As vice provost for student success at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Amber Williams takes a strengths-based approach to serving undergraduate students. By establishing critical initiatives like Vol Success Teams, the Vol First-Year Experience, and the UT Success Academy with campus partners, she is working to retain and graduate a talented and diverse student body.
Williams recently sat down with Inside Higher Ed to share her career journey and offer advice to other student success leaders.
Student Success Career: Q&A With Amber Williams at University of Tennessee at Knoxville
“Leading through people, priorities and projects—in that order” is how Amber Williams describes her approach to work on LinkedIn. While building a 15-year foundation in admissions and enrollment management, Williams found herself engaging with students long after they had enrolled, which naturally expanded to helping them successfully navigate campus.
Since arriving at University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2020, a few months before the pandemic hit, Williams’s campus collaborations have included launching Vol Success Teams to help students set and achieve their goals, a first-year experience program that involves learning to identify and then enhance individuals’ strengths, and the UT Success Academy, aimed at maximizing the success of Black and Latino men on campus.
Her main responsibility is broad: to serve undergraduate student scholars and their unique academic goals.
Williams spoke to Inside Higher Ed about her career journey, managing her own professional development, the value of the student success offices housed within the provost’s office, and how others can position themselves as student success champions.
Q: Do you recall any early-career thoughts about the many potential challenges facing incoming students and what they would need to succeed?
A: I always felt this responsibility for each student I recruited to the university. My name was on the line when I recruited these students and their families.
And because of that sense of responsibility, I would often offer additional support or encouragement to students I thought could use the extra help by providing them opportunities, like working as student workers or ambassadors in our Office of Admissions. Doing that helped me understand their stories and needs [and] the systems and structures they needed to navigate our campus. And that’s how I fell into student success work early on: by simply talking and engaging with our students.
Q: Can you pinpoint a moment when you realized a role focused on student success would be ideal for you?
A: Almost 15 years ago, I had a chancellor who wanted to create a program for first-generation, low-income students that was both a recruitment and retention program. The goal was not only to recruit students starting in the eighth grade but to get them through college and have positive career outcomes postgraduation.
He decided to take a risk and said, “I want you to run this program.” I was shocked because, at this time, I was an assistant director, still early on in my career, and, honestly, he saw something in me that I maybe didn’t see in myself. While we had some challenges early in the program, it’s thriving. This opportunity taught me a lot about leadership and helping students succeed academically.
I was doing that role while simultaneously still doing my admissions role. Both gave me so much gratification, connection and energy to come to work—it was phenomenal.
I decided that I wanted to do student success work full-time … when I was the assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management. I started to oversee the registrar’s office and … realized how vital the office was to the student experience, and how critical strategic policy decisions and systems can help a student successfully navigate campus regarding their coursework, course availability and time to degree.
I had this reflection moment: Where are the areas where I have the most energy, the most passion and the most purpose? And it was really in the areas where I was impacting the current student experience versus the prospective student experience.
Q: How have you managed your own professional development and networking, considering there isn’t a formal organization for student success professionals?
A: Many universities have positions that work closely with student success; sometimes, those positions are vice provosts of academic affairs or are aligned with student life or with enrollment management. My role is unique because I collaborate with outstanding academic and student life partners across the campus, and we are a separate division, reporting to UT’s provost.
Our division’s oversight ranges from the Academic Success Center to the Veterans Success Center, including programs like student orientation and honors, [plus] high-impact practices like research, fellowships and career development. I share the depth of my responsibilities because it requires professional development from various sectors: academic, student life, enrollment management and more.
Much of my professional development is reading journals from faculty specializing in college student success, articles in Inside Higher Ed and other reported national trends. I’m still very well connected with my enrollment management colleagues, which greatly benefits me in understanding what’s happening from a prospective student perspective and the experience students have before they enroll. I’m also growing my relationship with academic affairs colleagues across the country through conferences and organizations.
Our students are constantly changing, and the moment we, as educators, stop learning with them, we won’t be able to support them. Understanding where students are and what they need to thrive is critically important.
Q: Would you advise leaders at other institutions to place student success within the provost’s office?
A: The structure depends on an organization’s culture and how work gets done within that organization. So, I don’t know that there’s necessarily a one-size-fits-all to this approach. But let me say this: student success work must be intimately involved and aligned with the academic structure; we are here to help students thrive in the classroom, persist and graduate—ready to rock the world.
It’s vital to have a good understanding of academic curriculum, faculty observations and academic goals. I have amazing conversations with our provost and academic partners to understand what they think our scholars need to thrive and ultimately provide those resources to our students. At UT, my job would be much more difficult if I didn’t report to the provost.
If the student success executive-level position is not directly reporting to the provost, then there would need to be a radical collaboration between that executive and the provost’s office for students to have a meaningful academic experience.
Q: How can administrators who aspire to executive-level roles like yours position themselves as student success champions?
A: First, stay relevant and data-driven—that’s the secret sauce to supporting students.
Second, ensure that you have mentors and sponsors, not only at your current institution but across the country and in many differing roles. Let me define the difference between the two. Mentors are those you talk to about challenges in your position [and] opportunities that might be out there, someone you seek advice and guidance from who can help you think big picture and about potential obstacles or opportunities. Sponsors challenge you by sharing new possibilities, investing in activities you might do, providing you with special professional development or simply saying your name when you’re not in the room.
I have been blessed with so many sponsors and mentors. I mentioned the chancellor Harvey Perlman, who first encouraged me to get involved in a student success program. I think of UT chancellor Donde Plowman as both a mentor and a sponsor. She provides advice to me but also champions new opportunities.
I had a fantastic faculty member, Colleen Jones, who saw something in me from day one. She helped me navigate many personal and professional challenges. I had Susan Poser, former dean of the law school and now president of Hofstra University, who took me under her wing.
Mentors and sponsors come in unique positions, and it doesn’t always have to be the job you are in or the position you are seeking. All you need is someone who sees your potential and challenges you to be your best.
[This story originally published on February 7.]
Maggie Palmer (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)