When Shelly Williams ’07 was a senior in high school, her guidance counselor recommended she talk to a Notre Dame alum named Lionel Phillips ’76. Phillips invited Williams to an admissions brunch for Saint Louis-area high schoolers, and spent time talking to her mom about the opportunities at Notre Dame.
It proved to be a life-changing connection: Williams abandoned her plans of staying local and enrolled at Notre Dame.
“I felt like if a university has such a great alumni base, willing to make sure that every student is connected in that way, that was the turning point,” Williams recalls. “Notre Dame was not on my radar at all, but it was that persistence from Lionel, and him being so gracious to take the time to answer questions and make me feel really comfortable and invite me into the Notre Dame family, that convinced me to attend.”
Today, two decades later, Williams is a leader in that alumni family. And once again, it was thanks to a nudge from Phillips. In 2015, she took on the role of director of communications on the board of the Black Alumni of Notre Dame at his urging. In 2020, she was elected board chair, for which her term just ended in June.
Now, through her work on the board, Williams has stepped into the role Phillips once filled for her, reaching out to prospective students and extolling the benefits of a Notre Dame education.
But that’s only a fraction of her work as board chair. During Williams’ three-year term, the Black Alumni community has grown and thrived through both the pandemic and civil unrest. The Black Alumni board launched new virtual programming for Black History Month and Juneteenth, and created a Black Business Accelerator through IrishCompass. In partnership with the Mereulo Family Center for Career Development, they also launched an annual career networking evening for students and alumni called Empowering Black Leaders.
First held virtually in 2022, Empowering Black Leaders shifted to in-person in 2023, with more than 110 students in attendance. They also host virtual admissions events for students and parents, and make calls to more than 400 Black prospective students to help them in the admissions and decision-making process. Williams has also led efforts to increase awards from the Frazier Thompson Scholarship Fund, named after the first African American to graduate from Notre Dame.
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting some phenomenal alums through my service to Notre Dame, and because of that, I have connections to new people in all other spaces and places around the world,” Williams says.
As a student at Notre Dame, Williams got involved with the Robinson Community Learning Center early in her freshman year. That volunteer experience was a formative one, she says: “I was there just about every single day. I built strong relationships with the students and staff, and had the privilege of seeing my students grow. I learned about their dreams and ambitions, understood the challenges they were facing — some of them, I helped them figure out where they were going to college. It nudged me towards the nonprofit sector.”
Williams has spent her career at nonprofits that work to bring positive change to the lives of children in St. Louis and the surrounding region in Missouri. Today, she is the executive director of Access Academies, a St. Louis nonprofit that supports historically underserved middle school students through high school and on to college and career success with enrichment, counseling, and scholarships.
Early in her career, she worked at UrbanFUTURE, a mentoring and after school program embedded in the St. Louis Public Schools. Then, Williams coordinated the AmeriCorps volunteers at Boys Hope Girls Hope, a non-profit organization with affiliates in cities across the U.S. and Latin America.
“I intentionally came back to St. Louis because I’m a big believer in bringing your talents, skills, and resources back to the community. Because shared knowledge and collective action is how communities improve,” says Williams, who is a mom of two daughters, fifth-grader Maya and seventh-grader Nadia. “I’m also very close to my family, so I would not have moved anywhere else.”
Williams also spent five years at Nine Network, the St. Louis PBS station, where she worked on the American Graduate initiative, a project aimed at addressing the high school dropout crisis in America. When American Graduate won an Emmy award in 2016, Williams’ name was on the award, an honor usually reserved for the production team.
“I was incredibly proud to receive that. I didn’t go out and shoot any footage, but the producers felt like I played such an essential role on both the national and local level that they wanted my name on it,” says Williams, who remembers jumping out of her seat as their win was announced at the regional Emmys ceremony in Branson, Missouri.
She took the helm at Access Academies in November 2020. “All with a vision to create a vibrant St. Louis community where equity in education allows every child to think, dream, and achieve big,” she says.
As a leader, whether it is at work or with her fellow Domers in the Black Alumni community, Williams starts with listening. “That’s how you get to know people and build trust, but after you listen, you have to take action, right?”
Her tenure as board chair for the Black Alumni came to an end in June of 2023, but it won’t be the end of her work with her alma mater, as she has agreed to advise and serve as an ex officio member of the board.
“There’s a higher purpose and power among Notre Dame alums. We’re all mission-forward and heart-forward and it’s a very inspirational ethos to be around,” Williams says. “There is a golden thread connecting all of us, like our hearts unite through the Golden Dome.”