A Conversation with Kimberly Blackshear 

By Sheridan Wilbur

“Bring students on medical leave together?”

Kimberly Blackshear, Koru teacher

Kimberly Blackshear, Duke University’s Time Away Office Director and a faculty in residence.

That’s what Kimberly Blackshear works hard to facilitate. Since the start of the pandemic, Blackshear, a Koru mindfulness teacher, has had success with online offerings of Koru classes to Duke students who are away on leave.

“Regardless of why you’re taking time away, I tell students, ‘Let’s build as many skills and tools as possible to help you when you return,'” Blackshear says.

Students may be on leave for academic reasons or personal reasons, including medical or psychological challenges. But Blackshear, Duke’s Time Away Office Director and a faculty in residence, sees Koru mindfulness classes as the perfect opportunity to help reconnect these students with their peers; teaching them the skills to help them thrive when they are back on campus.

Koru is based on other secular mindfulness programs that got their start in US medical centers, helping folks deal with pain and other medical issues. “There’s science behind it,” Blackshear says.


Connecting While Away

Taking time away from college can be an alienating experience. But Blackshear brings students into an environment focused on practical skills, normalizing the Time Away process. Koru offers students a chance to build personal relationships with their mindfulness practice, while maintaining their privacy about their reasons for taking time off.

“Koru gives you skills you can implement today,” she says. “I’m not asking you to do psychodynamic work,” Blackshear says. Koru asks us to focus on something simple. Something you involuntarily do, millions of times a day: breathing.

Curiously, Blackshear loves the virtual element of her class. She says there is safety for students in where they are. “As we’re talking about dynamic breathing, I’ll bring up how you don’t have anxiety about taking a test now, but let’s transform how you feel about a test when you’re back,” she says. They practice in their own home to learn Koru’s skills, while connecting with others from all over the globe, learning they are not alone.

Once Blackshear’s class is over, students can choose to stay connected. She’s had students ask her, “Can we get together when we get back on campus? Can we meditate together?” The university hosts welcome back luncheons for students who are returning. “I was surprised by the number of students who came,” she says. Students seem to want a structured place in the university to connect more intentionally. Blackshear hopes to gather her cohorts together on campus in the spring, when it’s warmer outside, and they can do a Friday morning meditation in Duke Gardens.


Bringing Students to Present Speed

College campuses are intense. Fast paced. Future focused. Or past focused.

“You either talk about how you were a CEO at three months old and had six startups by the time you were 10. Or you’re talking about getting into an MD Ph.D. program. We’re forgetting about the now,” Blackshear says.

Yet students in Time Away can feel relief from Koru immediately. “There’s power in that; having the ability to regulate when you feel powerless, when you feel like the world is moving around,” she says. Blackshear sees nothing wrong with planning, but likes to say to her students, “Plan, but plan with a pencil.” Life doesn’t start after they graduate, after they finish their Ph.D., get married, or have kids. Blackshear understands life happens now.

“Why don’t we use Koru’s skills that will help you appreciate just where you are?” she says.

It seems perfect for Koru to be implemented to students at this phase of their life. It can be so tricky to navigate that path alone. “At Duke, that inner critic tells you to stop being an imposter. ‘Look how smart the person beside you is and how long it took you to complete that paper.'”

Koru helps her integrate ways to work on self-judgment with her Time Away students so they don’t compare themselves to students who didn’t take a break.

“If we’re able to teach them about that inner critic voice, label it, not judge themselves and let it go, I feel like we’re giving them a wonderful gift to appreciate where they are. To be kind to themselves, to have curiosity around their thoughts, and not to internalize them. That’s a gift that keeps giving,” she says.


Adapting Koru to More Campuses 

She understands some teachers might be anxious about teaching to students on Time Away, but says it’s a bigger risk to not engage with students away and not give them skills. She thinks it’s worth it. “You will get so much out of the five hours you’re going to put into the programming; so will the students,” says Blackshear. When students aren’t as stressed and have the bandwidth to try it, Koru might be even more valuable.

Admittedly, the Time Away students in Blackshear’s first mindfulness class were initially not receptive to dynamic breathing. Yet this allowed her to address her own skepticism, thinking back to before she found Koru through Duke Reach, and used her own questioning to meet students where they are.

“Honestly, I used to think it was hippy-dippy stuff white women use,” Blackshear says. “Then I tried meditating after I couldn’t sleep. I proved myself wrong.”

Students loved her personal stories and began opening up to her. One student who refused to engage in treatment before, stayed after class. He came up to Blackshear and said, “So we need to talk about this like mental health stuff. We need to talk about it.” She was like, “Well, cool. Let’s do it then.”

There wasn’t any judgment in her Koru class. They didn’t judge themselves, or the people around them. They learned to just be. “In the stillness of those moments, that’s why he asked to stay on later and talk about things,” she says. “I think Koru was a nice gateway that led to deep conversations I didn’t intend on having.”