Former UWL admissions counselor honored for diversity recruiting, family-like connection he provided students
Antoiwana Williams remembers the spring day in 1992 when a new recruiter came to her Milwaukee high school. He was talking about a place she’d never heard of before — UW-La Crosse.
Williams and her friend from Rufus King High School were amazed when that recruiter — Jerome Johnson — offered to buy both of them a train ticket to La Crosse to see the campus firsthand. After the westward journey into bluff country, Williams remembers her first look at UWL. It was a “beautiful and peaceful” place. She recalls the university was home to a winning football team, as well as people like Johnson who were eager to welcome her. The day after returning home to Milwaukee, she filled out a UWL application.
“The fact that this recruiter had invested so much time in me and my friend, I decided and that I should apply,” she says. “Then, three other classmates from Rufus King ended up coming here as well.”
But Johnson wasn’t just invested in recruiting students like Williams. Once here, he and his wife, Allison, became a family away from home for many multicultural students, providing them an open invitation into their home, soul food dinners, community connections and much more.
Johnson, who served as an admissions counselor and former assistant basketball coach from 1990-2002, was honored for his work recruiting and retaining UWL multicultural students as part of the first African American Alumni & Friends Reunion Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20-21. The event gave alums an opportunity to see and learn about the physical changes on campus, as well as hear what life is like for current African American students. Johnson was recognized during a Saturday dinner and presentation on the history on multicultural initiatives on campus.
Johnson was an instrumental in that history. When he came to UWL in 1990, the university was recruiting 70-90 multicultural students per year, he recalls. During Johnson’s years, that number rose to about 130 multicultural students yearly. He also helped recruit another several hundred white students a year, and helped build new international partnership agreements.
One of his strengths was building relationships — particularly with communities and families in the inner cities of Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee.
“He had a wide network — even before he came here, and he had the right personality — sociable … a lot of charisma,” says Thomas Harris, a senior student services coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Services who worked in UWL Residence Life when Johnson worked on campus.
Johnson opened up new recruiting avenues, taking him on the road sometimes for weeks at a time.
“I’m a first-generation college student. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and lived through the Civil Rights Movement,” says Johnson. “I was taught at an early age to gain as much success as I could to be able to help other people, so they could reach out and help someone else.”
Evidence of his impact on UWL students is their success stories, which he has followed.
On any given day he has about 20-30 contacts via social media with past UWL students he recruited.
“He’s always been there. He treats me like a son — his wife as well,” says Tommy Eckles, ’94. “We have an excellent relationship — even today.”
Johnson first recruited Eckles to play basketball at Mount St. Clare College in Iowa in the late 1980s. Eckles, a Chicago native, later came to UWL when Johnson took the job at UWL. Eckles, who broke UWL records on the basketball court, says Johnson was part of his decision to come.
Williams and Eckles recall the family they found with the Johnsons who gave them a home away from home and lent a listening ear for any struggles they encountered in college.
Williams says if not for the Johnsons, she may not have stayed at UWL. They helped her when she became pregnant in college and had to balance being a new mom. They babysat her children, invited her to family gatherings and talked with her when she was ready to walk away from college.
“I always knew if I was having a tough time, I could pick up the phone and get away from campus,” says Williams. “If anything happened and I needed them, they were always there to help guide and support me.”
Williams ended up becoming a student assistant multicultural recruiter for Johnson on campus, accompanying him on trips and sharing her UWL experience. Today, Williams, ’00 and ’04, has earned degrees from UWL — a bachelor’s in sociology and a master’s in what is now Student Affairs Administration. She serves as director of UWL’s Office of Multicultural Student Services and interim associate dean of UWL Diversity and Inclusion. She is still close to the Johnsons — the godparents of her oldest daughter. She still considers them like a mother and father.
“They pretty much saw me grow into the woman I am today. I can definitely say they helped contribute to that,” says Williams. “They didn’t have to do what they did, but they allowed a lot of people to come into their lives … I’m glad we are honoring him. It is long overdue. He touched a lot people’s lives while here at UWL.”