Spend even a short amount of time with Jamie Dean and even the most accomplished person can begin to feel like a slacker.
The third-year JD/MBA student at Wake Forest University’s Law School and Babcock Graduate School of Management is on a post-graduate track that many would find intimidating. This year, a third of his classes are in law, while a quarter of his classes are in business.
“You save a year of school going for your JD and MBA at the same time,” he said. “You can fall into a trap of narrow thinking in grad school and by doing the joint-degree program, you are forced to apply what you learn from each area to the other. For example, bringing quantitative analysis to a law problem is very helpful. It makes you more well-rounded.”
Doing more than the average student is par for the course for Dean. While earning his undergraduate degree in economics at Wake Forest (he graduated in 2005), Dean was the student trustee on the university’s board of trustees, helped find current President Nathan O. Hatch and served as the leader of the university’s winning crew team. In fact, he’s training to go to Beijing for the Paralympic Games in September as a member of a four-person rowing team. It’s the first time adaptive rowing will be part of the Paralympic Games, and Dean will once again find himself breaking new ground.
Because what you don’t notice after spending even a short amount of time with Dean, or perhaps what he makes you forget, is that he can’t see. Legally blind since birth, Dean could see well enough to read up until about junior high. Today he can only see a pinpoint of light, meaning he must depend on hearing and touch rather than sight to navigate everything from his classes to everyday life.
“I’m not a hero,” Dean said. “I can’t make a 25-hour day. But I think the reason that I have succeeded is because I don’t factor blindness into the equation. When I have an assignment, I have to figure out a way to do it or a series of solutions to do it. If I factored blindness in, it would become a justification, so it’s the last thing I think of.”
One thing that allows Dean to be independent is technology in the form of his laptop and a screen reading computer program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) that allows him to listen to all those law reading assignments and business cases.
“I get everything in an electronic format,” he said. “That’s how I do homework and read my assignments. I never use Braille. I can put an entire (audio) library on my computer where one Braille book would take up an entire closet of space. It’s not quite the same as if a human was reading to me. I am able with the software to read significantly faster than a human voice can. It’s pretty robotic.”
However, Dean does admit that if he’s doing a case reading, it probably takes him a little longer than his average sighted classmates. “I’m in fact a visual learner, but I’ve been trained to rely on sound for memorization,” he said. “It isn’t something I occasionally have to do, it’s something I do all the time.”
Originally from Indiana Amish country, Dean grew up the son of a Nazarene minister in Charleston, W.Va. Named James Dean after his father and grandfather — not the actor — Dean says he now considers himself a North Carolinian, who loves living in Winston-Salem. “If I stayed in North Carolina, I would stay in Winston-Salem,” he said. “I think this is a growing city that has a lot of potential and good things going for it.”
It’s hard to miss the striking blond, 6-foot-2-inch Dean walking across campus from the Divinity House, where he lives, to his classes in the Worrell Professional Center for Law and Management. He’s always accompanied by a white Labrador retriever, but for those who have known him since his undergraduate days, they may notice something different about his constant companion.
Dean is no longer shadowed by Paul, who like the lucky among us aged out of his position. “Paul was 9 years old and becoming more hesitant,” Dean explained. “I decided it would be the best thing for both of us to go ahead and retire him. He’s living with Michael Green, my torts professor. They spoil him.”
Meantime, Dean says that Priscilla helps keep him in shape for rowing. “It’s been fun to have a new dog, but you forget how much energy they have,” he said with a laugh. “She walks insanely fast; I have to jog to keep up.”
Also unlike Paul, Priscilla has been trained to target destinations, Dean explained. “If we’re going down the hallway, she rolls right up to the door or my study carrel in the library.”
Dean’s classmates say that he brings a lot to the program. Marcy Dodge, a second-year MBA student, had a class with Dean last semester.
“He immediately impressed me with his intelligent wit, contributions to class and his overall self-confidence,” she said. “Everyone loves this guy. He’s friendly, he’s fun and he makes a huge effort toward school.”
Apparently his positive attitude is paying off. Dean recently got engaged to another Wake Forest graduate student, Lauren Brown, who is studying at the Divinity School. Dean said he’s not too worried about being a newlywed during his final year of graduate school. The couple is planning a June wedding in Winston-Salem.
“It’s better to be married as a third-year law student than as a first-year law associate,” the 25-year-old said.
Making the switch from undergrad to graduate student, Dean found his graduate school classmates were more committed.
“There’s a higher level of accountability,” he said. “When you take classes with the same people it pushes you to perform well, and it can be more enjoyable because everyone is more driven to the same specific goal. MBA school, in particular, is very different because the group nature of the study forces you to have to schedule your time around others.”
But he’s not complaining. “I have enjoyed every year at Wake Forest more than the year before.”