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Inspired by Dedicated Mentors,
Williams Discovers a Calling
February 7, 2000

One of the great ironies of teaching is that it can be a lonely business. You're in a room full of people. But mostly, you're the only one on stage. And the audience can be a demanding crowd.

But Michelle Williams is never alone when she goes to her classes. She always takes along a couple of guides. There's Mrs. Ghee, who makes sure that Williams demands the best from her students - and from herself. And there's Dr. Spencer, who is quick to remind her of her responsibilities as a mentor. With their help, she must be doing the right things, because Williams' students are lavish with their praise.

"She's an excellent teacher," says Greg Bivens, of New Haven, a senior majoring in psychology. "Her courses are hard. She's rigorous and demanding. But she pushes you to the next level of accomplishment. And she's always available to help you succeed."

Jeff Woytowich, also a senior and a psychology major from North Haven, agrees. "Her classes are very interactive," he says. "She uses a lot of anecdotes and case material to give the students a real grasp of what it's like to work in the field. She's demanding, but her classes are an exciting learning experience."

"Michelle's students describe her as being exceptionally generous in sharing her time, knowledge and professional products with them," says George Allen, professor and director of clinical training in the psychology department. "They describe her as invariably accessible to them."

Given that sort of acclaim, it's not surprising that Williams was a recipient of the 1999/2000 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) award for exceptional teaching promise. What is surprising is that until she arrived at UConn, four years ago, she had never taught.

Dr. Spencer and Mrs. Ghee
A graduate of Emory University and the University of Georgia, where she earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1996, Williams came to UConn with responsibilities to both the Department of Psychology and the Institute of African-American Studies. The joint appointment allowed her to continue exploring two kinds of research that have occupied her since graduate school.

One area of research focuses on alcohol use, especially by minority women, and its relationship to date rape and other forms of intimate and domestic violence. The other explores the importance of ethnic and family influences in the development of personal identity within a multicultural focus.

During her four years at UConn, Williams has dramatically expanded her work in both of these areas - work that was already impressive when she arrived. In the process, she has provided learning opportunities for her students. Most of the papers she has presented at 13 major psychological conventions since 1997 have had student co-authors.

Still, Williams had no prior experience of teaching. And her new job at UConn required her to teach several classes - an introduction to psychology; Black psychology; Personality; and a graduate course on ethnic minorities.

"I was intimidated by the idea," she says. "I never thought of myself as a teacher. How could I prepare for the responsibility?"

Searching for an answer to that question, she turned to the teachers she had most admired during her own education. "I was fortunate to have many wonderful teachers ... at every level of my development," she says.

Dr. Spencer, for instance, was a mentor during her undergraduate years. "She had a wonderful family and she was a highly respected teacher," Williams recalls. "Most of all, she had a real personal investment in mentoring. The educational experience extended well beyond the classroom. She would invite students to her home for dinner. I really admired her. I wanted to be like her."

And Mrs. Ghee was her seventh grade teacher, "the first teacher I remember who really made me work hard. She expected so much of me that it became a joy to work hard and do well."

They were "great teachers," she says. "Without the kind of support and encouragement they provided, I probably would not be here." So, as she prepared for her new teaching role, she decided to emulate those teachers.

It was a wise decision. In the classroom she quickly discovered a talent for teaching that she had not anticipated. "I found out I really like teaching," she says. "I began to feel truly engaged in the process."

That passion, in turn, has attracted more and more students to her classes. Today, she is not only a highly popular research mentor among graduate students, but also serves as advisor to some 30 undergraduates. In addition, she has made a very strong commitment to the psychology department's Minority Achievement in Psychology Program (MAPP).

"Although we've been running MAPP for the past 10 years, Michelle has created a first-rate student organization," says Allen. "She has implemented a systematic program that trains students in research methodology, writing for professional audiences, and data analytic strategies." As a result, the department has a higher enrollment of minority students now than at any time in the past.

The Importance of Mentoring
If there is a common thread among these many professional responsibilities it is probably her devotion to mentoring.

"Good mentoring has multigenerational consequences," says Allen. "Michelle mentors her students well and sets the expectation that they will pass on this tradition. Her recent graduates have begun to demonstrate the results of her benevolent mentoring."

For Williams, it is simply a matter of sharing the gifts that were bestowed upon her by teachers who genuinely cared when she was a student. And like the teachers she has emulated, she shares those gifts both in and out of the classroom.

"The high point of my teaching experience," she says, "was when some of my students told me they felt motivated for the first time. I believe we all have capabilities we don't tap into. It's part of a teacher's responsibilities to help students discover what they are capable of achieving."

Jim Smith