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The Way to Game the Music of Life: An Interview with Dean David T. Boyd

By Elizabeth Sodimu Heading link

David standing

As the Dean of Admissions and Recruitment for the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) Honors College, David T. Boyd is a man with many hats, or headphones – Dean Boyd is also a DJ, with roots in the Chicago house movement that began in the 70s and early 80s. I met Dean Boyd in his office in Burnham Hall, where he recounted his experiences as a DJ, his role as a Dean, and his pursuit of a PhD in Education Leadership.

Dean Boyd plays an active role in student recruitment for the Honors College program, particularly with a focus on the recruitment of minority students, reflecting the goals of UIC as a minority-serving institution. He explains that there are a lot of nuances to this job, especially in the light of the COVID -19 pandemic. The way that students approach attending university is different now – according to Dean Boyd, many students now prefer to stay in-state, and look for online learning opportunities in consideration of their health and safety. He also mentions that students are looking for more ways to fund their education. Knowing how expensive it can be to pursue higher education, students look to financial aid, loans, and scholarships more and more to make the process as painless as possible in the financial sphere. While Dean Boyd recognizes the importance of a diverse campus, his description of his work emphasizes that he prioritizes keeping things student-focused: “My goal is to meet people to find some different outlets of recruitment other than just simply going into a high school and sitting at a table. I’m actually working with organizations, working with schools, working with counselors to help build a diverse program of talented students that are actually going off to do great things”. For Dean Boyd, it’s not enough to simply speak on a need for a diverse campus – the actions being taken to achieve this are just as important, if not more so.


David DJing

It might surprise some to know that Dean Boyd is also an active DJ that goes by the name “Sifu”, which is Cantonese for “teacher”. He speaks about how he got into being a DJ at the age of 14 by hearing it on radio stations like WBMX, WGCI, and WCRX. Dean Boyd describes that at this point, house music was making a transition away from disco-like music as DJs were learning how to make their own samples and beats. He says, “I just happened to be listening to it, and a fan of it at a time when it was really developing.” He went on to buy his own equipment as he delved further into DJing alongside his stepbrother, who also was into house music. Dean Boyd stepped away from DJing in the early 90s, but has since come out of retirement as of 2018 and is now again an active DJ. Being able to start his experiences as a DJ in the 80s and continue them in the 2000s has also allowed him to view the intersection of music and modern technology. In his words, today’s equipment allows him to do more things than what he imagined, but he mentions that “the preparation and the foundation that he got from DJing in the 1980s has made me a better DJ today, because I had less to work with, but it was more focused on the craft of blending and scratching and song choices”.

As a DJ, Dean Boyd is also a performer, and in reflecting on what his favorite part of being a DJ is, he finds that it once again comes back to the people: “There is an old house track called “Music Takes You Away”. Essentially, that’s what I’m doing. It puts people in better spirits, making them feel that whatever they were up against is not so bad”. Dean Boyd shares that begin a DJ is not separate from his other work – it allows him to tap into his creativity more, and know when to try something different, which still plays into his professional life as well.

When asked about what advice he would give to students who may have a hard time with pursuing their hobbies, he emphasizes that it’s important for students to know their own limitations are in regard to their commitments, but to also make time to engage in what will feed their creative energies.

Historical photo of a DJ

Dean Boyd is also a student himself and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education Leadership. He describes his dissertation project, which deals with knowledge hiding and financial literacy for first-gen, low-income students of culture. Through his research, he’s learned a lot about systemic issues that feed into health disparities, mass incarceration, and inequality in education, and describes that his research has been eye-opening, but as also has made him appreciate his own experiences: “It’s made me appreciate the fact that I am where I am and then I’ve beaten the odds”. Dean Boyd also describes how his work has also shown him more perspectives on issues regarding race relations, stating that it’s hard to get someone to change their trusted viewpoints, but that “the best way we deal with anything is by being honest with ourselves and discussing it openly” – conversation is key to making changes.

However, it’s not always to the individual’s benefit to just start speaking. When I asked him what his most valuable experience was, he shared that he was 19 and working in a restaurant along with two other individuals. They started having a conversation about black people in his presence but were trying to use complex language to do so, assuming that he wouldn’t understand them. After he realized what they were doing, he shared the following: “I said to them as a 19 year old, talking to two men who are well into their 30s, I know what you guys are doing. I don’t appreciate it and I want you to stop it now. But then I also said, however, if you have to have this kind of conversation, here’s how you say it properly in a sentence. And I said all of this vile racist jargon they were trying to say. But I said it using the King’s English to the Queen’s taste. And then I simply walked away”. He went on to describe what that situation meant to him: “That situation, let me know as a young man that games are constantly being played around you at all times. And if there was ever a reason to have an education, that was it… simply knowing and being deeply entrenched in your own knowledge of what you know…So that when people are playing those kinds of games on you, that you know how to prepare yourself and how to respond”. To Dean Boyd, this situation helped him to develop a sensitivity to other people, and to know that the way that he reacts in certain situations could make or break his success. A saying in his family is, “Think twice, speak once”, which underscores the fact that although we may not be able to control how other people perceive us or speak about us, we can always control our own reactions and speech in response to them.

As the interview came to a close, I asked Dean Boyd if he had any advice for current students, and his response was that they should invest in their own success – not just financially, but also in recognizing their own self-worth and having the resolve to take steps to achieve their goals.

Throughout his experiences so far as a DJ, a Dean, and a PhD student, Dean Boyd has learned a lot, and continues to learn more about himself and his interactions with others. His attitudes towards his work and his hobbies indicate that he has a passion for building up people, whether that be through music, or through initiating changes in higher education. If you think of life as the building of a music piece, there are different ways to approach it – there’s a way for each of us to game the music of life, and Dean Boyd has found his own.

Dean Boyd’s DJing website

A set done by Sifu from his Youtube channel