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Dr. Donovan Livingston Returns Home, Merging His Hip Hop Self with His College Advisor Self

Dr. Donovan Livingston, award-winning educator, spoken word poet, and public speaker, has spent his career in education bridging the gap between his artistic sensibility and commitment to college access, and social justice. 

“A lot of my work is grounded in how Hip Hop informs student experiences in college,” Livingston said. 

Before attending the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill for undergrad, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, native had a budding interest in Hip Hop and spoken word but needed an outlet for it. After attending a campus visit, Livingston saw a performance from the UNC spoken word and poetry troop and knew he wanted to be a Tar Heel. Dr. Donovan LivingstonDr. Donovan Livingston

Earlier this year, Livingston returned to his alma mater as the director of College Thriving. In this role, he oversees the new university-wide general education requirement course that introduces first-year students to the institution. He is also a teaching assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ music department, intentionally merging his Hip Hop self with his college advisor self. 

“When I was here as a student, there was a structure for student-led organizations or student-run opportunities for the development of my Hip Hop identity and spoken word identity, but there wasn't really that curricular environment,” he said. “I couldn't take a class on Hip Hop culture, but that all exists now, thanks to some great work from folks in the music department.” 

Using his experiences, Livingston hopes to support his alma mater in putting Hip Hop on the main stage while simultaneously creating more meaningful opportunities for students to feel connected to campus as a whole.

Livingston studied history as an undergraduate and volunteered frequently in Durham and Chapel Hill, which introduced him to the world of college advising and supporting first-generation college students. He would eventually continue this work with organizations like the College Advising Corps and the Upward Bound Program. 

However, he continued to write as he engaged in more college-access experiences and roles. 

“I was always writing. I was always performing, but it was always at the margin and on the periphery,” Livingston said. “It was like, ‘I gotta do this school thing so I can get a job and when there's time, I'll feed the creative part of my spirit.’” 

Livingston received his master’s degree in higher education administration from Columbia University, a second master's degree from Harvard University in learning and teaching, and his Ph.D. in educational leadership and cultural foundations from UNC Greensboro.  

Once Livingston realized he did not want his creative gifts and interests to be segmented from his career, he began implementing curricula and opportunities for his students to engage with the creative arts. He started by developing curricula for an Upward Bound six-week summer program for high school students. 

“We created this curriculum that allows students to write poems, to take moments out of their day to think, reflect, and act on things they were feeling,” he said. 

Livingston set out to continue merging his interests in this way. 

“It was really beautiful to see the impact of that, and I think part of me just wanted to find ways to replicate those moments throughout every step along the way,” he said. 

When it came time for Livingston to select a dissertation topic, he explored formalizing what it means to elevate lyricism for meaning-making, especially for young Black and brown kids.

“On the surface, you might come to the Hip Hop space because you want to learn about the genre, but you might not know how deep it all goes,” Livingston said. “Hip Hop culture encompasses everything from economics to sociology to history and geography, and all of these things come together in a powerful way.”  

At UNC, Livingston recognizes artists such as Dr. Mark Katz and Suzi Analogue for helping to lay the foundation of curricular innovation in the music department. UNC also has a Hip Hop ensemble and a student organization, called UNC Cypher, a group for students passionate about music, free-styling, and free expression. 

“There is now a suite of classes that students from any department can take in the music department on DJing, beat making, and rap,” he said. “Now I get a chance to play a role in that.” 

Livingston is considering opportunities such as a Hip Hop minor and what it will look like to continue increasing enrollment in Hip Hop programming and courses.

“It's really dope, and because you have this backing in the music department, Hip Hop is coming out of the shadows and into a very public space where it belongs,” he said.

Livingston refers to this moment as a reclamation. 

“When you think about what it means to create and sustain Black culture in an environment that wasn't designed with us in mind… it’s a form of reclaiming space in a powerful way,” he said. “You can't trace the lineage of popular culture in this country without talking about Black folks.”

Livingston credits mentors for reminding him to continue cultivating his connections to Hip Hop and higher education. 

“For any student who thinks that the thing they care about or the thing they're interested in isn't scholarly enough, don't undermine yourself,” he said. “Lean into that identity, the thing that gives you life, the thing that makes you whole… it matters, and it belongs in the academy.” 

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