved with PYB. A lot things have come full circle.
In terms of career goals and what keeps me inspired, now being in charge of the Black Cultural Center, there is an umbrella for all my different interests. I’m passionate about doing more research around college access and completion in under-resourced communities; I’m passionate about K-12 education and finding different models that connect with different students. Even when thinking about coachin
g as a metaphor for student engagement and mentoring, what happens on the basketball court between peers and coaches relationships are quality ingredients for life experiences and for guiding young people to better pathways. I am blessed to be in a position, to be able to use my affiliation with Penn as a resource for PYB and other community partners.
As a professor, what is one message that you try to get across to your students over the course of their college career?
I encouraged all of them to be present in the moment, to look around and see what is around and observe what is around you. One question that I always have is: why is everyone on their phones at all times? Why not talk to the individuals next to you? That is the opportunity to have a great conversation with a complete stranger and learn something new. Unfortunately, that is not the culture. When our students get to class, I encourage them to enjoy the whole classroom experience. When you are not fully plugged in and doing more (office hour meetings, tutoring sessions, being active about signing up for a study group and
really discussing topics further) you lose on your educational experience.
Another, don’t let the pursuit of grades get in the way of your education–which sounds counter intuitive. However, some students will short cut things, just for the grade. I understand it is hard because students have so many things going on purely in the classroom, a combination of extra curricular activities, a part-time job, family events, etc; college is stressful. At the same time, you have this beautiful opportunity to dive deep and learn new things. It is the same context as basketball. Practice, traveling, and games, are all taking place, but for the people that want to better their game, they will do what is necessary to go beyond that. In the classroom, sometimes students will do the bare minimum readings, don’t really do research, don’t pick something they are passionate about or want to learn more about, and will just sort of half way do it. I emphasize to just do more. Push yourself to dive into your education.
Our student (at Penn) are afforded the opportunity to hear a variety of different background speakers that come to Penn on a regular basis. At any chance you can meet a prime minister of a country, a CEO, a billionaire, or a person who has traveled the world. Some students have no idea these things are occurring because they aren’t invested in that deep dive to be a better self. There are things that are happening in Philadelphia beyond Penn’s campus and I encourage our students to take advantage of and learn more about the city. If you haven’t really explored the city during your four years then you aren’t allowing yourself to truly be open to new experiences and growth. Be present, enjoy the moment, and allow yourself to continue to grow through new experiences and education.
What is one challenge of directing Penn’s Makuu Center and what is one excitement or achievement?
One excitement I have is when a young student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for a study abroad position in Cuba. She thanked me and told me she got the spot and would be traveling to Cuba this summer. I am happy that the students are really putting themselves out there and doing more than my era did. There use to be this connotation that a lot of black students weren’t pursuing study abroad and taking full advantage of Penn. In the 70s and 80s, we (black students) didn’t feel that we belonged or were welcome due to bad racial profiling by Penn and the Philadelphia Police. I do think it has gotten a lot better. The work that we do today is really trying to make our students feel welcome and at home.
In that sense, that is the challenge and rewarding part. There is still a lot of work to be done everything from faculty training on diversity issues, Black Lives Matter, the young people in Florida protesting violence, gun control, and school safety. This has been the central argument of the BLM movement. There is still a question for black people to demand to the state that black lives matter and then to have people still question it–it is an underlying value in our nation to say we don’t fully value black people. It is tough to say that, but it is what black people have felt for generations.
There is still a lot of national conversations that needs to take place. Some people question why we have a Black Cultural Center at Penn, and I think in that sense it’s a difficult response; but unless people are really ready to have a serious conversation about the true value of black lives, black lives’ history, and how it has been misconstrued, then you cannot have that conversation–but that is the work and the challenge. Penn is very supportive and empowers us to do what we do. When our students are taking the full advantage of Penn, it makes me feel that we really are doing the right things and making the right moves forward.
What excites you about PYB?
I can see the vision and fell the passion for the work. Every organization needs that. You ca
n not go into this without knowing that you have to be a fire starter. Using basketball as a space for students and young people to meet and help each other develop as people as humans, it is really a beautiful model. Basketball is a revolutionary game, it is a universal sport, and there are so many layers to how the game touches our society. For PYB to come up with a model to use basketball to engage young people not just in the game, but in their development as people and young scholars–that model is brilliant.
What do you think is an important skill that our young people should focus on?
I think a lot of it has to do with the notion of self awareness. I mean self awareness for our young people to be aware of their strengths and their weaknesses; to be aware that they have a network of resources whom will help them develop as people. Sometimes our young people are not always fully aware of all the opportunities they have to grow academically and as a person. It is important for young people to not be hard on themselves, but to be critical and know they can continue to make moves and aspire.
Again, basketball is an example of that. If you want to get off the bench, then you know there are things that you can do to earn you a spot on the floor. If you get cut from the team,
then you know there are things you can practice to do better for next time. For young people to be self aware and to use resources to realize that they don’t have to be in this alone, you have a network to help you and allow it to help you.
3 Fun Facts about Brian Peterson:
I used to write fiction and be a music journalist.
I used to be really serious about badminton. Penn had a badminton club; I was decent, but I underestimated the skill levels of the players–they were really good!
I used to be DJ.