“I want to be a visible role model of what students of color can become, no matter their socioeconomic status. If a young black kid from modest means can become a college professor, I can help change the paradigm of who an academic researcher is.”
Growing up in East Orange — a predominantly African American suburb of Newark, New Jersey — Enrique Neblett credits his strong work ethic and core education values to his mother, who was an educator. However, it wasn’t until he attended a predominantly white institution in seventh grade that he started realizing what would become his research passion and life’s work. As he recalls, “I was one of the few black students there. I didn’t know it at the time, but issues of race and class were very different from what I was accustomed to in my home environment.”
Pursuing a Career to Help Others
Years later, Enrique attended Brown University, where he became intrigued by clinical psychology; specifically, the psychology of race, class, and gender. He realized that combining these concepts with his lived experience could lend to a promising and versatile career in teaching and research — and help people at the same time.
Upon completing his Bachelor of Science in psychology, Enrique began working with racial and ethnic minority youth at Prep for Prep, a nonprofit organization in New York City that supports students of color through educational opportunities. For Enrique, serving as a counselor for 70 middle and high school students marked the real start of his career.
“That sealed the deal for me. I realized that I loved helping people,” he recalls. “I wanted to investigate what factors contributed to people coping in different ways and some doing better than others.”
With this goal in mind, Enrique earned a Master of Science in child psychology from The Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. It wasn’t always an easy road. He remembers the agonizing disappointment of receiving a C on a paper on African American child development for a course in which he had been excelling until that point. He also felt isolated, and like he had no one to turn to for support.
Yet, these experiences served as a motivational turning point that fueled his passion. Enrique developed expertise in the very same area in which he had written that “C” paper, and is now an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and lab director of the African American Youth Wellness Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Finding Support in the Midst of Isolation
Receiving a New Connections research grant in 2010 not only brought credibility to Enrique’s work, but also provided him with a support system and sense of belonging. Through the program, Enrique has enjoyed connecting with scholars from other disciplines at different stages of their careers.
“My training is in clinical psychology, which doesn’t always have an explicit public health focus,” he explains. “One of the great things about New Connections is that it brings together people from a variety of disciplines. I felt very welcomed, and I gained new confidence in my ability to work with scholars across fields.”
Enrique also hopes to offer support to students of color who may feel a similar sense of isolation that he felt. When he attended Brown, there was only one black professor in the entire psychology department. As a result, he now underscores the value of visible role models of color in academia. Enrique is acutely aware of his own role as a visible role model, and is committed to helping youth of color succeed academically.
Strengthening Communities through Research
Enrique centers his research on issues of race, racism, and mental health well-being among African American families. Among his recent projects, he is conducting a longitudinal study that observes the influence of racial experiences on the mental health trajectories of African American students at a predominantly white institution — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — over the course of their four undergraduate years. Recognizing that much information on African American youth is deficit-based, instead of resilience-based, Enrique uses his research to assess black youth resilience, racial identity, and parental socialization as assets to strengthening black families.
Looking ahead, Enrique would like to improve mental health access in communities and prepare parents with resources to talk to their children about race-related experiences. He also would like to develop mental health interventions that eradicate health disparities stemming from racism. He hopes to have a lasting impact on the people that he has been privileged to study and learn from.
“Right now, that’s what gets me fired up and what I love to do. I want to contribute scholarship and have an impact. I want to have people say ‘Wow, that work really impacted the lives of communities and students,’” he attests.