Faculty profile: Rhonda Williams’ personal tragedy leads to helping others

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of faculty profiles highlighting the diverse and innovative faculty at UCCS.

When Rhonda Williams needed help surviving the death of her baby, she found comfort in becoming a school counselor.

Thirty-four years ago, she moved with her two children to Colorado Springs after her marriage dissolved. Her son, 8 months old, died from sudden infant death syndrome their first weekend here when he was with a babysitter. Williams, then 30, had to figure out how to bear the unbearable while taking care of her other son, who was 5.

“You don’t expect the universe to play like that,” she said. “I was in survival mode.”

She was a public school physical education teacher and coach but felt compelled to do something different after losing her son. She enrolled at UCCS, earning a master’s of education in school counseling in 1986. After a decade of teaching, she spent 15 years counseling children.

“I learned to deal with the grief by helping other people learn to deal with grief”

“It was a chance to help others through their journey—and my own. As they say, what you teach, you learn. So I learned to deal with the grief by helping other people learn to deal with grief,” she said. “That was pretty powerful.”

Now she teaches others how to become school counselors. In 2001, she joined UCCS, where she’s a professor with counseling and human services in the College of Education. She also coordinates the school counseling program.

Williams, 64, is drawn to the connections between people. In high school, the bond with her PE teacher is what made her want to teach.

“She would give me a lot of one-on-one time and made me feel special during a time that I didn’t feel special at all. It was that mentoring, that challenge of showing me that I mattered,” she said. “And that’s what I hope other people have felt from me coaching them or counseling them, that they matter. Isn’t that what everybody wants to feel?”

Much of Williams’ research is focused on the Smart Girl program, which aims to increase self-esteem in young girls by teaching them about bullying and sexual harassment and how to deal with those issues. The adolescent girls are mentored by high school and college students who serve as guides.

Sameen DeBard was one of those guides nearly two decades ago. She was 16 when she met Williams, who became her mentor and eventually her professor. When she was thinking about graduate school at UCCS, Williams suggested the counseling program, something DeBard hadn’t considered.

Now 33, DeBard has been a school counselor for seven years. Because of Williams’ teachings, she feels prepared for the challenges that come with counseling. She can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Every single day, I get to be involved in kids’ lives as a support, a sounding board, a kick-in-the-pants helping them re-examine their priorities, a friendly face that makes them laugh, a calm presence in their moment of chaos, and someone who is always on their side,” DeBard said. “There is no greater privilege than this.”

Williams, who earned a doctorate of education with a focus in counseling education in 2003 from Kansas State University, has written dozens of articles, books and book chapters on education and counseling.

“This is my profession, this is my passion.”

She’s received 12 awards, including National Middle School Counselor of the Year in 1991 and National Counselor Educator of the Year in 2012, both from the American School Counselor Association. In October, she became the first recipient of the Rhonda Williams Lifetime Achievement Award from the Colorado School Counselor Association.

With a counseling background, Williams naturally wants to know more about her students.

“I think I constantly look at them and think, ‘What brought you here? What’s motivating you to do this?’ Because this isn’t an easy grad school to go through,” she said.

Since it takes sensitivity to counsel vulnerable children, she challenges students to undergo a lot of self reflection. Taking responsibility for themselves empowers them to make a difference in kids’ lives.

“I remind them, ‘This is my profession, this is my passion. I want you to be the best you can be when you walk out that door because you’re going into my profession,’” she said. “I hope in a way that it’s intimidating, but I hope it’s also helping them understand the value. Not everybody can do this.”

She thinks counselors are most effective when they show kids how to make good life choices and feel confident about themselves. That includes letting them work through difficulties instead of rescuing them, something she realized while helping her son grieve the loss of his baby brother.

Williams, who remarried when her son was 11, is amazed by what children can handle.

“We have to teach tenacity and resiliency. We’ve got to teach grit,” she said. “That’s what’s going to help our kids survive, when we start helping them understand the world isn’t just roses. We want those days, but they’re not all like that.”

— Photos by Anslee Wolfe

Read earlier faculty profiles in this series here:

Paul Harvey named newest UCCS distinguished professor

Faculty profile: Christopher Bell finds joy helping students


2 Comments on Faculty profile: Rhonda Williams’ personal tragedy leads to helping others

  1. A very sincere “congrats” to Professor Rhonda Williams. What an amazing story of turning a dark period in her life into a profession where she helps others deal with their issues. She truly is an American success story. A great story of motivation for me and others at Christmas time. Dr. Robert A. Zawacki, Professor Emeritus UCCS

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