Nikita Williams greets students from behind a table covered in pamphlets and student government paraphernalia. She lures shy passers-by with free bags of snacks and a warm smile. Soon, a crowd gathers and forms a circle around her, nodding their heads in agreement with her message: students need to take action.
This is just one of the ways Williams is working towards a better future for Montclair State University. The senior psychology major and leadership development through civic engagement minor is currently the singular voting student on the Board of Trustees, a position that gives her the ability to actively engage in meetings with industry leaders that will help make big picture decisions for Montclair State.
“I’m able to give a perspective that they don’t get,” Williams said. “Universities and organizations work through departments, so you rarely get someone who sees the whole picture. In a university, that’s the student.”
Williams has had the opportunity to vote on construction plans, contracts and also gets to see the overall operating budget of the university. A noticeable trend she has encountered is a lack of state funding, which ultimately impacts students in the form of tuition increases.
“It’s not a yes or no anymore, it’s how little can we increase tuition,” Williams said.
Despite the need for additional state support, Montclair State has consistently been allocated insufficient funds, particularly through New Jersey’s Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) Program. The amount is especially disproportionate considering the state aid offered to private four-year institutions that are typically for-profit.
In a report outlined by Education Reform Now (ERN), they explain the inequality Montclair State students are encountering as a result of the state’s inexplicable budgeting system.
ERN writes: “New Jersey provides wildly inequitable levels of state operating funds and financial aid to public and non-profit private state colleges with no articulated policy rationale. Rowan University, for example, is appropriated over three times as much funding per student as Montclair State in general operating aid even though Rowan serves fewer students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.”
What has been referred to as the “high tuition, high aid” model offers more financial support to the colleges that charge more, even when they are generating profit, which creates increased potential for economic disparity to influence educational opportunity. Williams has recognized a pattern of tuition related distress and considers it one of the biggest problems facing the student body.
“A big overarching theme is that students are doing everything possible to get an education and sometimes it’s still not enough,” Williams said. “I know so many students who drop out for a semester just to come up with enough money to pay for the next semester.”
As a campus advocate, Williams takes her role seriously and does everything she can to support the students she represents. After each tuition meeting, she takes the time to email every student that makes a statement.
“I didn’t want it to feel like they were shouting into the void,” Williams said. “I want students to know that they can come to me for help.”
Williams shared that part of the “strategic plan” considered during board meetings aims to place Montclair State as the New Jersey public institution with the lowest average loans by 2025. In the meantime, she is doing everything she can to educate the campus community about the very real consequences of inadequate state funding.
The student trustees’ Instagram @msustudenttrustees posts straight forward, easy-to-follow facts that students can use to stay informed without sifting through endless pages of complicated data. Williams hopes it will encourage more students to participate in the discussion and work towards positive change.
“I think a lot of students feel that they have to [be] ‘ready’ to run for leadership positions on campus,” Williams said. “My answer to that is if you wait until you feel ready, you’ll never get there. I think what really matters is what you do in spite of your own anxiety and self-doubt.”
Another goal she hopes to accomplish this year is to amass the support of fellow student trustees at public universities across the state of New Jersey, so that together they can represent the voice of their student bodies in local government.
If it sounds like Williams is going above and beyond the duties of her position, that’s correct. As a born leader she has always been striving to do the right thing for her peers and society at large.
One of her earliest forays into student government came when she ran for president in her high school’s class election, but instead ended up enacting a new regulation that provided a more fair and impartial voting process. The Union County Academy for Performing Arts continues to honor this constitution and Williams’ legacy will make sure that student representatives earn their positions.
“Voting wasn’t mandatory, so it turned into a popularity contest,” Williams said. “I decided to create a constitution that required voting.”
Williams believes the inspiration behind her tenacity and drive to make a difference is a result of her mom, Kim Downs, and the example she has set through her own career path.
“My mom is an operations manager for an airline, so I have always seen her be a leader, and be really well loved by the people she manages,” Williams said. “She always wanted me to be strong, outspoken and a leader.”
After all of Williams’ accomplishments, Downs knows that she has succeeded in raising a young woman that will change the world.
“Nikita is a sponge for knowledge. She achieved first in her [high school] class,” Downs said. “As college approached, she wanted to lead her class and make Montclair [State] the best school for diversity and inclusion. She continues to make her mark as a caring, aggressive team member, putting everyone ahead of her own personal gains.”
After Montclair State, Williams plans to pursue graduate school for industrial organizational psychology, and potentially own a leadership consulting firm. Until then, she’ll be in her office in the basement of the Student Center, helping students in whatever way she can.
“I would absolutely be willing to sit down with any student and go over their path and what they want to see in the university,” Williams said.