Kerra Russell has spent her life pursuing one goal: helping people.
Over the past five years, she’s done just that in three positions within the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Russell, currently the senior associate director of OASIS and the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center, uses her own life experiences and passion for student success to empower first-generation and underrepresented students to achieve remarkable things.
Russell is one of 977 employees being recognized at the Celebration of Service Nov. 18, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Coliseum. The luncheon and open house are for all employees.
Russell is originally from Mississippi and spent K-12 in Lincoln Public Schools. After earning her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Tennessee State University with the dream of becoming a lawyer, she was offered the opportunity to participate in the Gallup Leadership Summer Institute at Nebraska.
“Going through that program made me realize I had a passion for education, and even when I wanted to be a lawyer, my reason for wanting to do that was because I wanted to help people,” Russell said. “Now being in higher education, I’m still helping people and it feels good to give back to students like myself who are first-generation students and students of color.”
After completing the program, Russell pursued and eventually earned a Master of Education in Educational Administration–Student Affairs at Nebraska.
With her master’s, she secured a job with OASIS, where her own experiences as a student of color motivated her to support her students in every way she can.
“Students of color that are attending UNL, a predominantly white institution, don’t have many faces that they can really identify with, but I can be that person,” Russell said.
Russell said she had good and bad mentors who have shaped her perspective on how to treat students. For example, after an adviser answered a phone call in the middle of a meeting about her research project, she promised herself that if she were ever in a position where she could help students, she would treat them with more respect.
“So, I make it a point to put my students first and do what I can to help them in ways such as coaching them through a conversation with their adviser, because some low-income, first-generation students of color may not know how to have those conversations,” she said.
Russell also helps students with campus resources and leadership opportunities and has written recommendation letters for students who are currently in medical school and law school, as well as for internships and scholarships. She sees her efforts as a way to give back in the way that she had mentors pour into her when she was younger.
“Kerra has always been a great help to me ever since my freshman year of college, and any time I need help with classes or have a problem with a teacher or adviser, she is always there to give me the best advice possible,” said Isaiah James, a senior majoring in criminal justice. “I remember the times when my friends and I would sit in her office for hours joking and laughing about many different things. I am very grateful to have met Kerra and have her be a part of my college career here at UNL.”
Russell typically meets with students as part of the OASIS Student Success Program, which includes an 11-week seminar for first-year students that she oversees. In the seminar, students must meet with Russell or their instructor and a peer mentor. The seminar modules focus on common struggles for first-generation and underrepresented students, such as financial literacy, study skills, time management and other areas, to help ease the transition from high school to college. Russell has found that one requirement in particular, six recorded study hours per week, is a large contributor to success.
“What makes or breaks students is whether or not they get out of their comfort zone, get acclimated and get into a good study routine,” she said.
Russell has worked with student programming since her first year with OASIS, when she was a program coordinator. In that role, she hosted monthly socials to give students an opportunity to de-stress and take their minds off academics for a little bit. At the events, students would do arts and crafts for local nonprofits such as the Friendship Home, Meals on Wheels and the Military and Veterans Success Center.
After working as the program coordinator, Russell served as interim assistant director of OASIS in 2019 and then became the associate director before recently being promoted to senior associate director. Russell has loved her time working with OASIS because of the diverse and family-like atmosphere.
“OASIS is one of the most diverse offices on campus. We are lucky to have a staff full of different ethnicities, cultures and identities who offer various perspectives on life and the work we do,” she said. “It’s tight-knit and feels like a family more than work, so it’s easy to wake up and come to work every morning. I also love being able to openly express ideas and be my authentic self when I come to work.”
Looking to the next five years, Russell wants to continue advancing her career in higher education by earning her doctorate. No matter what position she takes next, she wants to work in student success and retention initiatives and remain connected to students. Russell’s desire to remain connected was inspired by the late Juan Franco, former vice chancellor of student affairs at Nebraska, who was one of the people who presented her with the opportunity to work for OASIS.
“Even at that level as a vice chancellor, Franco still made time to attend evening events, he still made time to go to student meetings if they needed him, supporting RSOs, or he’d just be present,” Russell said. “That is what I would love to model.”