Lillian Williams: The Community as a Laboratory

Portrait of Lillian Williams.

Lillian S. Williams, Associate Professor of Transnational Studies, sees the community as a laboratory. She views these kinds of experiences as “absolutely essential” to student learning, which is why she turned to the ELN for help with one of her courses.

This semester, Lillian taught a new UB Seminar called “African Americans and the City: 19th and Early 20th Century Buffalo.” She didn’t want it to be just any ordinary history class on Buffalo’s African-American community, though. “I wanted to give students an indication of what the community looked like in the 19th century, talk about the transitions that had occurred, and how it resulted in the city that we see today. I wanted them to look at African American populations as comprising a community of family and workers and artists and musicians.” 

She decided the best way to do that would be to take her students to the Michigan Street Corridor where they could visit the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the J. Edward Nash Museum, and the Colored Musicians Club. While there, students would learn about the historical figures that helped shape Buffalo’s history and the transitions that occurred in the community. Lillian had it all planned out, but there was just one problem: how was she going to get all of her students there on three separate occasions?

“I learned from one of my colleagues about the availability of funds, and essentially I applied to the ELN program for funding for those three trips.” It was an easy process—she filled out a short proposal form indicating how she planned to use the ELN’s course infusion funds, and then she met with members of our office to work out the details. “I had attempted to do this earlier but it just was not possible because of the students’ schedules and because of the difficulties of actually getting to those areas. The funding for transportation and admission to the museums basically eliminated the barriers that we had experienced previously.” Before Lillian knew it, she was on a bus heading to the Michigan Street Corridor with her students.

Lillian recognizes that in the classroom, students learn to address the theoretical issues, but in the community, they can see how it actually played out. “The students repeatedly said that it made the experience meaningful for them. They had read my textbook, but they said it became real when they actually attended those institutions and walked through the neighborhood.”

Due to her commitment to students’ learning beyond the classroom, Lillian appreciates the university’s focus on experiential learning opportunities and the important role the ELN plays in the university’s mission. “It just makes it easier for me because there are resources that were not available to me before. Learning is ongoing, and I think that the benefits of being in the ELN program, or a part of it, facilitates the ability for us to offer those opportunities for students. And they benefit not only in courses like mine, but in courses they take in the future, too.” The Experiential Learning Network is a powerful resource that we hope faculty will take full advantage of in the semesters to come.

Written by Amanda Hellwig ‘19