Ebonie Williams

Ebonie Williams started making calls for the Triton Telefund as a way to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since starting during the fall semester, she has connected with alumni across the country and raised more than $15,000 for students in need. (Photo courtesy of Ebonie Williams)

Ebonie Williams remembers the call well.

It was a standard check-in with a University of Missouri–St. Louis donor that turned into a lengthy, meaningful conversation. Williams and the history alumna talked about the presidential election, racial tensions and how to raise thoughtful, well-informed children.

“We just kind of had this spark, and we clicked,” Williams said. “I asked her opinion on a few things, and she’d let me know her honest opinions, didn’t hold anything back and it was really awesome.”

The conversation clearly impacted the alumna, as well. She took the extra step to leave feedback on the call, describing Williams as “an amazing student and gem.” It’s just one of the fulfilling conversations Williams has had with UMSL alumni while working at the Triton Telefund – UMSL’s alumni engagement and fundraising call center.

James Bragado, manager of Annual Giving, said the sophomore liberal studies major has been an undeniable asset to the call center, connecting naturally with alumni and helping maintain vital financial support for students. Her efforts come at a time when donations are more important than ever, as students are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted many businesses and prompted a rise in layoffs and furloughs.

“You understand that people are going through something right now,” Williams said. “You understand that there’s a pandemic, and that’s how we relate to the alumni. They’ve been through different kinds of things. They’ve already graduated, so they know what it’s like to be a student. We’re calling them not to raise funds for the school but for those students that are struggling. They really relate to it.”

In fact, it was the pandemic that brought her to the job.

Williams transferred from St. Charles Community College to UMSL for the fall semester and started working at the Triton Telefund shortly thereafter. Both Williams and her significant other have preexisting health conditions, and she sought a way to work safely during the pandemic.

“We’ve been paying attention to the pandemic since December 2019,” Williams said. “We’ve been following it very closely, and around April, he was like, ‘It’s going to start to get bad. Things are going to shut down. We should start looking for online jobs.’”

The Triton Telefund was an ideal solution, allowing Williams to work remotely and utilize her positive, outgoing nature. Her enthusiasm for the work was immediately apparent to Bragado.

“Ebonie brings an infectious energy to the Triton Telefund every night she works,” he said. “The callers join a Microsoft Teams chat room each night, so we can stay in contact with each other, ask questions, celebrate great calls and vent about tough ones, share gifs and even recipes. Ebonie always keeps the room lively and her coworkers in good spirits all while having engaging conversations with alums and raising money for UMSL’s students.”

Enthusiasm is one thing, but success in securing donations is another. Though Williams is also adept at the latter. Bragado noted that she has raised more than $15,000 in the several months she’s been making calls.

“I’m so glad to have a student like Ebonie serving as an ambassador to our alumni,” he added.

Williams’ energy and positivity come from her mother. She joked that sometimes her family can be like an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Maury,” but her mother never dwelled on the negatives.

“She basically always taught me to look at the bright side of things,” Williams said. “You just don’t let other people get you down. Life is about the things that you go through that change you to make you better. I found that always stuck with me.”

Taking that lesson to heart, she feels compelled to help others see the bright side, too.

“I just have to talk to people,” she said. “If I see something I’m like, ‘I really like your sweater.’ ‘Hey, I like your haircut.’ ‘Did you get a haircut?’ It’s something that comes out because not enough people say what’s on their mind. I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow or not. I just want people to know, ‘Hey, you made an impact, and I thought about that. So, thank you, have a great day.’”

The impulse to be open and communicate directly has been valuable during calls with alumni. Williams has had memorable conversations with people around the country from museum directors to STEM educators. She especially likes connecting with older alumni – even keeping a notebook with the names of people to call back and check on.

“There are people that are older that I’ve called lately just to wish ‘happy holidays,’” Williams said. “They’ve just been really sweet, and they’ve wished me the best. They said I really made an impact. If my grandma was impacted by someone, I would want them to check in on her and say, ‘Hello or happy holidays.’ It was really nice that they appreciated that.”

When she started college, Williams initially wanted to make a career out of caring for others as a social worker.

Her cousin is a mental health therapist in Crescent City, California, and Williams was able to shadow her for an internship. However, after experiencing her cousin’s work at the local jail and the work of a family friend at the local juvenile detention center, she realized it would weigh too heavily on her heart.

She changed course and decided to pursue two other interests – political science and anthropology – through a liberal studies degree at UMSL.

“I realized that a lot of people my age in the area that I grew up don’t know a lot about politics,” Williams said. “And anthropology, I’m able to study different cultures, and I can go to different international transfer universities. I can use a culture degree anywhere, and I can work in politics and figure out the different types of systems that work and do something better for people in the United States.”

Next year, if it’s safe to do so, Williams hopes to travel outside of the U.S. Until then, she’s content making calls in St. Louis.

“I’m really honestly happy to be part of UMSL and the Telefund,” she said. “It’s awesome.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe