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Robert Smith's team breaks down educational barriers

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Robert Smith 

Reprinted from the Spring 2020 Inclusion Magazine

WATERLOO — Robert Smith Jr. has been in the trenches for more than three decades working to give less fortunate residents a shot at a college degree.

The executive director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Urban Education said the keys to success include lessons shared by University of Iowa football coach Hayden Fry.

“I learned so much from coach Fry,” said Smith, who joined the Hawkeyes in 1983 because of the legendary coach’s leadership on racial equality.

As a receiver and Rose Bowl participant, the South Dallas, Texas, native learned to work together with teammates from places as diverse as Brooklyn, N.Y., and Reinbeck, Iowa.

“As a student athlete one of the things you really learn early on in your life is how to deal with diversity and inclusion,” Smith said. “Successful teams learn how to interact with young men from all over the country.”

Things are not so different at UNI-CUE, where Smith brings together advocates from Waterloo’s low-income neighborhoods, UNI educators, bank presidents, business leaders, politicians, and a diverse group of students and teachers of all socio-economic stripes.

“A lot of my approach has always been from a team perspective,” he said. “It’s how I run UNI-CUE, how I try to interact in my community efforts, because people are different, people have different perspectives.”

Smith, 55, moved to his wife’s hometown of Waterloo after earning a degree in communications studies. He took a job at the Educational Opportunity Center, one of the programs under UNI-CUE’s umbrella, and became UNI-CUE director about 14 years ago.

UNI-CUE, now headquartered in a former railroad depot in downtown Waterloo, was founded in 1968 as a way for UNI to connect with the city’s urban neighborhoods and provide educational support programs for minority and disadvantaged individuals.

The center’s core programs include the longtime “TRiO” programs — Talent Search, Classic Upward Bound and the Educational Opportunity Center — that continue to win federal funding support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“They have weathered no matter what the economics or what the political climate is,” Smith said. “Our representatives, no matter what political party they associate with, have taken the time and gotten to know about the TRiO programs.”

Those programs work largely with low-income individuals whose parents did not receive college degrees.

Educational Talent Search works with 1,200 Waterloo middle and high school students annually on the concept of education, including tutoring services, career exploration and information about financial aid.

Classic Upward Bound is a six-year program that tracks and assists 85 students with potential to enter and graduate from a college or university.

The Equal Opportunity Center works to help nontraditional students get post-secondary education. The program is free to those 19 and older and serves nearly 2,000 people annually in a six-county region.

UNI-CUE also operates a kindergarten through 12-grade tutoring program for kids in the Cedar Valley, utilizing UNI students and community volunteers, and ACT prep sessions to help those preparing for college entrance exams.

The center started its leadership academy on Smith’s watch. The four-week summer program works intensively with 24 kids entering middle school who are also going through Talent Search.

“They’re first generation, low-income kids of all different ethnic backgrounds,” Smith said. “If they graduate and meet all their requirements at UNI, they go tuition free.”

Wilfred Mickye Johnson, recently retired director of Classic Upward Bound, worked with Smith at UNI-CUE for nearly 32 years and can attest to the collaborative atmosphere that exists among all the center’s programs.

“He’s a team player and he’s always been very receptive to challenges and supporting to all of the teams at UNI-CUE,” Johnson said. “I think the greatest thing is when you look at the teams there’s no I. It’s just us.

“Robert instilled that through his leadership,” Johnson said. “We have really built a family.”

Smith also has been very active in the community outside of UNI-CUE. He served six years on the Waterloo Community Schools Board of Education from 1994 to 2000 and followed it up with a four-year term on the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors starting in 2003.

“One of the things I don’t regret is having served in public office,” Smith said. “I cherish those times even though there were some stressful times. I got to know people. I probably learned more serving on those boards than I did in school.”

He also started the Black Alliance with Tracy Meeks, a group that mentored young African American kids in Waterloo.

“We wanted to make sure black men were visible helping young black boys,” Smith said. “We know data always works against that population.”

But Smith said the most rewarding part of his service is seeing the fruits of the UNI-CUE team’s labor.

“It’s the satisfaction of seeing kids achieve that ultimate degree, whether it’s Hawkeye Community College, UNI, Iowa, wherever it is, that’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “You’ve seen families and kids work through the obstacles to give themselves a chance to be productive citizens.

“I’ve seen families and kids 20 years ago, 25 years ago, I thought there was no way they would every come out of that. To see families come in here now, and they’ve got multiple degrees and they’re thanking you for something you said to them.

“I’m seeing another generation of kids come in,” he added. “It’s the coolest thing in the world.”

Smith closed by sharing a wrist band given to the students with UNI-CUE’s motto: Earned, not given.

“When you truly earn it,” he said, “nobody can take it away from you.”

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