Growing up in a home where her mother struggled with drug addiction, Yolanda Williams was determined to take a different path. She wanted to be like the teachers and counselors who helped her survive. 

Now, in her new role as director of UNI’s Classic Upward Bound program, which helps support marginalized students to successfully complete high school and succeed in college, she’s able to use that life experience and empathy to help others. Yolanda Williams

“I was a kid who didn’t have stability at all. I was just that kid who felt really lost. I felt my connections were through teachers and counselors at school,” Williams said. “They’re the people that I feel were most influential to me… they always showed me kindness and love. That’s kind of how my passion for young people developed, was me wanting to be what I needed.”

A Seattle native who was raised in both Omaha and Billings, Williams, 46, has worked with youth throughout her career. Her passion for art (she has a bachelor’s in art management, with minors in studio art and art history) led her to found a nonprofit, the North Omaha Youth Art and Culture program (NOYAC), devoted to exposing youth to art and culture. For nearly a decade, she was the program director for the mentoring agency Partnership 4 Kids.  Most recently, she served as Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Iowa.

She’s excited to bring all her experiences into her new role with Classic Upward Bound, a program of UNI’s Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE).

“I would love to do some activities around art throughout the programming year. Art helps you build connection and understanding and helps you think outside the box,” she said. “Art isn’t just a pretty picture to look at. There's history behind it. Art is telling the story of all cultures over the course of time. All of those things are embedded in the art. So that's going to be very exciting to introduce.”

Williams also looks forward to working directly with youth, something that she enjoyed doing when she was heading her program and will be a main function of her new role. Williams works with 85 low-income and first-generation high school students, providing tutoring services, test preparation, college admission assistance and more to enhance their academic skills and motivation to complete high school, enter a post-secondary institution and ultimately obtain a degree.

It was after being invited to the UNI-CUE to speak at a staff retreat and the inaugural SHINE Young Women’s Conference when she realized the job would be a good fit. Mickye Johnson, the former director of the Classic Upward Bound program, had just announced his then-upcoming retirement. Her experiences speaking at the UNI-CUE inspired her to apply for his position.

“It was just like I belonged [at the UNI-CUE]. It’s rare to find a place where you walk in and it’s like, ‘I'm home. I belong here.’ I made the joke, ‘Who knows, maybe I’ll come and I’ll be the next Mickye Johnson,’” she recalled. “I missed that. I missed being able to make a direct impact on young people. That’s what I'm most excited about … being able to be that support person for them.” 

UNI-CUE Director Robert Smith said that Williams embodies many of the same characteristics that made Johnson a successful steward of the program.

“I needed someone who understood diversity and inclusion at all levels, but who also knew how to make the concept of inclusion work as a program,” Smith said. “It's something that Dr. Johnson did well and I knew we had to have it to maintain the strength of the program. Yolanda Williams brought that exact quality to Upward Bound.”

Williams plans to use her own experiences overcoming personal struggles to help inspire students.

“One of the things that I'd like to implement is really creating those opportunities to help students learn and engage. I want them to know me as a person,” she said. “I see the connection between what our students are facing and what I faced and overcame. I’m going to be my authentic self and share that journey and help them on their own journey. I want all our students and families to be comfortable and know that we're advocating for them.”

Now, she’s ready to dive into her new role — she took on her new position on July 15 — and empower youth throughout the Cedar Valley.

“We have a really unique opportunity right now to really bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the campus. That will make the university more appealing, more engaging and more successful in the long term,” she said. “I look forward to the relationships that are gonna develop that will last past this program and past the university. There is lots of work to do here, but to know that I can be a part of that change with people that I trust and believe in is very powerful.”