Raisa Williams 1947–2017
The former first-year dean died July 13. She was 69.
Raisa Williams, who spent her 13-year career at Haverford helping and serving first-year students, died July 13 after a yearlong battle with cancer.
"Raisa was such a beloved and respected mentor and colleague at Haverford that it is hard to characterize her importance to the community in a few sentences," said Dean of the College Martha Denney. "She helped many students, particularly those who were feeling vulnerable and disoriented in the Haverford environment, through the critical transitions and challenges of their first year. She was warm-hearted, generous, funny, upbeat, and completely dedicated to her charges."
Williams joined Haverford's staff in 2001 as coordinator for first-year academic support, and, in 2003, she became the College's inaugural dean of first-year students, a position she held until her 2013 retirement. Williams later returned to the College for the 2015–2016 academic year as the interim coordinator for 8th Dimension, Haverford's student community service office.
As first-year dean, she was responsible for helping to make the transition to college as smooth as possible for each incoming class. She worked closely with Customs groups, trained Upper Class Advisors, ran the first-year advising system, and gently fielded calls from anxious parents. She worked tirelessly to help first-year students discover what they wanted out of their Haverford experience and set them on track to achieving it.
"My door is always open so they can just walk in," she said in a profile in 2007. That open-door policy extended beyond the walls of her office; Williams was known to invite students to talk while walking on the Nature Trail or having coffee in the CPGC café so that they could have interactions that would feel more like conversations and less like meetings with an authority figure.
"Whether it was after a conversation in her office or a saunter down to see what the geese were up to, students would emerge transformed in ways that I could actually sense and see," said Dean for Diversity, Access, and Community Engagement Theresa Tensuan '89, a longtime colleague. "It was the kind of magic that happens when someone takes on something that has been a burden to you, and you realize a way forward that you didn't see before. She would tell students that her superpower was being able to find that elusive fourth class—that class that you need just to complete your regular course load, and also that class that might offer you a new way of seeing and understanding the world."
Former advisees remembered her dedication to their success and growth at the College, particularly those from under-resourced backgrounds or those who were the first in their family to attend college.
"Coming from an underserved urban high school, I did not feel ready for Haverford. But when I met Raisa… I met one of the kindest, smartest and most supportive people I have ever met," said Jay Garcia '16, who recently returned from a year in Holland on a Fulbright Award. "In short, Raisa was an on-campus grandma. She strived, and often succeeded, to make me—and every other student willing to take her support—feel at home in an otherwise completely foreign environment."
Williams had a personal understanding about what it's like to be in a new and foreign environment. She came to the United States from Cuba when she was 14 as part of Operation Pedro Pan. At first she and her younger sister lived in a camp in Florida City, before being moved to an orphanage near Pottsville, Pa., and eventually being adopted by the Chiles family, with whom the sisters lived for two years before being reunited with their parents.
After earning a B.A. in sociology from Moravian University and an M.A. in education from LaSalle, she devoted her life to service. Williams worked for Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that helps local underserved populations gains the tools and opportunities necessary for admission to and success in college. She was director of a bilingual child care center, a diversity specialist at Friends Services for the Aging, and held many roles—Latino education coordinator, teen peer education coordinator, reproductive health counsellor, clinic supervisor—at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. She also worked as a program coordinator at the Pottstown YWCA.
Even after her Haverford retirement, she spent years immersed in community-supported agriculture, travel, exercise, and peer-support volunteer work in between visits to her son in New York City and road trips with her husband to roots music hotbeds from Virginia to Louisiana.
Williams is survived by her husband James Boughton Williams, her son Miguel Angel Barry Godín, and new daughter-in-law Tamarinda Jean Barry Godín (BMC '09).
There will be a potluck gathering in celebration of her life on July 30, from noon to 3:00 p.m., in Founders Great Hall.