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BILLIE TOWNSEND A longtime staff member is known for reaching out to minority students and helping them feel at ease on campus.

Twenty years after moving to Iowa City from inner city St. Louis, Billie Townsend still remembers her first year as an Iowan. It was, in short, a year of culture shock.

First, there was the cold. Then there was the absence of large shopping malls and the lack of soul food. But the biggest change, she says, was in demographics.

“Picture yourself as a minority,” says Townsend, who is African American. “And you go through days at a time and you don’t see anyone else that looks like you. How do you go through your day feeling like you don’t quite fit?”

And while there were local celebrations of occasions like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, “they just didn’t feel right,” Townsend remembers. “There seemed to be cultural pieces that were missing from these events.”

When Townsend mentioned this to her husband Orville, a longtime Iowan, he told her, “If you’re not willing to step up and make a difference, then you can’t complain.”

So she decided to step up. Now Townsend is known for her work helping minorities feel more at ease on campus and around town. She’s also happy to call Iowa City–and The University of Iowa, where she earned a master’s degree in student development and counselor education and works as a professional departmental assistant in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean’s office–home.

Townsend called upon the skills she learned in the University’s education program when she served as an advisor to the UI Black Student Union, a student group that fosters communication and encourages involvement among the African American community, and Voices of Soul, a multicultural student group that sings gospel and other traditional African American music.

These types of groups provide social opportunities, a place to celebrate one’s heritage, and a support network. “They bring students together and give them an opportunity to say, ‘These are the things that are bothering me,’ and hear other people say, ‘Hey, that’s bothering me too.’ It lets them know that they are not alone in their feelings,” Townsend says, “and it gives them an opportunity to talk about their concerns.”

Before accepting her current job, Townsend spent 13 years working in the College of Dentistry in the Office of Student Affairs. There she was instrumental in assisting minority students as they adjusted to the climate of the University. In both positions, she has maintained an open-door policy for any student in need a sympathetic ear, a word of advice, or a bit of encouragement.

“I’ve tried to be there for students when they need me,” she says. “I feel like I know what some of the students are going through, because I was a minority student here too. I try to put myself in their place.”

It’s not just Townsend’s office door that’s open to students. She also invites them into her home to celebrate holidays and graduations, and keeps in touch with many former students through e-mail and holiday cards.

Off campus, Townsend has served on the Iowa City Human Rights Commission, the Four Oaks Board of Directors and is an active member of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Iowa City.

“Bethel is a place that’s supportive of African American students, and of people in general,” she says. “Our congregation is mixed, and it’s mixed by choice. It’s nice to say that we offer something for everybody.”

At Iowa, she is a member of the African American Council and the Recruitment Ambassadors, and is vice chair of the Iowa Black Alumni Association. She also is a past member and secretary of the UI Staff Council, where she organized and established the Staff Council Diversity Committee, which promotes diversity awareness and recommends ways to increase diversity and inclusion of all staff on campus. Under Townsend’s direction, the committee began planning annual programs to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Week. She was awarded the first University of Iowa Catalyst award in 1999 because of these efforts. Since then, Townsend has continued to promote cultural diversity awareness at the University by chairing program committees for the Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the African American Council, and the University of Iowa Human Rights Week Convocation.

Now in her early 60s, Townsend is scaling back, handing over many of her roles to others and preparing for retirement. But she doesn’t plan to unplug completely.

“I always try to stay involved,” she says. “It’s a great experience working with these students. I really enjoy it.”

Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Tim Schoon.

February 25, 2009