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Tiger for life

Despite retirement, road goes on for Vicky Riback Wilson

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  • Story by Josh Murray
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 20, 2011
Vicky Riback Wilson

Vicky Riback Wilson was born on the MU campus and attended elementary and secondary school here. After holding multiple jobs at MU and serving in the Missouri House of Representatives, she retires this month from her position as MU's fellowships coordinator.

Vicky Riback Wilson’s connection with the University of Missouri began early in her life. How early? Well, she was born in Noyes Hall on the MU campus, when the building was a hospital.

She spent 13 years attending elementary school and high school in Townsend Hall and later worked in Conley House for four years, Clark Hall for seven years and Lowry Hall for six years.

“Mizzou is just part of who I am,” she says. “It has shaped my perspective on the world.”

Her years on campus will come to an end on July 29, when Riback Wilson retires after working the last six years as MU’s fellowships coordinator, assisting students in pursuit of national fellowships and honors.

“It seems that every time a student receives one of these impressive honors, the first person they thank is Vicky,” Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies, says. “She has such a great connection with the students on this campus.”

New opportunities, new experiences

While Riback Wilson has spent time away from Mizzou — she attended the University of Pennsylvania, lived in Uganda and Indonesia, and served for eight years in the Missouri State House of Representatives — something always has brought her back.

“I thrive on change, challenge and new experiences,” Riback Wilson says, which would explain why someone who had spent her entire youth in Columbia headed to the University of Pennsylvania for college.

“I wanted something that was different from what I was used to,” she says. “I’d been in the Midwest, so I wanted to go east. I’d been exposed to a public university and wanted a private university. I’d been in a small town and wanted a city. Penn had all of those qualities.”

If attending school in Philadelphia wasn’t a big enough culture shock, her next move would prove to be. After earning a degree in English, she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English at a boarding school in Uganda. She later lived and worked in Indonesia.

“That experience gave me a lot of confidence,” she says. “I had a lot more responsibility than I would have had if I had a comparable position in the States. I gained the sense that I could navigate new waters, get along in just about any environment and work with a variety of people.”

A return home

She met her husband, Willy, while in the Peace Corps and, after nearly two years in Indonesia and a brief time living in Washington, D.C., they returned to the place she considered home: Columbia. Riback Wilson renewed her association with MU, earning a master's degree in education from Mizzou.

Riback Wilson held several jobs within the University of Missouri system, starting with a summer position teaching English as a second language. She also worked with the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center and then for MU Extension with the Missouri Rural Innovation Institute.

“I worked in a lot of different communities in Missouri,” Riback Wilson says. “I got a good sense of the cultural differences among counties within the state.”

At the Missouri Rural Innovation Institute, she worked statewide doing leadership development programs with youth and adults. The time spent traveling around the state of Missouri became important when she took on her next opportunity.

Stepping into the political realm

While working on a youth development program in Rolla, Riback Wilson received a phone call from someone encouraging her to run for the Missouri State House of Representatives. Initially she turned down the offer, but after spending a weekend talking it over with family and friends, she decided to run.

“I had always been active politically,” she says. “I just hadn’t planned to run for legislature and definitely not at that point in my life.”

She won the election and spent the next eight years as the representative for the state’s 25th district.

“I loved it,” Riback Wilson says. “I’ve found in every job I have ever had that there is always something to learn, a new experience to be had — and it is always fun. I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t fun.”

Another return to Mizzou

When she left the legislature in 2005, Riback Wilson found herself again returning to MU. She was hired initially to work half-time for the Office of Service Learning, where she would assist faculty in expanding service learning courses on campus, and half-time researching the formation of a fellowships office for MU.

At that time, other universities had started up fellowships offices, and Riback Wilson was asked to study whether Mizzou needed one.

Following her recommendations, the administration decided not only that a fellowships office was needed but also that Riback Wilson should lead that office.

“Work was being done on this campus pertaining to national fellowships at that point, but it was fragmented,” she says. “Although there were people doing good work and we had students who were getting awards, there was no one place where students could go for comprehensive information. They had to know what award they wanted and which person to go to for help.”

What Riback Wilson and the MU Fellowships Office have done is give the students a central location to start developing qualities to make them more competitive, whether it’s for graduate schools or for a job or for a fellowship.

She says the greatest service offered by the Fellowships Office is not just going after the awards but also making students aware of the opportunities that could be available to them.

“The biggest challenge in the start — and it is still a challenge to the office today — is building an expectation of success into the culture of MU so that faculty members automatically think about encouraging students to visit the office and students tell each other about the office,” she says.

Fellowships take off

“The work Vicky has done with the Fellowships Office has been exceptional,” MU Chancellor Brady Deaton says. “Our students are being recognized for their talents at a national and international level. They are doing amazing things, such as teaching in South America or doing research in Europe. The advice and guidance they received from Vicky and the Fellowships Office have helped them immensely in excelling at such a high level.”

MU’s recent award winners include Truman Scholar Kam Phillips and Goldwater Scholar Amanda Prasuhn. In addition, a school record six students earned Fulbright Scholarships last spring and a pair of Mizzou students claimed the Jack Kent Cooke Award in 2011. That only scratches the surface of the honors and awards being gathered up by students at MU.

“Vicky became a sounding board for me,” Phillips says. “As there were opportunities for me to apply for nationally competitive scholarships, I was working with Vicky and learning the skills that helped me when it was time to go through the application process for the Truman Scholarship.”

The interaction with students such as Phillips is what Riback Wilson says she'll miss the most.

“It’s very stimulating to hear what they are working on,” she says. “The greatest thing is when students with whom I worked years ago get back in touch to tell me that something that they learned through the fellowships application process they are applying to what they are doing now.”

Riback Wilson feels the MU Fellowships Office is in a good place but looks forward to her replacement being able to provide fresh ideas.

“The work that Vicky has done to establish the Fellowships Office at Mizzou and take it to the level it is at now is extraordinary,” Spain adds. “Vicky does more than just advise students as to which fellowships or awards they might be eligible to receive; she counsels them and guides them through the entire application and interview process and takes a personal interest in their goals.”

The next chapter

For now, Riback Wilson wants to break away from what she is used to. She and Willy hope to take a trip, wherever the road leads them.    

“I figured the only way I could retire and do it right would be to have a complete break from what I’m used to, where I have no routine, no expectations and no responsibilities," she says.

So, the month-long road trip does not have an itinerary. The only detail planned is the final destination — Maine — to visit their daughter and her family.

“Exactly where we go or what the timetable is, we don’t know,” she says. “That way, I’ll get out of the work habit and totally break from everything I know.”

It is just another opportunity for someone who is no stranger to new experiences.

“I never planned a career path,” Riback Wilson says. “In fact, I would say that I still don’t know what I want to be.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012