Colleen Barker-Williamson, student leadership advisor, retires after three decades of service


Courtesy of Janice Gerda

Retiring this year, Colleen Barker-Williamson leaves a long legacy in student programming at CWRU, even putting her mark on the annual Hudson Relays.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

Much has changed at Case Western Reserve University since July 1989, but there has been one constant: Colleen Barker-Williamson. Having started her time at CWRU as the assistant Director of Programs of the Thwing Center and now working as Director of the Office of Student Activities and Leadership (SAL), Barker-Williamson has dedicated all her time here in service of student groups and leaders. She has been a consistent pillar of support for students and through her work has ensured that CWRU students have the guidance and resources they need to create the most vibrant student life and campus culture possible. Her era of mentorship towards generations of students will come to an end this January as she retires.

It’s easy to take many of the institutions we have surrounding student life for granted, whether they be the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the University Programming Board (UPB), the Class Officers Collective (COC), the Hudson Relays, Legacy Week, Springfest and Thwing Study Over, but none of them really existed in their current form when Barker-Williamson arrived at CWRU in 1989. It was due to her presence and influence that we have many of the structures that govern our student experience today.

For decades, the University Undergraduate Student Government (UUSG) had been the only umbrella organization responsible for all student activities, whether it be funding all clubs or organizing all programming, Barker-Williamson arrived at a time where that was suddenly no longer the case. Due to misspending from UUSG on a concert for Atlanta Rhythm Section in 1982 that left them and all other student organizations strapped for cash, UUSG was split up in 1984 into various boards, such as UPB, to make sure that certain areas of interest would get guaranteed funding each year. To bail out the student body, groups received a financial windfall the year before Barker-Williamson arrived. Now in charge of making sure programs happened, and with a new system and some cash to work with, she was able to guide students towards restructuring how programming was done at CWRU and building new traditions on campus. In addition, longstanding campus traditions had to be adjusted to bring them in line with modern times, such as the Hudson Relays.

“My very first year, I was given the task of bringing [the Hudson Relays] to campus. Talk about a nightmare,” Barker-Williamson said. Previously a 26-mile relay race where students ran from Hudson, Ohio to Cleveland in order to commemorate the campus move of Western Reserve University, the race was retrofitted in 1990 to be a loop around campus because of safety issues. This was not taken well by many in the CWRU community due to the longstanding nature of the tradition, having been in place since 1910.

“I remember meeting in the Cleveland Room [of the Thwing Center] where the alumni were screaming at me, and I’m like, ‘Why are you shooting the messenger?’ But the reality was there were 16 townships that this race ran through and each of those townships required completion of security measures, completion of all these forms and procedures, and chances are the police didn’t show up to help students pass some pretty difficult roads.”

But now the Hudson Relays, however truncated, remain a beloved campus tradition. Other initiatives overseen by Barker-Williamson included CWRU students getting RTA passes through USG advocacy, the creation of Springfest and Thwing Study Over, the establishment of COC, the start of Legacy Week and just the overall increase of student clubs and events on campus that has happened under her tenure. However, she is quick to give most of the credit to the students at CWRU.

“The [CWRU] student has this incredible grassroot initiative drive,” Barker-Williamson remarked. “They see something that is either broken, that they want to fix, or is in existence elsewhere, and they want to bring it here. So my office, and I hope under my direction, has devoted 100% of our time to helping students do that.”

“People have always asked me, ‘How can you say anywhere that long?’ I mean it’ll be 34 years … I tell them, it’s because I have had this robust, incredible love affair with the [CWRU] student. When I got here … I couldn’t believe how quintessential the student experience was for [CWRU]. I mean, we’re talking about high achievers, incredibly motivated, incredibly intense at times … I was so intimidated, right, I got there, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, these people are 10 times more brilliant than I’ll ever be.’ And then I realized they needed me, because I made them laugh. And because I helped them put things in perspective in terms of the things that they really wanted to get done, the things that they really loved that they were passionate about.”

She also noted that when she arrived here, CWRU was struggling to find its identity as an institution and as a student body. After the federation between Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, many of the old-standing traditions and school spirit were no longer in place. Now she hopes that due to the newfound legacies, events and traditions student groups have developed over the past 30 years, CWRU school spirit is stronger than ever.

“I’ve never seen more celebrations, larger numbers at events, more willingness to get out there and have fun. I hope that continues,” she said. She also commented that class identity was lacking at CWRU before her time, but with the creation of COC that has hopefully improved.

“Being a focused mission on certain things—that’s why I created the COC. I needed class unity, and identifying oneself as a fourth-year student, or as a first-year student, I needed it to be special.”

As the advisor for USG she commented that her main job there was to make sure that USG did not get in its own way, often leading to disagreements with USG leaders, but despite that she always had to be there for them and whatever decisions they made. 

“It was my job to pick them up where they got shot down, you know, it was my job to make sure that they felt that they had made the best decision possible and to just own it,” she said. “I took a lot of hits from my colleagues about USG. But you know what, I don’t care, I love doing it. I love doing it. I loved having those conversations … So there’s really two roles here as the director: an advocate for the student body and an advocate for the student government.”

USG will be passing a resolution next semester to thank her for her years of support early next semester at their next General Assembly.

Beyond just advising USG and other student organizations, Barker-Williamson also oversaw the creation of student leadership development programs including the Emerging Leaders program, the Second Year Institute, the Graduate Student Coaching Program and sending students to leadership conferences. All this helps students come back to CWRU with more knowledge and experience in order to guide their own initiatives and see them to fruition. 

Though Barker-Williamson may be leaving CWRU, her impact will be felt here for decades to come. She explicitly said she had done everything she had ever wanted to do at CWRU, and she surely has done quite a bit. In retirement she hopes to spend more time focusing on her home, her kids and her granddaughter, but also hopes to remain busy.

“I’ll probably look at some ways in which to use the skills that I’ve been blessed with … Because I’m still young, I still want to give back to another entity.”

The Observer has also collected comments from past USG presidents and a current colleague to celebrate Barker-Williamson’s many years of dedicated service.

Hunter Stecko (CWR ‘21), president of USG from 2020-2021:

“Working with Colleen will always be one of the greatest highlights of my time at CWRU. To say she is a phenomenal mentor would be an understatement. To work with Colleen is to love her, as, in working with her, she truly makes you a part of her family. It goes without saying that Colleen is incredibly emotionally intelligent, phenomenal at helping people to become the best version of themselves, and dedicated to loving and supporting all those around her. But, I would like to share two stories that highlight elements of Colleen that aren’t always so publicly seen.

Colleen and I did not always agree on everything—in fact, we had our share of passionate disagreements. One time, when I was sitting in her office, we were engaged in one of those disagreements about a topic I can no longer recall.  After going back and forth for about 20 minutes, she finally looked me in the eye and said “So…you might be right, but can you just stop being so stubborn and do this for me?” The two of us laughed hysterically for a minute, we got up from the table, gave one another a hug and went each on our way.  

Something which is not publicly heralded, Colleen is a woman of deep and beautiful faith, a faith that she and I happen to share. The first few months of my USG presidency were difficult. @cwru.survivors had just come online, we were in the midst of [COVID-19] and the killing of George Floyd had just occurred. The student body, rightly, was distraught regarding all of this—as was I. Yet, the work does not stop. In one of our regular meetings, I shared my difficulties with Colleen. Roughly 10 minutes into our call, she interrupted my disorganized and emotional filibuster to say: ‘Yes, but did you pray about it? God has seen all of these difficulties before.’ Just that gentle reminder was so incredibly calming. Without it, I know I wouldn’t have had the strength needed to stay in the role.

It’s quite rare that a person finds a great mentor. But a mentor in whom you can confide your deepest concerns, who always seeks to bring the best out in you, with whom you can passionately disagree and rapidly reconcile, who will tell you the blunt truth, and, on top of it all, with whom you can share a delightful meal every once in a while is a mentor that you only find once in a lifetime. I thank Colleen for all she has done and continues to do.”

Sophie Vilamara (CWR ‘22), president of USG from 2021-2022:

“Colleen has been the rock of USG for several decades. It takes a truly patient and loving individual to show up so fully every day to mentor students who find novel reasons to be stressed essentially every day. One of Colleen’s most special abilities is her ability to foster leadership qualities in anyone and everyone; she persistently seeks to find the best in people and help them reach their full potential, expecting nothing but a willingness to learn in return. It is incredibly evident that Colleen found her calling at CWRU; she is immensely skilled at helping individuals tap into their innate strengths in order to flourish. I would say that Colleen was as in tune with the student body as a staff member could be, and she devoted hours upon hours beyond what she was expected to work per week. Colleen consistently went out of her way to appreciate the great feats that CWRU community members achieved, and I hope that we can all return that gratitude towards her as we take time to reflect on her prosperous career. I think I speak on behalf of all USG alumni lucky enough to have a relationship with her when I say that Colleen’s presence in our lives has left us all significantly better off. Colleen is so adored and valued by the USG community and we will all miss her dearly. At my times of need, she was always there for me, juggling many hats as a mentor, mother and most trusted friend. While her departure from CWRU saddens us all, I am so glad that Colleen will finally receive the well-deserved opportunity to take a breather and dedicate all of her time towards her family and faith.”

Janice Gerda, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs:

“Colleen’s energy is contagious and her laugh fills a room. Her big heart has fueled CWRU student spirit and leadership for over three decades. She might be leaving for new adventures, but she will always be a part of CWRU history.”