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WATERLOO — Cliff Coney has served as a guide for generations of students who have found their way to college through the University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education.

For more than three decades, the senior counselor in the Educational Talent Search program has helped young people build leadership skills, explore career possibilities and apply to colleges. After seeing so many students successfully graduate and head off to that next level, Coney has decided to move on, as well — to retirement.

Tuesday was his last day working for UNI-CUE’s college access program largely aimed at students in sixth through 12th grades who are from minority groups and financially disadvantaged. Coney has enjoyed guiding kids as they “go through the steps of becoming a college student.” But he’s been doing it so long that “I’m even working now with some of (his first students’) children.”

Coney said he “never really got tired of working with them” in explaining his longevity.

Over the years, he’s primarily dealt with students from the Waterloo and Dunkerton community school districts. Among his assignments in the Waterloo district were Bunger Middle School and all of the high schools at one time or another, including the former Central High School. Most recently, he has been working with West High School students.

“I was there at West when some of the first Bosnian populations came in,” he noted, during the 1990s. More recently, he’s been working closely with Burmese immigrants who have arrived in Waterloo. Last year, he helped four Burmese students who hadn’t known “what a scholarship was” to successfully apply for one as they prepared to start at Hawkeye Community College.

“I think I had the ability to work with all cultures and make sure that they were welcomed into the schools,” said Coney.

He spent 10 years as a plant supervisor with John Deere after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa. When the farm crisis caused massive layoffs at the tractor manufacturer, Coney left and found a position at UNI-CUE in the fall of 1987.

The Waterloo native is a childhood friend of Tony Stevens, who headed the Educational Talent Search program at the time. He hired Coney in a temporary position that became permanent the next year.

Coney has seen changes in technology over the decades that has streamlined his work with students on financial aid, college admissions and scholarships. But he said it can be harder today to reach some students, who don’t always seem to understand how the program can help them.

“Otherwise, I think students are still appreciative of all the things we do for them,” said Coney. He came across an example of that in a West High newspaper story from more than a decade ago while cleaning out his desk. A valedictorian said Coney had “always been there for me.”

“I forget all the ways I’ve impacted all the kids,” he admitted. But, for Coney, such glimpses of gratitude make his work worthwhile.

Coney also has a history of community involvement, including serving as president of the Black Hawk County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the late 1990s and early 2000s. During that time, the NAACP held joint workshops with Waterloo’s human rights commission and police department to address issues facing the black community. In addition, he served on a Waterloo Community Schools equity committee and helped teach a minority relations class at Hawkeye Community College for several years.

As president of the local chapter, he worked on “getting the door open part way” with the police chief and sheriff. “I was able to have a relationship where I’d be able to speak to them,” said Coney, where before the communication was more difficult.

“My philosophy was always a foot in the door was better than the door being closed,” he added. “The minority community needs to have direct access to those people in order for things to improve and get better.”

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