Dennis Chambers (Ed.D. ’10, M.A. ’02, M.A. ’99), is one of those people who leaves a strong impact on whomever he meets, no matter how long or short the conversation. His presence at TC has influenced countless members of the TC community through his many different roles: a beacon of authority and safety, a student, a researcher exploring the experiences of Black male doctoral students, an adjunct professor and a contributor to the Diversity Task Force, among a myriad other positions. 

A champion of informal leadership with a certificate in cooperation and conflict resolution from the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at TC, Chambers believes that “your engagement, being informed, being respectful, being honorable and being authentic enables you to engage others, and people will respect you and value what you have to say. We can all be leaders from where we sit.”

Now, after 35 years of service, Chambers is hanging up his public safety uniform to embark on a new journey, and his indelible impact on the TC community remains palpable. Nowhere was it more apparent than at his retirement party in Everett Lounge in early May. The room was brimming with joy as Chambers worked his way around the room, hugging and laughing with every guest. His impact was keenly felt as he was honored with glowing speeches from his colleagues as well as his wife Sharon (M.A. ’03), daughters Ashley (M.A. ’16) and Brittany (Ed.D. ’18) — also TC alumni — and his son, Kyle.

We turned to Chambers for his sage wisdom, built over decades at TC and beyond, to bestow on those who know him well and those who will miss him at the front desk of Zankel Hall.

#1: Engage With People Without Judgement

According to Chambers, people often learn through comparison and critique, but he believes that it’s more important to “see and engage a person and receive them for who they are, no matter where they're from…just link to their humanity,” he says. “I've always learned so much from engaging people as they are. I meet them wherever they are and join them.” 

This approach was put to the test when Chambers completed his doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership. After his degree was conferred, some of Chambers’ friends and colleagues began addressing him more formally as “Dr. Chambers.” His instinct was to gently push back and say “Hey, I’m still the same guy,” but after reflecting on what his achievement meant to those in his community, he embraced the deference.

Dennis chambers at doctoral convocation. He his smiling and wearing Columbia blue doctoral robes

(Photo courtesy of Chambers)

“When I have a person from facilities or public safety or someone else, regardless of their role at the College, say Dr. Chambers, yes, I'm sure they're validating and sharing my accomplishment, but they're also celebrating themselves and their own opportunity,” he says. “It was about me, but it wasn't about me. It was about the school, it was about them, it was about the hope and possibility of each of us thriving and being seen the same way.”

#2: You’ll Grow as an Instructor When You Invest in Your Students and Community

At his martial arts school Zen Masters, which he runs alongside his wife, Chambers cultivates a particular teaching approach among his instructors. “I say to them, to be a better instructor is to allow life lessons to inform your knowledge,” he says. “If you really invest in the student, invest in their learning. It cycles back to you as an instructor and that challenge forces you, as an instructor, to become even better, provided you are guided by self honesty.”

Chambers has experienced that cycle on both sides, as a doctoral student emulating the respect, punctuality and thoroughness of his advisor Maria Volpe, and as an instructor helping students find themselves through empathy and structure. “If you want to be a better practitioner, invest in the student because their inquiry and engagement can water your motivation to give them more.”

#3: Embrace Simplicity and Be Patient in Your Journey

When asked how he managed it all — balancing full-time work, raising three children, attaining three degrees, and working on his martial arts school — Chambers’ mentioned the support of his family, and gave a stunningly simple answer: “I did it one course at a time.” He shares a favorite metaphor called “the drip approach,” explaining that a leaking faucet can fill a large pot to brim if you’re patient enough. “Just be consistent, be persistent, and in the end, it will offer you results,” says Chambers.

Throughout his time at TC, Chambers became well-acquainted with the tendency of scholars to overwhelm themselves with commitments while also trying to complete their program as fast as possible because of concerns about funding or lost opportunities. “We, in many ways, are the architects of our journeys. It's up to us to be aware of that and not overburden ourselves,” he says. Instead, Chambers encourages students to embrace simplicity, show up consistently, and be patient in their journeys.”

#4: Find Something That Fortifies and Restores You

To navigate the difficulties of work and life, “it’s important to have alternate spaces to hold on to yourself,” says Chambers. For him, that space is with his martial arts students. “One of my students always says to me, ‘You're gonna recharge your superpowers, Sir!’ … Even if I had a tough day, I found the school allowed me to get my superpowers recharged and then go out and go back at it.”

That alternate space to feel recharged allowed Chambers to successfully navigate multiple roles at TC. Throughout his career, he has been a student, researcher and adjunct professor while always serving the community as a public safety officer. “I know that sometimes it was hard for someone to see past me as a public safety officer… and see I bring all these things to the table,” says Chambers. “But because I was always fortified, I could be in different spaces within the college and navigate different roles authentically. It wasn’t easy, but it was fruitful.”