Emory Report
February 7, 2005
Volume 61, Number 18


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February 7, 2004
Healthy conversation

BY Eric Rangus

For the last 20 years, all Emory undergraduates have something in common: they have taken a class with Dan Adame.

Adame, associate professor of health education and past chair of health, physical education and dance, teaches PE 101 (Health Education: Wellness and Lifestyle Management), a requirement for all Emory College students. The course, which Adame created when he came to Emory in 1985, is an introductory class that gives students an overview of personal health issues ranging from substance abuse to mental health, sex education and stress management.

“It’s good for the ego, but on the other hand, it’s very humbling,” said Adame, reflecting on his unique status. “‘Who do you think you are?” he continued, asking himself a rhetorical question. “I try to balance those things out, but I can’t go anywhere and not be recognized.” Like at Boston’s Logan Airport a few years back, when a former student called to Adame from across the terminal. Things like that can happen when the number of one’s former students approaches the 20,000 mark.

When he started at Emory, Adame was heavily involved in campus activities, especially those that concerned students. He would give health talks in residence halls and frequently got to know undergraduates on an individual basis. Those extracurricular contributions were noticed around campus, as well. In 1994 Adame received an Emory Williams Teaching Award, which he hangs proudly in his office.

Still, despite his desire to remain connected, Adame lacked time for himself, so several years ago he began to pull back. Last fall he dove back in.

Early in the semester Adame stood in the back of 208 White Hall, where he lectures, and shook the hand of every student who passed him. “It was like a politician running for office,” he said. Adame also challenged his students to introduce themselves after class, saying they could pick whatever venue or format they wanted. It could be walking across campus, in his P.E. Center office or sitting in the Dobbs Center for lunch.

“I’m there because I want to spend time with them,” Adame said. “I like the more intimate settings because the students matter to me.” Along those lines, Adame also makes a point to attend each one of his teaching assistants’ labs (all 23 of them). That way he can add his personal touch, although he admitted a slight twinge of jealousy because his TAs learn each student’s name. With 1,000 students to teach each semester, Adame couldn’t possibly do that, no matter how hard he tried.

Adame has refocused on campus life in another way—in 2003 he rejoined the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities (now called the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity—PCORE). He was the organization’s chair in 1987–88, serving five years in all. He is the faculty representative on the student concerns committee.

A Mexican-American, Adame’s parents emigrated to Chino, Calif., and he grew up speaking Spanish. When he came to Emory, Adame was recruited for PCSM and he joined, immediately taking on responsibility.

His first year on the commission, Adame chaired PCSM’s annual reception. At the now-departed event, the commission invited the entire Emory community to an open house. To advertise the reception—in the years before e-mail—Adame tacked up posters on every bulletin board and telephone pole he could find (a copy of the poster also is on his office wall).

“That was my first effort at leading an intercommunity function,” Adame said. “So I was very proud of that.”

Serving on the commission fast-forwarded Adame’s entry into the community. He had easy access to administrators, something few junior faculty could claim. The commission also gave Adame insight into Emory’s culture.

“I became aware very early on that the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities encompassed primarily the interest the University had in addressing the major minority population at that time: the black community,” Adame said. “Those of us of Hispanic background were far fewer.” While the number of Hispanics on campus is larger now than 20 years ago, just 3 percent of Emory faculty identify as Hispanic, according to the 2004 Affirmative Action Plan.

Still, Adame immediately felt kinship with Emory’s minority population. “In school, we were prohibited from speaking our own language,” he said, reflecting on what was at times a tough childhood. “Spanish was against the rules. When you are a kid, you don’t understand what’s going on. The only thing you know is that school, this paragon of excellence—somewhere your parents want you to go and make something of yourself—is a place where you are in a minority and there are all these rules like you can’t speak your own tongue

“To a kid, it’s bad,” Adame continued, his voice rising. “It’s wrong. ‘Speaking Spanish is bad and makes you a bad person.’ That’s the way it translates.”

Adame said, because of this atmosphere, he was ashamed of his Mexican heritage. Many whites would not accept him or his friends because of their heritage, and Mexicans would chide him for being too white.

“But the commission was instrumental in my growth as I worked with my black brothers and sisters and understood the plight they were talking about,” Adame said.

As PCSM chair he played a major role in diffusing tensions between Emory’s African American community and the campus administration. It’s easy to see that Adame’s contributions have spread far beyond the health education job he was hired for two decades ago.

After earning a degree in biology with a chemistry minor from California’s La Verne College, Adame returned in 1969 to Chino to teach middle school. Just as Adame started his career, the California state board of education mandated that all science teachers develop a curriculum to teach sex education. The order was a response to outbreaks of various sexually transmitted diseases that affected state schoolchildren as early as fifth grade. The task of designing his school’s curriculum fell to Adame.

“I was a biology major; what did I know about sex education?” he said. Adame learned. In fact, his curriculum was adopted by the Chino Unified School District.

Adame said, when he began teaching sex education, it was the students who were most ready for it. Parents wrung their hands when the subject was brought up, and even some teachers couldn’t handle it; Adame was asked more than once to cover a class for a teacher who wanted to duck the subject.

His experience as a high school teacher led Adame to pursue health education as a vocation, first earning an MPH at UCLA, then a doctorate from Cornell. Adame’s research encompasses not only sex education, but mental health, interpersonal relationships and body image. And as the health needs of Emory’s student population change, so does Adame’s focus. For instance, he was instrumental in developing Emory’s first AIDS education model.

“To bring people out of their pre-conceived mindsets, it was like the Dark Ages,” he said. “There was a lot of hesitation about this being a ‘gay thing.’ We weren’t even talking about sexual orientation; we were talking facts about how it spreads.” Adame made it past that problem. Now HIV-positive guest speakers answer questions in PE 101.

“That’s what sexuality does to people,” Adame said. “But that’s only part of what I do. Talking to people about eating disorders or alcohol will do the same thing. It can upset people.

“Health education, though, is a living, pulsating, evolving thing in a person’s life,” he continued. “People ask me if I ever get bored. I don’t have time to be bored. New data comes in all the time. Everything is always new and fresh.”