UW alumna remembered
As an educator and parent, University of Wyoming (UW) Professor Emerita Karen Cachevki Williams noticed things other people didn’t. She was especially fascinated by the unique ways children learn and process their surroundings.
Williams understood children are trying to figure out how the world works. She recognized they sometimes hear things differently, and she listened.
It’s one of the many reasons she was an extraordinary teacher and mentor.
Where education begins
Williams’ life’s work centered on the education of young children, and the education of those who teach young children. Her enthusiasm for teaching extended from the youngest students at early childhood education centers to adults enrolled in distance learning programs.
Throughout her life and career, she nurtured the development of human beings. She delighted in interacting with children, mentoring university students and faculty and cooking for a crowd.
As a professor of family and consumer sciences, she worked with children and adult learners near and far. She traveled to early childhood education centers on the Wind River Indian Reservation, an international school in Germany and a U.S. Air Force Base in New Mexico.
A first-generation college graduate, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in english and secondary education at the University of Illinois and began her career as a high school teacher in North Carolina.
In 1976, she and her husband Steve Williams moved to Laramie. While he settled into a faculty position at UW, she earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics and consumer and educational services.
A lifelong learner and educator, she went on to complete a master’s degree in human development from Pacific Oaks College and a PhD in curriculum and instruction from UW, specializing in early childhood education.
After receiving her PhD, Williams joined the UW Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Her lengthy career in the department included a seven-year stint as department head. She later served as director of UW’s Applied Science Program and as a university assessment specialist in the Office of Academic Affairs.
In recognition of her contributions to the university, Williams was posthumously awarded the 2023 UW College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources (CALSNR) Outstanding Alumni Award. She and other awardees will be recognized at a banquet on Oct. 5.
An early champion of distance learning
Williams studied the use of technology in early childhood settings, but she also leveraged technology to serve place-bound students and adult learners. As part of a sabbatical project, she visited many distance learning students in their home environments.
In 2001, she established UW’s distance professional child development bachelor’s degree program. The program was designed for place-bound students, many of whom were Head Start teachers federally required to complete an undergraduate degree.
Working across departments and colleges, she led the development of a comprehensive, interdisciplinary program which met national standards for early childhood care and education.
“The degree includes coursework not only in early childhood development but also in understanding and respecting cultural diversity, working with families, supporting children with special needs and addressing behavioral issues,” says Margaret Cooney, UW professor emerita and a dear friend of Williams.
“One of the gaps in all our early childhood degree programs was that of diversity and its impact on teaching and learning for young children,” Cooney writes. “These were difficult concepts for professionals to absorb, and Karen’s ability to teach both colleagues and students in a way that leads to conceptual understanding was remarkable.”
Williams’ ability to communicate these concepts traced back to her childhood in Chicago, where she was raised in a family of recent immigrants. While her parents had no formal education beyond high school, they nurtured an environment in which diverse personalities, backgrounds and religions were welcomed and respected.
Both Williams and her sister Gail (Cachevki) Gottschling went on to work in early childhood education.
Serving adult learners
As an advocate for adult and non-traditional students, Williams developed a prior learning assessment program which enabled working adults entering the higher education system to earn academic credit for relevant experience.
In 2010, she launched UW’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Organizational Leadership program, originally housed in CALSNR. She worked tirelessly with community colleges across the state to create a program supporting community college graduates seeking to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
According to a colleague, it was the first program of its type in the nation.
Throughout her career, Williams prioritized outreach and community engagement. She regularly visited Wyoming community colleges, attended Agricultural Experiment Station field days and visited early childcare centers across the state.
Founding the UW ECEC
Closer to home, Williams spearheaded the creation of UW’s Early Care and Education Center (ECEC) in Laramie. Among her many accomplishments, this was one of her most cherished.
“Karen was the lead advocate and designer for the new building,” says Cooney, who worked alongside Williams at the University Child Care Facility and Laramie Cooperative Nursery School. “I see her dedication to children and families as all inclusive – as a teacher of young children and later UW students, as a curriculum designer of exciting content, as an advocate for diversity and as a visionary of learning spaces.”
The ECEC opened in 2005 after years of meticulous planning and fundraising by the project’s development task force.
“Karen wound up visiting all over the state, talking to legislators and deans and pulling together a multi-million dollar project to build the ECEC,” her husband recalls. “It was one of the things she was really proud of.”
When the project fell behind schedule, the couple personally purchased many of the classroom items and furniture required to open the facility. More than 15 years later, the ECEC continues to thrive.
A mentor and cheerleader
The ECEC offers a physical reminder of Williams’ contributions to the UW community, but the lasting impacts of her wise and thoughtful leadership extend well beyond Laramie.
“It was Karen who recognized my potential – when I didn’t see it in myself – to be in an administrative leadership position,” comments Bruce Cameron, professor and department head of textiles, apparel design and merchandising at Louisiana State University.
Cameron isn’t the only mentee who considers Williams a key player in his success. She mentored dozens of students and colleagues over the years.
“She inspired other people. I think she was like a cheerleader in some ways,” her husband reflects. “She could show people the good things they were doing and put those into a context where they’d pay attention to it.”
Unlike some of her peers, Williams loved advising. She unhesitatingly agreed to mentor any undergraduate or graduate student who needed an advisor.
“Her leadership instilled a unique confidence within her mentees and a love of teaching,” writes a group of UW colleagues and mentees. “Williams was able to find a way only she could, to help her students love teaching and see the good in the world.”
In 2012, she received the U.S. Department of Agriculture Western Regional Award for Excellence in College and University Teaching in the Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Karen Cachevki Williams passed away in April 2023. Her legacy lives on in the memories of her family, students, colleagues and friends and in the educational opportunities she created for past, present and future students.
Brooke Ortel is a writer and editor for UW Ag News and can be reached by visiting uwagnews.com.