Student of the world
J. Kevin Eckert, Ph.D.
It was a decision that put him on a road to cultural awareness—and ultimately, the aging services segment.
Indeed, Eckert, who now serves dual roles as dean of The Erickson School, UMBC, and director of the university's Center for Aging Studies, has brought much of what he learned from the past into his current work.
In 1969, with a newfound interest in anthropology, he joined the Peace Corps and found himself happily living in the Republic of Sierra Leone culture in West Africa. For two-and-a half years, he worked in a remote village, building drinking supply systems, learning the language of the indigenous group, and growing increasingly fascinated with a culture that fully and openly embraced all life stages.
“Living in this village, I saw every aspect of life, from birth to death, taking place in the same village—not in hospitals or behind walls or closed doors, but right out in the open. I worked closely with the elderly and was struck by how they were highly valued for their wisdom,” he recalled.
That exposure reinforced Eckert's own experience with elders. He and his brother grew up in a multi-generational household with their contractor-turned salesman father, two grandmothers—and their mother, an RN who was the director of nursing for a Lutheran care home in Philadelphia.
“With my experiences with older people growing up and my time in the Peace Corps ... I suppose it's really no surprise that I'm now a gerontologist and have such an interest in aging studies and aging issues,” he reflected.
Upon returning from West Africa, Eckert– headed to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, to earn master's and doctorate degrees in anthropology. He studied African language while also focusing on aging and health issues as a cultural anthropologist.
“My whole research career has been trying to understand how other people see their lives and how they are affected,” he says.
Although Eckert has spent nearly 30 years as a university-level teacher, he's quick to point out that learning is still among his most important jobs. And one thing he's learned over the past decades—as both anthropologist and gerontologist—is that most senior housing providers are in the business for all the right reasons.
He also believes that the way The Erickson School is preparing future leaders in aging services and helping reinvent the way society views and responds to aging is also cause for optimism.
“There are so many career opportunities in the whole aging services sector, from IT to real estate to direct-care services, and I believe the career options will continue to expand in the future,” he says. “It's inspiring to see that, despite the challenges in the field, students are excited about being part of it.”
Part of their enthusiasm, of course, can be credited to The Erickson School's spirited and innovative leaders.
“This field needs the best and the brightest, and it needs positive people who can see the many opportunities that are available while also inspiring others to see them. Not only is Kevin all those things, he's also very enthusiastic about the field and its future—and that's exactly what is needed in his role,” says Robert Kramer, president of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry, and a member of The Erickson School's board of directors.
In his scarce down time, Eckert likes to kayak, and spend time with his wife, Ellen, and their two dogs in the mountains of western Maryland. He says he also enjoys seeing his two college-age sons developing into adults.
He's busy but he has no complaints. “It's such a thrilling time to be involved in this field and I sort of pinch myself that I get to do what I do every day. And I think it's only going to get better.”