This issue: Summer 2018

Why I Teach: Keith Dempsey

For Dempsey, the Be Known promise is all about making students feel welcome – and being there for them when times get tough

By Sean Patterson


eith Dempsey was sitting at his desk gazing out the window of his office at the university’s Portland Center when he saw him – the student who had been struggling, the one he needed to talk to. Instinctively, Dempsey jumped from his chair and began to run.

“Had it been 20 years ago, I might have caught him,” laughs Dempsey, who serves as both a professor and chair of the university’s Graduate School of Counseling. “But he was walking fast, and I couldn’t get to him.”

Time to resort to drastic measures. Dempsey jumped in his car and began the pursuit, honking as he went. Finally, near the Ford dealership a half-mile away, he caught up to him. “Here the chair of the department is honking him down, and his eyes get as big as saucers,” Dempsey recalls. "I got out of the car and said, ‘Hey man, I’ve been worried about you. What’s going on?’ We hugged and he shared all that was happening in his life. I asked how we could support him and told him he wasn’t in this alone. It was a huge moment. Huge.”

To Dempsey, the university’s Be Known promise serves as a daily challenge. More than a phrase, it’s a clarion call to do right by students. “They know about our reputation and come here with high expectations,” he says. “I don’t want to disappoint them.”

He gets the opportunity to set the table for their counseling education – literally – when they arrive. In Foundations of Counseling, among the first classes in the curriculum, Dempsey puts his students at ease by setting a table – with chairs, dishes, silverware and a tablecloth – and asking them a simple question: “What did I just do?”

“They’ll say, ‘You set the table,’ and I say, ‘Good, good, you aren’t all so deep,’” he laughs. “Then I explain to them what it means to set the table. It means someone is coming. It means you have respect for somebody. It means you’re getting prepared.”

The metaphor breaks down barriers – and sparks conversation. Before long, students are discussing how they will set the table for their clients. How they will create community. And how they are free, like a family around the dinner table, to discuss among themselves their vulnerabilities, fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams beyond graduation.

“I explain to them what it means to set the table. It means someone is coming. It means you have respect for somebody. It means you're getting prepared.”

“You get people from all walks of life – the folks who just graduated from Newberg, 22 or 23 years old, and those who graduated 20 years ago, whose kids are grown,” he says. “Many in both groups are wondering, ‘Can I do this? Am I cut out for this?’ There is a lot of self-doubt. Then I set the table, and bam, the walls come down.”

Dempsey can relate to their feelings of uncertainty because there was a time he was in their shoes. After graduating from Benson High School in Portland, he attended Oregon State University to study mechanical engineering. After taking classes in chemistry and math, he came to a realization: “I relate to people a whole lot better than I relate to numbers,” he chuckles.

There was only one problem: After planning all those years to pursue a career in engineering, he didn’t know what else to do. “I didn’t have a niche ... I was lost.” He decided to volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club and at a summer camp as a counselor. Finally, after putting up resistance to the idea, it clicked: He was meant to be a counselor.

“I was like, ‘Really, God, counseling? This is really what you want me to do?’ But hey, when God opens doors, you’ve got to walk through. You never know what blessing awaits you on the other side. I never in my wildest imagination thought I would be teaching counseling at a university. Never!”

Dempsey shifted gears and began to pursue a counseling degree. It was his presentation in the doctoral program at OSU that caught the attention of a fellow classmate, Lori DeKruyf, a George Fox counseling professor, who encouraged him to consider teaching the discipline at the collegiate level. After earning a doctorate and working at a nonprofit, the opportunity to join the university presented itself – and Dempsey found his elusive “niche.”

“A colleague of mine recently brought up ‘Chariots of Fire,’ and there’s a quote in that movie that I can relate to,” he says. “It’s ‘I run because, when I do, I feel God’s pleasure.’ That’s how I feel about
teaching. When I teach, I feel the spirit of God.”

facebook sharing button
twitter sharing button
email sharing button