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Diversity: Mentorship inspired new education chair

Last fall, Dr. Desha Williams became the new chair of Georgia College’s Teacher Education program.

This is part of an on-going series.

Dr. Desha Williams, the new teacher education chair, says her life would be different without someone to guide her along.

There were times when Williams wanted to quit her doctoral studies. But her mentor and “academic mom” at Georgia State University—Dr. Christine Thomas—wouldn't hear of it. Thomas was honored recently by the Benjamin Banneker Association with a lifetime achievement award. Her compassion, honesty and commitment to seeing students succeed motivated Williams to “pay it forward” and help others reach their goals too.

“Mentoring’s not just holding someone’s hand and making things easy,” Williams said. “Mentoring is pushing them and encouraging them and often telling them things they don’t want to hear.”

This tough love taught Williams how to advocate for herself, others and the community.

Her experience with Thomas also inspired Williams to work in higher education. Employed 11 years at Kennesaw University, she rose from assistant professor to full professor of mathematics education and interim chair. Early on, she won a National Science Foundation grant for nearly $900,000 to prepare math teachers to teach culturally- and linguistically-diverse populations. Then, she was selected to lead the middle grade education portion of a $9 million teacher-quality grant and a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship to design a new MAT program for math and science.

Each of these projects included elements of mentoring.

Williams left that arena in 2018 to chair teacher education at Georgia College. She took the helm of a department that already ranked high nationally, due to its mentor-led cohort model and collaborative environment. Williams thinks her Georgia College faculty and staff are “phenomenal.”

“I love this job. I love the faculty here,” she said. “They work very hard, and they’re doing some amazing things. They’re impacting policy at the state and national level that will influence the landscape of teacher preparation and the community.”

“The faculty are highly-invested in our students,” Williams said. “They mentor them. They teach them. They supervise them, and they guide them into becoming professionals. These students are strong teachers when they graduate.”

At Georgia College, Williams also finds herself with an online Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Secondary Education that ballooned from 18 graduate students to 85 entrants in 2018-19. Williams believes this expansion is due to an unwavering faculty commitment to students.

The fact so many Georgia College graduates pursue higher-education degrees here also impressed Williams.

“That’s a huge compliment to the institution that people graduate, go away and come back. That says a lot,” she said.

In her role as chair, Williams wants to continue the tradition of excellence in teacher education. She’s eager to help faculty reach their goals, and it’s no surprise mentoring’s big on her agenda. This summer, she spent an intensive two weeks at HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) Institute for Female Leadership. She’s expected to implement a new campus program. It’s still in the planning stage, but mentorship will be a component.

Williams is also beginning a new research agenda that centers on student mentorship for online teacher preparation programs. She’s part of a book-writing team for the National Council of Supervisors for Mathematics, focused on developing a framework for leadership. Currently, Williams is preparing to speak at state and national conferences about culturally-sustaining mathematics for underrepresented populations.

In addition, she can often be found encouraging youth to seek post-secondary education.

“Don’t let money be your deterrent,” she said. “There are a lot of resources and scholarships, based on a wide range of topics. You just have to be willing to do the work and go find them.”

“Also, find that mentor. Find the person who’ll guide and inspire you,” Williams said. “Discover your passion and follow it.”

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