Winona Simms is returning to her Oklahoma roots

After serving for more than 13 years as director of the Native American Cultural Center, and more than a decade as the resident fellow in Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, Winona Simms has announced plans to retire at the end of autumn quarter.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Student hugging Winona Simms

Senior Sarah Roe hugs Winona Simms on the steps of Mukwekma-Tah-Ruk.

The front steps of Muwekma-Tah-Ruk became a makeshift photo studio earlier this week as students crowded around their beloved Winona for a group picture.

It was a bittersweet gathering, because Winona Simms, their silver-haired resident fellow, will soon be bidding the students – current and former residents of the Native American Theme House – farewell.

After serving for more than 13 years as director of the Native American Cultural Center and more than a decade as resident fellow, Simms recently announced plans to retire at the end of autumn quarter.

At the Native American Cultural Center, Simms oversaw student retention, long-term planning, the program budget, personnel and facilities. She provided general counseling, referrals and mentoring for Native students. Currently, there are about 200 Native American and Alaska Native undergraduates at Stanford.

"Native students succeed in college when they have support to succeed," Simms said.

In a November email announcing her impending retirement, Simms said she was looking forward to returning to her Oklahoma roots and spending lots of time with her children and grandchildren.

"I believe that I have been richly blessed by my work at Stanford and I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many talented and creative individuals," Simms wrote. "I will certainly miss my place here, but know it is time to move closer to my beautiful family. Working and living with students as an RF has enriched my life and kept my spirit young and strong."

Simms, who has been the resident fellow at Muwekma-Tah-Ruk (House of the People), since 1999, said she believes in the motto, "Culture is strength."

Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, located in a three-story, New Orleans-style home on the lower row, is home to 31 Native and other students.

Group photo at Muwekma-Tah-Ruk

Current and former residents of Muwekma-Tah-Ruk and employees of the Native American Cultural Center joined Winona Simms, center, for a group photo.

Students talk about Winona

Senior Tiffany Cain, an archeology major, lived in Muwekma – as the students affectionately call their home – during her sophomore and junior years. Last year, she was the house's social manager, arranging faculty visits and off-campus outings.

Cain said she will remember Simms' "fearlessness" and her ability to face challenges "by stepping back, taking everything in and going for the gold."

Senior Sarah Roe, who is serving as the house's resident assistant for the second year in a row, said Simms encouraged her to come to Stanford when Roe visited her older brother John, who also lived in Muwekma and graduated in 2007.

Roe, who will be graduating in June with a bachelor's degree in biology, said Simms helped her deal with personal as well as academic issues.

"There are not enough words to describe her impact on my life," Roe said, as she stood outside Muwekma after the photo shoot. "As an RA, she helped me develop into a stronger leader. I will use those skills for the rest of my life."

Sophomore Alexzandra Scully, who has lived in Muwekma for two years, works as an "ethnic theme associate" at the house, teaching classes on Native American and Native Hawaiian issues. Scully, who comes from the tiny Virgin Islands, said that at first she was intimidated by the size of the campus.

But Simms and the residents of Muwekma quickly made her a part of their family.

"Winona and our RA took the three freshmen girls in the house out to breakfast at Stacks restaurant for pancakes," she said. "I think Winona took the freshmen boys out for burgers. Winona really made you feel welcome."

Freshman Kim McCabe, who comes from a Native American community in Colorado, described Simms as a strong Native woman.

"I really want to be like her," McCabe said.

Earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Oklahoma

Simms, who was born in Albuquerque, N.M., grew up in Florida and Oklahoma. In 1975 she earned a bachelor's degree in English and in 1986 a master's of education in community counseling from the University of Oklahoma. She earned a doctorate in applied behavioral studies from Oklahoma State University.

Before coming to Stanford in August 1997, she was an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

She is a Euchee Indian and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Coming to the Farm

In a 1998 profile in Stanford Report, Simms  said she was attracted to Stanford because she wanted to be an advocate for students:

"I loved teaching … but it seems that counseling is a natural for me in the Native community. Much of that involves helping students reach their potential without changing who they are."

Denni Woodward, associate director of the Native American Cultural Center, said that Simms' strong suit from the beginning was her counseling background.

"She helped students focus on their academic goals and help them customize those goals," Woodward said.

"She really helped students understand their academic responsibilities, their responsibilities to their families back home and to the larger Native community. In that way, she's helped students see the big picture. The Native community at Stanford is a much better place for Winona having been here."