Conversations with Leaders: Corey Williams
Long before terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” were trending in our lexicon, Afro Latino college freshman Corey Williams joined a Jewish fraternity to set a new course of conversation on campuses across the state.
Williams, now Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Governors State University, was attending college in New York when Michael Griffith, a black man in his twenties, was struck and killed by a car while trying to escape an angry mob of white teenagers.
That was 1986, and years later, race-based tensions were still heavy throughout the city and on the Brooklyn College campus, where Williams was taking classes. He and a friend made a pact to join a fraternity that did not typically reflect their race or ethnicity.
Williams took up the crest of Zeta Beta Tau, while his White friend joined Alpha Phi Alpha, a historical organization that mostly serves the African American community.
“They didn’t know what to expect, but it was good. I used the opportunity to bridge cultural gaps and to create a new narrative on the misconceptions about ethnic groups. Eventually, I became chapter president,” said Williams, who later graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in Sociology. He also served as Zeta Beta Tau president there.
Now, he’s leading the larger diversity and inclusion conversation across campus at GSU, as the recently named inaugural Chief Diversity Officer. Williams will serve in an interim capacity through June 30, 2020.
In this role, Williams is responsible to foster a culture of respect within the Jaguar nation, and advocate for diversity and equity initiatives to help students succeed.
The duties are a natural addition to Williams’ relatively new role as Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, which he began in 2018, bringing nearly 20 years of experience in higher education leadership and administration at institutions across the Chicago area.
With an impressive portfolio that includes a mix of public and private institutions, two- and four-year schools, Williams seeks out first-generation students—nearly 42 percent of GSU undergraduates—who need extra support to succeed.
Providing systems and resources to assist students is part of the Dean of Students’ high profile position, which touches the lives of every student, from directing campus activities and university services that govern conduct, to providing health and wellbeing resources, including GSU4U.
But the personal connections are what Williams holds closest.
He’s created mentoring programs on two campuses which are now being replicated across the state. One recent model even boasted a 100 percent college graduation rate. Moreover, Williams is an expert in securing funds and creating initiatives through the federally backed TRiO program that provides Student Support Services.
“It’s important for me to give back—to allow students to see people in leadership who look like they do. Students need to see people who look like them. It motivates them.”
That's why Williams makes it a point to lunch with students and attend campus activities like basketball games. You may have seen him ice skating in the Hall of Governors during Welcome Week.
As an immigrant who grew up in a single parent household, Williams likes to say he meets students where they are in life.
At nine years old, Williams and his mother immigrated to New York from Panama. He grew up a latchkey kid while his mom worked three jobs to provide for the family.
After high school, he went to work and to college, paying for classes as he went.
A human resources consulting position brought him to Chicago in 2000, but he quickly switched his career focus to higher education when he took a grant coordinator position at Chicago State, where he later earned a master’s in Higher Education Administration.
Today, Williams is a doctoral candidate at DePaul, completing his thesis for a degree in Educational Leadership.
Seated in his office at GSU, it’s clear Williams is passionate about two things: students and fine art. Young men and women smile from photos on his desk and walls, dotted with the colorful works of Afro Latino and African American artists. His taste in fashion and fabric reflect an artist’s palate, and he compares the landscape of GSU to a painter’s workspace.
“Governors State is a work of art with the canvas colors highlighting the strength and beauty of the institution. It’s a working piece—I’m adding my strokes.”
While the artist is busy creating, his thoughts have turned back to Greek Life, as he leads an initiative to bring Greek organizations to GSU’s campus for the first time. And like his experiment as an innovative student in New York—which he said ultimately resulted in more people of color pledging White fraternities at Brooklyn College—this project is going to be an inspiration.
“We are creating an inclusive model that will offer something for everyone. It’s going to be a model that will take GSU to the next level.”