“It’s not just about a major here (at St. Thomas). … It’s about identity formation.” – @YohuruWilliams
Yohuru Williams started in his new role as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Thomas in July. His weeks since then have been a whirlwind of meeting colleagues, getting to know the St. Thomas community and sharing his vision for the future of the college.
The Newsroom sat down with Williams to talk with him about history (his PhD is in history from Howard University), what he likes about the Twin Cities and what he already loves about St. Thomas.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
What drew you to the College of Arts and Science at St. Thomas?
I think one of the things that’s so attractive about St. Thomas is that in this space, there’s a lot of faculty-student collaboration. It’s one thing to look at that on a website; it’s another thing when you come here and you start to interact with the faculty. You really get a sense of how excited they are to work one-on-one with students and how much that impacts students’ lives.
My first full week here, I walked to the science building with my associate dean, Mark [Stansbury-O’Donnell], and we’re meeting with a geology professor. I’m asking her about her research, and she grabs me by the hand and she says, ‘You have to meet the student who’s working with one of my colleagues.’ I’m in this situation where I’m used to faculty talking a lot about themselves and being excited about their own work, and here she wants to show off what the student is doing. I meet this young person and he’s phenomenal. I meet his professor, and the professor shares generally what they’re working on, and then he steps back and gives the student center stage. Now that’s pretty unique, and to me, I think it’s emblematic of what happens here, what makes this place so special.
How do you see the combination of liberal arts and professional preparation for students?
I had lunch with an alum last week, and she is kind of the quintessential Tommie in the sense that she came here, and she didn’t have a clear idea about what she wanted to major in. … She started out as a Spanish major, ends up with psychology. Now, she’s legal counsel for a major company. In her story, she tells how this place helped her go through the process of discernment.
It’s not just about a major here. It’s not about a clear path to a career. It’s about identity formation. We actually are guiding students to that interrogation of what it means to be a contributing member of a larger society. It’s not just college ready. It’s life ready here. And I think that’s special. When people talk about the value proposition the institution has and what you can excite parents and students about, I think that’s what differentiates St. Thomas.
[This alum] said, ‘When I am sitting in a room full of attorneys, my psychology degree gives me a leg up by being able to understand the dynamics and nonverbal communication that’s taking place at that table. And I never would have had that had I not been at a school like St. Thomas that encouraged me, with its core, to explore various academic disciplines and to recognize they can work in concert to make somebody a professional, an even better professional, because they bring those things to the table.’
I think what the college encourages is that kind of interdisciplinary focus. In the College of Arts and Sciences you may declare a major and that major very easily could prepare you for a career outcome that you desire, but in the process of taking a little bit of foreign language and in the process of taking a little bit of psychology, a little bit of history, thinking about writing and developing critical thinking skills, you become a person who really is nimble and able to pivot in a way that extends beyond what happens at most professional training.
You have the engineering school, for example, talking about how the College of Arts and Sciences core helps to make their engineers better because they’re critical thinkers. We hear it from Opus [College of Business] all the time. That’s what makes our business students shine, is that they come out with this liberal arts background. It’s why so many of our students minor. It’s why so many of our students get internships in fields outside of their major. And again, I think the lived experience of our alums and our recent grads point to how well-rounded our students are.
What is your sense of interdisciplinary and community work here and nurturing its growth?
This just happened to me last week … One of the bio professors comes in and starts talking about the pollination path. And I could have sat here with her all day at that point, because it started out as a community partnership and how can we contribute to this problem here and this area, protect some of the wildlife, get to know the eco-system a little bit better? We have this co-op (Brightside Produce) where people can come and get vegetables. It’s the community partnering meets the academic pursuit meets desire to contribute to the common good. And then if you’re writing grants to help facilitate that, if you’re bringing in new faculty to help facilitate that, if you’re involving students to help facilitate that, it all becomes part of what’s special about St. Thomas. And that’s really what I love about this place.
Coming from the East Coast, what are you enjoying most about Minnesota so far?
Wow. What’s not to like?
The fact that you can see the sky! It’s huge. I was out the other night just looking up at the stars. The only other time I’ve ever seen the sky this clearly was when I was in Oklahoma. I was thinking to myself, ‘So this is what the sky looks like.’ So, that’s nice. The fact that people think traffic here is 20 minutes and I’m used to sitting in traffic for three-and-a-half hours, so that’s nice. I’ve never had better food in my entire life. I’m going to gain weight here.
I love St. Thomas. I love this space. I think there’s a nice mix between your urban feel, but then these beautiful spaces that are just green space and wetlands. It just feels like it blends in so seamlessly; it’s just a very nice place to be.