Leading by example

Michelle Wimes hopes to establish a leadership academy to help young women reach the same levels of success she’s had.

Michelle Wimes (B.A., Spanish and Communication Studies, ’88) knows all too well that the best-laid plans don’t always come to fruition. After graduating from Bishop Ward High School, she fully intended to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, her mother became ill, and she chose instead to stay home and take classes at UMKC. Though it wasn’t her original plan, Wimes says UMKC was a great fit.

Wimes describes her time and experiences at UMKC as “wonderful and amazing.” Through UMKC’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority, she continued her community service, something instilled in her by her mother and her Catholic education.

But it was the faculty of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures who changed her life, she says. Continuing a subject she began as an eighth-grader, Wimes studied Spanish at UMKC. Wimes says those studies “awakened a world for me,” and she flourished while she was at UMKC.

Wimes states, “The great support from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures was such an influence on me.” She was a member of the Spanish Honorary Society and traveled to Mexico between her sophomore and junior year, an experience she says was instrumental in developing her Spanish skills.

UMKC professor Rafael Espejo-Saavedra talked her into one of her biggest adventures: studying abroad at the University of Seville. It was during this time that she discovered she might not be quite as fluent as she thought.

Wimes says she endured a tough couple of months, and then, she recalls, “something clicked,” and it was smooth sailing from then on. She even recalls one of the professors pulling her aside as she was preparing to come home and telling her she scored higher than any other foreign student on her exam. Michelle still keeps in touch with the first friend she made in Spain. Their friendship developed by using hand signals and pictures until her knowledge of the language became stronger.

Wimes’ determination is something her former professors remember well. “I first met Michelle in an orientation meeting soon after she enrolled at UMKC,” recalls Espejo-Saavedra. “She was an extremely bright student and a delightful person, always a pleasure to have around. She did not avoid difficulties but, rather, met them head on.”

Wimes took on other challenges at UMKC, including student politics. Encouraged by fellow class member and Missouri legislator Sam Page, she ran for student body vice president. Wimes had not previously been interested in politics, but she was intrigued. She was delighted when the votes came in proclaiming a victory. Through this position, she tackled issues including the divestiture of funds to South Africa and a vote on whether or not the kangaroo should remain the UMKC mascot.

Following graduation from UMKC, Wimes taught for two years before attending law school at Tulane University in New Orleans. There, she used her Spanish skills to assist in the immigration clinic.

Now back in Kansas City, she continues her love of community service. Wimes helps to establish scholarships for minority students to attend law school, volunteers at the Ask-a-Lawyer telethon, helps promote safe dispute mediation in high schools, raises money for the American Cancer Society and translates at domestic abuse shelters in Westside. Wimes says she hopes to one day establish a local leadership academy for young girls.

Wimes’ “day job” provides a number of adventures and outreach opportunities as well. Currently, she works for Shook, Hardy and Bacon, L.L.P. as director of strategic diversity initiatives, helping the firm recruit and promote people of diverse backgrounds and experiences into its offices around the world. “It’s a big job,” she says, “but its mission is so important.” She’s even been able to use her second language in her work at the firm. In the past, her role often required travel to Latin-American countries to interview expert witnesses.

Among other goals, she leads efforts to encourage minority students to think about a law career, working in many of the local high schools and universities, including her alma mater, UMKC.

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