Colleen Barker-Williamson has dedicated her career to supporting Case Western Reserve University’s student leaders, spending more than three decades in student activities and leadership, including in her current role as director of the Office of Student Activities and Leadership for the past 20 years.
There were no formal student leadership development programs on campus when Barker-Williamson joined the university as assistant director for student activities in July 1989, but she quickly identified both a need and passion for creating them—even taking it upon herself to add the word “leadership” to the official department name. Her tenure ushered in a major shift toward student programming and leadership on campus, resulting in the creation of the Second Year Institute, the Student Leadership Conference, the Student Leadership Awards Ceremony and the Emerging Leaders program—just to name a few.
“Few people on campus today remember CWRU student life before Colleen,” said Janice Gerda, associate vice president for student affairs. “Most of our big traditions and expressions of spirit have her fingerprint on them from some point in the last 34 years. Her biggest legacy will always be the many students whom she mentored, coached, listened to, cried with, encouraged, spoke truth to, hugged, and prompted to join her in big smiles and laughter. Colleen’s focus has always been on students and their world, and the joy they found together in student life.”
Barker-Williamson helped lead the charge for more robust programming and leadership development opportunities for our graduate and professional students, creating unique traditions and coaching programs that still exist today. She’s also played a pivotal role in student leadership at CWRU through her work on risk management for student organizations, helping create and lead training for student leaders, and implementing a mandatory risk manager position for every organization with the goal of helping students “find the yes” in a safe and compliant way.
“Through the years, no matter what, I’ve had a group of individuals who have always jumped on my ‘yes’ train—who have always agreed that the most important thing we can do is help students succeed in what their passion is,” recalled Barker-Williamson. “It’s the most delightful job anyone could ever have.”
To help celebrate her legacy at Case Western Reserve, The Daily caught up with Barker-Williamson to get her thoughts on student leadership, the magic of CWRU and her reflections on the past 33 years.
What do you think makes CWRU so special?
The students. No question. They’re committed and passionate, they get the job done and they’re joyous. This is what I tell candidates when I interview them: in my 30-some years at CWRU, generational shifts have occurred, but the consistent amazingness of students has not. From 1989 to now, I’m still working with respectful, caring, hard-working student leaders. The students that I’ve worked with and trained and mentored have been miracles for me.
How do you think student leaders and their leadership have evolved over the years?
There’s been a surge in autonomy and creativity, in my opinion. Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of students figure out how to program just to have fun—we utilize the city around us or we go and play outdoors somewhere. They’ve had to be more creative in how they gather, and that has been a joy to watch. When they’re present, they’re present as a community in the most delightful way.
Do you have a sense of how student leaders may need to adapt going forward?
They’re going to have to know how to be savvy strategic thinkers, while still knowing how to care for one another, empathize and lead an organization in a positive, proactive and engaging way. They’ll also need to be able to rely on others to bring gifts to the table. Since COVID, I think we’ve all had to relearn how to rely on each other and how to work as a team without relying as much on technology. They’ll have to focus on what it means to take care of one another as a leader, and it will be our job to empower them to be thinkers and risk-takers and strategists.
Do you have any words of wisdom for those who work with student leaders?
Everybody has great ideas—don’t discount ideas because you’ve seen them fail. Take a deep breath and ask: “How would you like to see this happen?” And based on what you’ve learned from the failures, help guide them to look at alternatives. The more excited you are about the idea, the more energy they’re going to put into it.
What’s something you’ll take away from your 33 years at CWRU?
Everything that I ever did was not created in a vacuum. It was always created with a team or a colleague. I really do believe that I was successful because of the people around me.. I have had 33 years of wonderful friendships that I still keep in touch with. And all of that joy I’ve experienced at CWRU was all wrapped around the people that I was either working with, collaborating with, partnering with or advising. So that’s what I think I’m most grateful for—the living and breathing, highly-relational opportunities that were given to me.
Members of the Case Western Reserve University campus community are invited to gather Friday, Jan. 6, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the Jolly Scholar to celebrate Barker-Williamson’s retirement. Her last day at the university will be Jan. 9.