Back Story

Toni Woolfork-Barnes

Director, First-Year Experience, Western Michigan University

The first year of college can be overwhelming for students, especially those from other countries and those who are the first person in their family to attend college. Toni Woolfork-Barnes would like to give every student, no matter their background, the opportunity to succeed in college and to fully experience university life.

As the director of the First-Year Experience at WMU, Woolfork-Barnes, 56, oversees programs and activities that help students make the academic and social transition to university life. FYE is designed to prepare students for their first year and beyond at WMU.

Barnes herself is a three-time alumna of WMU, having earned a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's in industrial resource management and a doctorate in human resource development.

What were some formative experiences you had in college?

One of my mentors stressed the importance of being involved in different types of student organizations, which would help me to develop leadership skills. I was involved in sorority life, served as a member of several different major student organizations, and I also worked as a student employee. I believe each experience facilitated my growth and development as a student and in several ways prepared me for graduate school and employment. I loved my college experience.

What kind of student were you?

I always loved school, so I was a very good student: always studied, made sure I took advantage of the resources (such as tutors), attended faculty office hours, etc. — all the things I encourage students to do.

How do you think you got to where you are today?

I must start with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Gladys Woolfork (her parents). They loved, encouraged, supported me and instilled the importance and value of education. I was always told that once you had an education, that was one thing that no one could ever take away from me. With that said, God, having a supportive family, supportive network, being persistent, and my love for education have contributed to where I am today. I recognize that I did not get here alone. There were many pushing me along the way, always offering a positive word and reminding me that I would be successful.

What are you energized by?

My husband, Dr. Ollie Barnes, who is my biggest cheerleader, energizes me. He always motivates me to do my best. My family energizes me. I am energized by education. I do not take it for granted that I have benefited from post-secondary education and training. I am energized by the students and staff whom I am privileged to work with, and I am energized by the work that I do because it means working with diverse students and hopefully influencing students to pursue college with enthusiasm and a deep desire to maximize their college experience in ways that will lead to college persistence, retention and ultimately graduation.

How do you know a program is working?

I have a background in program evaluation and assessment, and, as such, I use this skill set to conduct program evaluations to determine whether programs are working or not. Based on the data or information collected, I am able make program modifications when appropriate.

Do you have a favorite story about helping a student succeed?

Without going into detail, there was a student who was trying to decide what to major in. The initial major was not a good fit. Long story short, the student chose a different major after exploring interests, and today that student is quite successful and still keeps in touch. I have been fortunate to have an ongoing friendship with the student. Because of the mentor/mentee-type relationship, I was able to walk alongside the student and assist where needed.

Why do you think this job is a good fit for you?

This position allows me to tap into my love for people and allows me to be in an educational environment, where learning is never-ending. Therefore, it feeds my passion to learn. My position as director of first-year programs allows me to work across the entire campus, with students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents and families. The staff I work with are second to none. They are the best, and thus we have one of the best departments on Western Michigan University’s campus. I am biased, of course.

Where do you think your inspiration to help students comes from?

My favorite scripture is Luke 12:48, which, in part, states that “to whom much is given, much is required.” I have been so fortunate and blessed, beginning with having loving parents who demonstrated the importance and value of supporting and assisting others. As a student, I had excellent faculty and staff who were committed to my personal and academic success. They offered advice, served as mentors, educated me and exposed me to so many opportunities. I have an obligation to be available and to help students. I think it comes from my heart and my passion for people. I have been given so much, and I hope that students benefit from what others have invested in me.

— Interviewed by Samantha Marzke


About the Writer

Samantha Markze

Samantha Markze

Samantha grew up in St. Joseph, passionate about sports and following current trends. She covered the waterfront for the May 2017 issue of Encore, writing about a gifted cellist, a WMU staffer who works to make students’ first year successful and dorm room decor. Samantha graduated in April 2017 from WMU with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and is an aspiring freelance writer who plans to move to West Palm Beach, Florida.