Laura Kohn-Wood

Shaped by Culture, Curiosity, and a Calling

By Meredith Camel

Shaped by Culture, Curiosity, and a Calling

By Meredith Camel
Laura Kohn-Wood, appointed dean of the School of Education and Human Development after a national search, is ready to marshal a legion of problem solvers.

Growing up in the diverse, progressive city of Seattle—and in a multiethnic context enriched by black, white, and Jewish identities—Laura Kohn-Wood always had a natural curiosity about people. But it wasn’t until she transferred from the University of Washington to Howard University—one of the top historically black colleges and universities—that she realized she could turn her curiosity into a career.

“It was lifechanging,” recalls Kohn-Wood, who was named dean of the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development, effective July 1. “I suddenly saw professors who reflected my identity as a black woman, and I started to see opportunities and possibilities for myself in a way that didn’t previously seem available.”

She paid close attention, especially to the autonomy a life in academia seemed to offer her professors. Setting their own office hours, teaching topics that excited them, and pursuing new knowledge was infinitely more appealing than the retail, restaurant, and office jobs she worked to help pay for school. Eager to leave those jobs behind, she applied for and earned a scholarship through Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), an NIH-funded program that also paid her a stipend to work in research labs.

As a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, she studied rural African-American families who were caring for relatives with schizophrenia. Her department also offered a community psychology program, and the more classes she took in that field, the more convinced she was that she found her calling.

“I fell in love with community psychology because while there’s a place for individual therapy and healing, there’s a lot to be said for what community psychology does, which is prevention, looking at context, and trying to shape context,” Kohn-Wood says. “The research is not for the sake of knowledge alone but to inform interventions and actions—and to think more broadly and more ecologically about issues.”

Through research projects, internships, and fellowships, Kohn-Wood actively sought to answer how race, ethnicity, and culture impact the way people think, express themselves, and nurture resilience to stressors. During a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Georgetown University Medical Center, she tested adapted interventions for depression in low-income African-American, white, and Latino women. What she remembers most about that experience was the significant trauma all three groups of women endured and their persistence despite adversity.

Being surrounded by so much suffering takes its toll, especially for someone as empathetic as Kohn-Wood. So to stay fit, mentally and physically, she took up boxing. It was a great workout, and she was good at it. So good, in fact, that her trainer in Michigan, where she moved in 1999 to accept her first faculty position, tried convincing her to leave academia to go pro. So good, too, that a man named London Wood who was playing basketball at her Michigan gym turned around mid-game to identify who he assumed was a burly man making such a loud thwack thwack on the punching bag. When he realized the force came from a woman, he knew he had to meet her—and he eventually married her.

Kohn-Wood joined the University of Miami faculty in 2009 with husband London and their 2-year-old son, Lian, in tow. In addition to her role as associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies, Kohn-Wood took the post of associate resident faculty in the residential colleges. The entire family has lived on campus for the past nine years, and after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University, London now serves as the eligibility coordinator for the UM Department of Athletics. Kohn-Wood’s stepson, also named London, lives in Tampa but visits his parents frequently on campus.

With one more year of campus living ahead, Kohn-Wood’s service as both dean and senior resident faculty will be challenging. Still, she says hosting programs with residential students has always been “some of the best parts of my day.” She describes a recent evening when students from all sides of the gun control debate gathered for dinner in her apartment to discuss the polarizing topic.

“What’s fascinating is that despite huge divergence in terms of how people think about guns and how they think about what’s wrong, people converged on what we should do,” Kohn-Wood says.

Kohn-Wood has been focused on providing “additional opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to engage in dialogue across differences for the purpose of learning—not necessarily to change people’s minds but as a way to learn from divergent perspectives and advance social justice.” Among her efforts is the recent launch of a University-wide Intergroup Dialogue program, which she spearheaded with Miriam Lipsky in the Office of Institutional Culture.

As a curriculum-based way to enhance social transformation, Kohn-Wood co-founded in 2009 the Master’s Program in Community and Social Change, which applies the principles of community psychology to practical work in the nonprofit sector. This May, the Ph.D. in Community Well-Being program she helped create graduates its first students, the scholars who will develop the knowledge-based tools for change agents to be effective.

Kohn-Wood has proven her mettle as an innovative leader, rising to the top of an extensive national search for dean following Isaac Prilleltensky’s decision to step down after 11 years in the role. But she hasn’t lost her curiosity about people—and her drive to understand ethnocultural factors that influence how people cope with trauma. Her RECAPS (Race, Ethnicity, Culture, and Promotion of Strength) research program continues to focus on identifying the culturally based coping methods African-Americans and other minority communities use to protect against depression and other mental health disorders.

What excites her most about becoming dean is “the idea of having such an incredible array of expertise across all of these different areas of inquiry in our school and thinking about how we can be social problem solvers with multiple perspectives working together; there’s already some of that happening, and I’m hoping to build on that.”

She also looks forward to expanding collaboration with colleagues throughout the University’s 11 schools and colleges as a way “to address relevant problems and questions that require multiple perspectives—not only in academic disciplines but also through multiple lived experiences and social identities.”