Sister Barbara Williams: Life as a teacher and a Sister in the SNJM community

The text below is an excerpt of an interview with Sister Barbara Williams conducted on September 28, 2012, by Assistant Professor Anastasia Prentiss and Sister Carol Sellman. Minor edits have been made for clarity.

Tell us why you decided to enter the community?
I went to Holy Names High School and fell in love with the place and also with the Sisters. I didn’t really think I would enter the community—I was having too much fun early on. But then I began to seriously think about it, and I talked to my dad. My dad was not born Catholic. I asked him how he felt, and told him I would like to do this. I will never forget this—I had a wonderful father. He said, “Would you do me a favor? Would you go someplace else—just to have a different experience? Because you’ve been with the Sisters for 12 years—and if you still feel the same way you can enter.” I also went to elementary school at St. Bernard in East Oakland with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. I said fair enough. My best friend was going out to Berkeley, so the two of us went to UC. And I still felt the same way after getting my associate’s degree.

What year did you enter the community?
It was January 1947, which means as of January 2013 I will have been in the community for 66 years.

Do you have any special memories of the first Holy Names campus on Lake Merritt?
The initial building was built in the late 1800s. The choir loft was really shaky, and we had always been warned—“Not too may people in the choir loft. Be careful!” Guess what was the last thing standing when they tore the building down? We have to laugh at those kinds of things.

When you started teaching, did you begin at an elementary school?
I did. I started at Sacred Heart in Oakland in second grade. Through my whole career I’ve taught elementary, secondary, and college—for 44 years altogether!

What was your master’s degree in?
It was a master’s in social science. That was in the 50s. Then I kept teaching, and they sent me to Marin Catholic to teach high school. I thought I would stay there for a while. Instead I was transferred to Holy Names High School because they wanted me to start preparing for a doctorate. I took classes at Berkeley. I went out there in the summers and studied political science in hopes they would accept me to the PhD program, and they did. I began my doctoral work while teaching at Holy Names High School.

Is there something in your past that led to your interest in political science?
Sister Gertrude Mary was a very far seeing faculty member at the college. And she was lining up people to fit with various social science fields that she wanted to develop at the college. That’s how it started.

When did you start teaching at the college?
They transferred me from the high school to the college in 1967. I went to South America in the summer of ’67 to do some research. I taught summer session at Holy Names in ’68 while still studying for my doctorate, which I received in 1970.

What did you do while you were in South America?
I was there on a Fulbright Fellowship, but I used it to get some valuable materials for my doctorate focusing on Latin American politics. I could read and speak Spanish fairly well at one time—not any longer! I studied at the University of Chile in Santiago. We took various courses at various places—their universities are not all on one site. The classes were all over the city. It was most interesting. For five weeks we did that. Wonderful experience. That summer was one of the most exciting times in my life. For expanding my cultural horizons, it was just unbelievably rich.

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