Turning Point

Turning Point

History course ignites passion for Southeast Asia

By Charise Alexander Adams

As a student, Tiffanesha Williams, PhD, BA’12, took a history course on Southeast Asia with associate professor Michael Hawkins, PhD, and it sparked a passion that would take her halfway around the world.

The vibrant culture of Southeast Asia, often overshadowed by neighbors to the north, captivated Williams, who was majoring in political science on the legal studies track. She began learning Mandarin Chinese and traveled to Singapore during the summer of her junior year to immerse herself in its culture and languages. Today, as a postdoctoral fellow at American University in Washington, D.C., she continues to research and teach about this important region.

Hawkins’ course was the “turning point” that shifted her sights, once set on law school, to becoming a political scientist. Williams came to Creighton from Kansas City, Missouri, both for the proximity to family in Omaha, where she had spent her first eight years, and to join the speech and debate team, where she found mentorship and community. In addition, the Student Support Services Office served as a key source of support and access to arts and culture experiences. In addition to her political science degree, Williams earned minors in philosophy, Asian Studies and music.

Williams went on to earn graduate degrees in Southeast Asian studies and political science. While working on her master’s degree, Williams received a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to travel to Indonesia for language study. She visited again to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation, thanks in part to a highly competitive fellowship from The American Institute for Indonesian Studies.

One trip included more than its share of challenges. Williams’ search for documents was complicated by the inconsistent record-keeping of colonial regimes. Once she uncovered the documents she needed, they were all in Dutch. She contracted typhoid fever and experienced an earthquake in the middle of giving a presentation. Nonetheless, she fondly recalls the relationships she built in Indonesia, especially with her host family from the first visit.

Williams’ doctoral dissertation explores the relationship between colonial education and the development of bureaucracies in former colonies. As nations established their own governments after achieving independence, those in which colonizers prioritized education were better equipped for state building, she observed. Williams’ in-progress book will cover this premise in depth.

Any PhD graduate will tell you that the path is not for the faint of heart, especially for a first-generation student such as Williams. Throughout her journey, she was often the only underrepresented student in her courses and usually had to work another job or two in addition to teaching and research. Rather than simply plow through with her head down, Williams stepped into leadership roles and left each space more welcoming for students from underrepresented groups. While earning her PhD at the University of Missouri, she served as president of the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students and founded or co-founded several programs to help first-generation and minority students navigate academia.

Williams says she worked to help others thrive because Creighton reinforced her spirit of service. “Tiffanesha was such a great student: bright and inquisitive and intellectually curious, so unafraid to explore new frontiers,” Hawkins recalls.

That ethos of service will continue to shape her path, as she looks toward a future in which she can combine an academic position with government, nonprofit or community work. She sees herself as part of an international community that needs to come together from every sector to tackle our greatest global challenges. “Our world is smaller than we think it is,” Williams says.