Migos. Cardi B. Beyoncé. These are names most students would not expect to often hear at an academic workshop. However, one Illinois State University School of Communication (SoC) alumna is using “the culture” to cultivate student leadership.
Natilie Williams, M.S. ’16, had no idea that her time as a student leader and graduate teaching assistant at the SoC would prepare her for the life-changing opportunities she has managed to embark on in the past two years alone. A South Side Chicagoan, Williams is traveling the nation to encourage students to use their resources and education to set themselves ahead of the pack and become leaders in their local communities.
Williams has devoted her work to helping high school and college students understand the availability and importance of student success and resources using topics related to their interests. “Most students don’t realize the resources available until they’ve graduated,” said Williams. “I look back now and say, ‘I really had it good with the resources available in school.’ I want students to see the opportunities around them.”
Her presentations and workshops cover topics like creating sisterhood groups among young black women and legacy-building leadership “for the culture.” Williams finds it important to take a personal approach to connect with students she could once identify with.
A proud native of Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, Williams has used her work to change the narrative of her hometown. Roseland is a place where Williams watched many of her peers lose their lives. As she watched her local community drop in numbers, she realized the importance of a valuable education, spreading her wings to grow, and coming back to her community to share with her peers how academic success can improve lives.
Williams began stepping forward as a leader during her freshman year of college when she would talk with high school children in her community about the importance of valuing their education. As an undergraduate student attending Central Michigan University (CMU), Williams practiced what she preached by taking advantage of every student leadership opportunity provided to her. “That really prepared me for the next step in life.”
That next step was becoming an Illinois State Redbird. In 2014 Williams became a graduate student and graduate teaching assistant in the SoC. New to teaching, Williams had her reservations but pulled inspiration from her past in student leadership and lessons taught from peer mentors. “I wasn’t too sure how it would go, but I knew ISU would help me because I saw the same importance put on peer mentorship that I learned in CMU,” said Williams.
Williams credits the SoC’s graduate teaching program for helping her become a leader through public speaking and communication instruction. “Illinois State is very far ahead of the curve when it comes down to its GTA program,” said Williams. “Reflecting on the preparation that the faculty give to instructors, the peer mentorship program, and the way they set up the spiral notebook helped me recognize how ISU prepares its students when it comes down to teaching.”
Williams entered the graduate program with the idea of incorporating her favorite television show, A Different World, into her final graduate project. After watching the show while studying abroad during her undergraduate career, she made the connection between the program’s collegiate themes and student leadership and goal execution.
Upon arriving at Illinois State, Williams talked with upperclassmen who used the flexibility of courses and project options to do similar work. She soon found out through a second-year graduate student that doing a project on a television show was not only possible but encouraged. “Finding that out was the best thing that could happen,” said Williams. “I was like, ‘Oh shoot. I can really do my thesis on a television show?’” After discussing her idea with peer mentors, faculty, and staff who were willing to offer their expertise, Williams’ idea soon became a reality.
Williams appreciates the support and direction she received from SoC faculty and staff members who helped her create a piece of work that is instrumental in her success today. “They ripped up my writing, helped me refine it, and turned around to say, ‘I’m proud of you and the work you produced,’” said Williams. “That was such a defining moment for me.”
Her thesis later landed her a moment on Steve Harvey, where she met the cast of A Different World. There she was able to express to the cast what the show meant to her as a young adult and how it inspired her work as a graduate student at Illinois State. This was a pivotal moment for Williams as a young, growing professional and helped her transition into her work as a traveling professional speaker.
Williams’ began her career as a professional public speaker in August 2016, after receiving her master’s degree from Illinois State University in May 2016. Her first audience at a paid event consisted of 300 future student leaders eager to hear her advice on student development and leadership skills. Since then, she has traveled the nation to speak at various colleges and leadership conferences, including the National Conference of Student Leadership.
To this day, Williams implements the fundamentals of public speaking she learned and taught at Illinois State. “If you know how to command a class, you can command an audience,” said Williams. “ISU really prepared me. Looking back on it now, I am grateful for that teaching experience. I had no idea speaking and getting a Ph.D. would be on the horizon for me.”
Williams is currently studying communication diversity and inclusion under the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri. She plans to use her research to tell the stories about people in her community. As she studies and teaches, Williams is continuing her work as a public speaker. She is also working on a book chronicling her own life as a growing community leader. Williams hopes to change lives through sharing experiences.
“My mission is to serve people,” said Williams. “I am doing this for the culture. I am doing this for the people who have experienced loss, who want to understand what leadership is and who want to push further toward their purpose. I want to share my blueprint and my story to assist them.”
Any story ideas or general feedback? Please contact Pete Smudde.