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Keely Williams first met Derrick Shepard, now assistant director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Academic Success Center, the summer before her first year at UT, through a program to prepare first-generation students for college life. “I thought it would be one of those things you just do and move on,” says Williams. “But I was shocked that Derrick was so passionate and caring about his students and about my growth and where I was going.”

A graduate of Knoxville’s Halls High School, Williams did well in her first semester but hit a bumpy patch in her second. “With all the freedom came new responsibilities,” she says. “I had to learn that. I got Cs, which I had never gotten. My parents, who have supported me all the way, said, ‘We’ve never been to college, so we don’t know anything about any of this.’ I told Derrick, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ He said, ‘You know, that’s OK. You’ll do what you need to do,’ and I understood. I went back to work at my high school job at Food City. It gave me some balance and it helped me learn to juggle a lot of things.”

Derrick Shepard

This week, during UT’s November graduation ceremonies, Williams will receive her BA in psychology with minors in religious studies and in child and family studies. She has applied to continue her studies in UT’s Master of Social Work program and to work at Youth Villages, a nonprofit agency serving at-risk youth and parents, where she has interned since July. “Through it all Derrick was my academic parent,” says Williams. “I could lean on him. He was my academic coach and my biggest resource. He guided me on this.”

“It’s the way my mom and dad raised me,” she says. “They were so selfless and gave me so much encouragement and support, always being there for me. I thought that was something I could give to other people as well.” She remembers her grandfather Bob McCloskey, a long-haul truck driver who raised six kids. “He was the only grandparent I was close with and saw often, and he had such an impact. We visited him on weekends and helped him around his house. He passed away when I was 15.”

Photo shows Keely Williams standing with her parents Cindy and Will.
Keely Williams stands with her parents, Cindy and Will.

Throughout her UT career, Williams has commuted from the family home in Corryton. She worked for the past two years as a pharmacy technician at Food City, and she has been able to attend UT thanks to the Hope Scholarship and Aspire Award, the Tennessee Pledge Scholarship, the Regal Scholarship, Pell Grants, and the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. “I so much appreciate the scholarships,” she says. “Without them, I don’t think I would still be in school. I am coming out without any loans. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Williams had picked her psychology major with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist or a research psychologist. In the fall of her sophomore year she did research with a professor who taught her how to code facial expressions. Although it was interesting work, it led Williams to realize that she did not want to be a researcher. That semester, she had a class in social psychology with Assistant Professor Sarah Ariel Lamer that made her think she could help people more directly through social work.

Williams asked Shepard for his guidance, and he suggested that she look into social work internships to make sure it was what she wanted to do. In the fall of her junior year she interned at the Harmony Family Center, which, says Williams, “helps families through the hardships and joys of adoption.” Since July she has interned with Youth Villages, which works with at-risk youth and parents, shadowing a family intervention specialist and learning how to communicate with families. “We are teaching parents the skills they need to parent and the kids the skills they need to survive. I’m really excited about it.”

Two years ago through Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee, Williams became a big sister to a girl, now 11, whom she has lately been able to meet only online. “She doesn’t have to worry about me,” says Williams. “She won’t get in trouble with me. I’m just a friend and I give her advice.”

Starting with a child development studies course in her first year, Williams did enough coursework in child and family studies to earn a minor. Likewise, Associate Professor Helene Sinnreich’s American Jewish Experience course led Williams to take other religious studies courses—including African American Religions and Religions in Global Perspective—to earn a minor in that too.

“Through it all Derrick was my academic parent. I could lean on him. He was my academic coach and my biggest resource. He guided me on this.” Keely Williams, graduate in psychology with minors in religious studies and in child and family studies

“Keely never let bumps in the road deter her,” says Shepard. “Instead, she saw them as challenges to overcome and experiences to grow from. She was a pleasure to coach. Keely always—and I mean always—came prepared to our coaching sessions with a list of questions on how I could help her. There was hardly a suggestion I made that Keely did not go full-steam ahead with and try to accomplish. I had to learn to pace my suggestions so not to overburden her. From this coaching relationship, I believe I became a better coach for other scholars.”

“What I love about the career I’m entering is the impact I can have on the daily lives of clients,” says Williams. “Two years ago Derrick steered me toward serving on the Student Support Services Student Council. Its goal was to help the university meet the needs of first-generation and low-income students like me. I learned that it is difficult to try and formulate those support systems. It made me doubly committed to addressing the complex needs of people in our community, and I’m so grateful to UT for providing the tools for me to do that.”

In total, the university will award 1,220 undergraduate degrees, 583 graduate degrees and certificates, and three law degrees this fall. Two Air Force ROTC cadets will be commissioned along with nine Army ROTC cadets. Ceremonies are grouped by spring and summer graduates or fall graduates. They will include both those receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees.


Brooks Clark (865-310-1277,