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Robin Williams: A model of leadership development

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Robin Williams, senior academic counselor at the Inclusion Center for Academic Excellence at Oklahoma State University, has been named a Native American 40 Under 40 by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

Williams, 30, was humbled to be chosen for the award. “I didn’t consider being nominated, because I didn’t think I fulfilled the criteria, but Andrew Grey, an academic administrator at Pawnee Nation College, encouraged me and thought I deserved it. I appreciate his support.”

Williams meets any criterion that judges a person’s work ethic and community involvement. Aside from her duties counseling American Indian students at Oklahoma State, she teaches a course titled “Principals of Leadership Development in Indian Country.” She’s the president of the alumnae chapter of sorority Gamma Delta Pi, the first and only American Indian sorority at the University of Oklahoma, which she helped found as an undergraduate. She serves on the board of the OU American Indian Alumni Society, and was recently elected outreach and membership coordinator for the NASPA Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community.

Williams (Kiowa/Assiniboine/Nez Perce/Umatilla) is also halfway through her Ph.D. in higher education and public policy. The Oklahoma native graduated from OU with a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in Native American studies, finishing a master’s in human relations in 2004. In 2007, she earned another master’s in adult and higher education.

“After I complete my Ph.D., I’m looking at working at a university in Native American support services, or at a tribal college. My mission and purpose to revitalize tribes so they can better their communities is special to me.

“This is the best thing I could do. Many students have obstacles, difficult life experiences. But for them to know this is only the beginning of their journey to contribute in their communities is important. We can’t forget where we came from, but we must remember to look forward, to give back to our communities to make things better for our children and grandchildren.”

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At OSU, Williams serves the Native American student population, and any other students who walk through the doors of the Inclusion Center. Her role is to provide leadership development activities, administer scholarships and provide one-on-one advisory and referral services.

“The interaction and resources are designed for Native American students, and I’m also an advisor for the Native American Student Association. I’m also helping another group start a campus ministry.”

Williams’ research interests involve the dynamics, issues and practical application of retention and leadership development for American Indian students in higher education. She co-authored a book chapter with Dr. Cornel Pewewardy titled “Student retention initiatives at tribal colleges and universities and strategies for improvement.”

Her own experience as a freshman at OU led her to encouraging other students. “I became involved with the sorority when I was a freshman because I was on academic probation. I could have failed out. So I tell students, you can still be successful even if you weren’t for one year or semester. I try to help them find resources to be successful. After seeing my friends not graduate, I wanted to create programs to help them graduate.”

Even Williams’ non-work, non-study activities revolve around her research on leadership in the American Indian community. She’s currently reading “Coach Tommy Thompson and the Boys of Seqoyah” by Patti Dickinson. “Thompson helped his students by being a positive role model. I’m doing a lot of research and inquiry on the subject of Native American leadership, and Native American perspectives on leadership. It’s important for Native Americans to research and know our own community, especially from a multi-generational perspective. It’s about how we connect to each other.”

Williams grew up in Lawton, Okla., where the urban American Indian community is small, she said. She did much of her schooling in Elgin, a nearby town where her grandparents lived, because of its higher American Indian population. She frequently visited her father when he lived in northeast Oregon. “Oklahoma definitely has a different type of Native community than other places. Being able to see the diversity within Native American communities was helpful.”

Though she doesn’t have much free time, Williams tries to exercise and eat healthy, spend time with friends, and visit family when she can. Her goal is to go home to Lawton at least once a month. “My grandmother is 87 and we’re very close, so I love to spend time with her. But I also love going to college football games, powwows and cultural events. I like to be present in the community.”