“I was told that I was not college material”

Selase W. Williams, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, was the keynote speaker at the Unity Gala, celebrated on April 28. Williams received the Community Leader Award for inspiring social change on campus and beyond. His contributions were essential for the development of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion. We share here some of his inspiring words at the ceremony. (Photo: Ray Gyles). 

Read more: Recognizing Lesley’s champions of diversity and equality.

I was born in Waukegan, Illinois, a city that had less than 70,000 people. The house we lived in sat at the top of a hill, looking down on the gigantic U.S. Steel Co., where my biological father worked for nearly 30 years. No, he was not an executive or an engineer or the company accountant. He was a laborer in one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the country. I guess we would have been considered “working class.” The community we lived in was all Black. The mailman was Black. The policeman who patrolled the neighborhood was Black. The kids I played with had names like “Pooky” and “Bumpy-Nose.” The only time I saw white people was when we went shopping for school clothes or to the bank.

I realized that my father was an alcoholic

When I was much older I realized that my father was an alcoholic and was abusive to my mother.  That was, until she got fed up, and left him. She took me and my two older sisters to live with her mother in Racine, Wisconsin, where she grew up. Gramma Ida’s house was surrounded by European immigrants: Germans, Greeks, Danes, Poles, and Jews. Little did I know how that experience would shape my life’s choices and career trajectory.

On occasion, a stranger would knock on the back door; just as if they were members of the family, they would end up sitting at the dining room table eating dinner with us. I realized later that strangers like them were homeless people and that Grandma was teaching me that we were all equal in God’s eyes. No one was too good or too high to bend down to help someone less fortunate.

Unity Gala 2017
Williams with Maritsa Barros, Director of Urban Scholars Initiative, and Lilu Barbosa, Director of Multicultural Affairs & Student Inclusion/ Photo: Jennifer Castro.

My mother re-married, a guy by the name of William Jenkins, whom everyone knew as “Bluey.”  Like my biological father, he too worked in a malleable steel factory, one of the many ancillary businesses that supported the automotive industry in Detroit and other parts of the Midwest.  Although only having a high school education, Blue had natural leadership abilities, which led him to ultimately be elected as president of the local UAW/CIO Union. He lobbied for better, safer working conditions for laborers and skilled tradesmen. I observed how he gave up his own personal time to try to work for the good of the whole. Everyone deserved to be treated with dignity and to earn a comfortable living for their families. He was a warrior for the people.

In high school, I was very active in student government, played percussion in the concert band and symphony orchestra, lettered in wrestling and football, and in my senior year was voted Prom King. I was a C/B student and an exceptional citizen. So, I was surprised when, at my first meeting with the school counselor, in my senior year, I was told that I was not college material and that I should apply for admission to a vocational/technical school, learn a skill so that I could make a decent living for my family. Little did he know that my parents had been telling me since I was a baby that I was going to go to college and become a doctor or lawyer or an engineer. None of us knew where I was going to go to college or how I was going to go to college, we just knew I was going.

I applied to the local community college and I was admitted, but my parents couldn’t help financially. They were doing all they could to feed the five kids in the house now, clothe us, and keep a roof over our heads. Clearly, it was up to me to find a job. The summer before my freshman year, I worked on a garbage truck, throwing other people’s trash in the back of the truck, often encountering rats and an occasional growling dog. Come Fall, that job no longer existed, leading me, instead to a night desk clerk job, on the graveyard shift, from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. I didn’t care. I was on my way to becoming a Metalurgical Chemist. The only problem was that my first class was at 8:00 in the morning. With no sleep and no tutor, I was doomed to failure. My 1st year GPA was not good enough to transfer to the main campus in Madison.

I worked on a garbage truck, throwing other people’s trash in the back of the truck

The summer after my first year, I was on the verge of dropping out. Did I really want to put myself through another humiliating semester? Maybe the counselor was right. Maybe I should just work in a steel foundry for the rest of my life. That summer I got a job in the factory.  During the first week in a factory at night, I almost lost a thumb.  Later in the summer, I barely escaped being tarred with hot molten steel. Needless to say, I had found the motivation I needed to go back to school. By the end of my sophomore year, a GPA of 2.0 allowed me to transfer to the main campus. To graduate with my new-found major in Linguistics, I needed two Indo-European Languages and one Non-Indo-European Language. I enrolled in Swahili, a major language spoken in East and Central Africa. I discovered the major that not only best suited my skills and talents, but it also introduced me to my African heritage and an understanding of the African world experience.

After being recommended for and denied admission into a graduate program by the same department chair because of my low undergraduate GPA, I staged my own sit-in to get admitted on probation.  Meeting the challenge, the rest of my MA and PHD programs were covered by scholarships.

I share with you my own story here to let you all know that, if this “poor little colored boy from Waukegan, Illinois” could do this, you can too. The older I get, the more I realize that everything I have experienced in life and every hardship I have endured have prepared me for what was yet to come. Every day is a contribution to the future. Every opportunity lost may be lost forever.  But every opportunity taken is a step toward your destiny. And sometime, if the opportunity does not present itself, you have to create it.

The young people in this audience tonight are among the best and brightest that America has to offer. Don’t let anyone tell you there is anything you cannot do. Seize every opportunity that comes your way.  You have no idea what it is preparing you for.

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