COLUMBIA — Last summer, a freshman from Memphis, Tenn., walked up to the MU Fellowships booth during Summer Welcome.
New to campus, John E. Mitchell didn’t know what to expect.
At the booth, he met Vicky Riback Wilson, coordinator of MU’s Fellowships Office.
Her first cheerful words to Mitchell were supportive. She called him an “energetic, high-achieving young man full of potential.”
After that day, he began to visit her office regularly, sharing his experiences on campus. She introduced him to faculty members, signed him up for the Honors College and opened his eyes to other possibilities at MU.
“Mrs. Wilson's guidance, commitment, altruism and encouragement has given me the impetus to reflect upon myself, my values, what I believe in and why I believe it,” Mitchell said recently.
“She reinforced my courage in believing that I am as capable and competitive as anyone pursuing a fellowship and being successful in life.”
Vicky Riback Wilson has been working with students at MU for more than 18 years, and she is set to retire at the end of July.
She has been the assistant director of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center and associate director of the Missouri Rural Innovation Institute, as well as a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and a state legislator.
MU established the Fellowships Office as the result of a study Riback Wilson was hired to conduct in 2005. It helps high-achieving students become more competitive when looking for jobs, graduate schools and national awards.
Riback Wilson said her mark at MU has been working with "fabulous students who are making a difference in this country and overseas." Those students have become social workers, physicians, Peace Corps volunteers and educators.
“A few students have been working in public policy or politics; many are in graduate school doing amazing research or preparing for careers that will contribute to public good, and one student just completed several years of research on microfinance in a remote part of Indonesia,” Riback Wilson said.
“My reward has been students reaching out to say the Fellowships Office has made a difference in shaping that path.”
Students such as MU senior Kanwal Haq continue to reach out to Riback Wilson and let her know how the office has impacted their lives. Haq regards Riback Wilson as one of the most influential advisers she has ever had.
Riback Wilson encouraged Haq to apply to the Sue Shear Institute’s 21st Century Leadership Academy, a weeklong program designed to inspire women’s public sector leadership.
“It was a week that ended up changing my life,” Haq said.
Other students frequently send Riback Wilson notes telling her what they’re doing. When former students pass through town, she often makes arrangements to see them — something she said is very gratifying.
Before her time at MU, Riback Wilson traveled to Uganda as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1969 and 1970, and she later worked in Indonesia, where she taught English.
She also temporarily left MU in 1996 to serve as a state representative. During her eight-year term, she fought for legislation on domestic violence issues, advocacy work for women, ending discrimination based on mental health and other humanitarian efforts.
She said she is most proud of the contacts she established with constituents and her work on major legislation and appropriations.
“I am also passionate about helping people not give up on our political system even though it can be frustrating and discouraging at times,” she said. “If I can get that across to students at MU, then there isn’t any greater impact I can have.”
After she leaves MU, Riback Wilson plans to travel.
“There is no one place, just a very long list,” she said. “But I am going to start with the most important place, Maine, to see my granddaughter.”