By Grace Peck ’18
It was a Carver Medal ceremony at Simpson College in which the message perfectly aligned with the students who had come to hear it.
Herma Williams, who has spent most of her career in higher education working to transform campus cultures, received the Medal and delivered the annual Carver Lecture on Feb. 28 in Smith Chapel.
The Chapel was lined with students who stood up, some holding signs, part of a day-long protest to encourage the College to be more diverse and more transparent when racial incidents occur.
Both she and Simpson President Jay Simmons, who introduced her, applauded the students for their commitment. Williams thanked them for being present and not being afraid to make their voices heard.
“First, you must have courage,” she said. “You must have vision; you’ve got to make a difference. You’ve got to do risk taking, you have to be honest, you need spiritual development, you need to be bold, you need to understand the promise of listening, and know the power of silence.”
A Chicago native, Williams has worked at 14 different universities in the United States, and also has taken her message all over the world, particularly South Africa.
Learning that she was receiving an honor for George Washington Carver, who was admitted to Simpson when other schools rejected him because of his race, was a thrill, she said.
“Just to have my name mentioned with Carver was awesome for me!” Williams exclaimed. “As a result of this experience, I plan to spend the rest of my days being humble, feeling this honor of this unbelievable hero. I want to live up to his legacy.”
Williams comes from a family of ministers, and there were times that her speech sounded like something churchgoers might hear on Sunday morning:
“What if you just love people, go out of your way to be kind, can you make the world a better place?”
Williams first came to Iowa in 1973 with her husband. After earning a doctorate degree, she pledged to “to first love, to make a difference, and to show kindness.”
Throughout her career, Williams said, she received phone calls from schools, asking for her help so they could make a change, whether that was with their faculty, their students or their overall programs, and she would simply say, “When do you want me there?”
With her husband accompanying her, they traveled from one campus to the next, and she stayed and helped “however long God wanted me there.”
Sometimes these trips were difficult or far away, but she was thankful for what she described as unbelievable experiences she had with the different communities. She urged professors and administrators to try new experiences, from traveling to a new country to writing a grant that would help students.
Williams also told the Simpson students about the first time she witnessed the power of a mass protest. She was living in Philadelphia, and a group at a local college requested that no investments be made in South African gold and silver mines.
Their request was rejected. As a result, 1,700 protesters lay silently on the grounds and in buildings. The college’s board voted shortly after to stop investing in the mines.
“I want you to always remember that story, because it was the students that helped me to grow,” Williams said. She has now been to South Africa more than 20 times, helping build schools and start programs to improve the lives of the people there.
She encouraged all Simpson students to continue trying to improve the world.
“I am blessed to be here today, with such a legacy of George Washington Carver,” she said. “Thank you for the honor.”
Natalia Olivas, a junior majoring in English with a women and gender studies minor, and one of the organizers of the student protest, was pleased with the faculty response:
“I was really hoping today to have our voices heard by the faculty of the college, and at the Carver ceremony, they showed us that they saw us, they heard us, and we are seen.”