ORLANDO — For more than three years, Al Williams has worn a medallion around his neck – to serve as a reminder of his goal.
The medallion has only two words inscribed on it: Harvard Law.
So when Williams enrolled at Valencia at age 26, he came in with a plan.
He had already researched the best colleges in the country, zeroing in on those that offered stellar philosophy programs. One of his top choices was Amherst, an elite liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Not only did Amherst offer a very good philosophy program, but the college has an exceptional transfer program for students coming out of two-year colleges. And if Williams wanted to make it to Harvard Law School, he figured Amherst would be one of his best bets.
“So when I came to Valencia and talked to Valerie Burks, my first question for her was: What do I have to do to go to Amherst College?” recalls Williams.
Burks assured him that he’d have a good shot coming from Valencia. And, she added, one Valencia graduate was already attending Amherst, an elite liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she said. If you’d like, she added, you can meet him.
Williams was elated. Finally, he could start realizing his dreams.
Eligible for free tuition, thanks to the endowment from the honors college, he was able to quit working and focus on college. “I was almost in tears,” says Williams, looking back. “It was a pure joy not to have to worry about anything except books…. I rented a room near campus, started living with roommates and began living very frugally. My main focus was school.”
It had been a long time since Williams’ only worry was school.
In high school, he had to drop out and go to work, to help pay his mother’s nursing home bills. Disabled at a young age, she had been in a nursing home for years. Raised primarily by his grandmother, who worked to support the two of them while juggling her daughter’s medical bills, Williams went to a technical training center in the Miami area and began working in the IT field.
By 2007, he got a very good job offer in Orlando – a job that paid quite well — but he continued to send a large portion of his paychecks to the nursing home that cared for his mother.
When his grandmother died in 2010, Williams became his mother’s sole caretaker – responsible for whatever bills were not covered by Medicaid. “I no longer had the luxury of doing anything else,” he says.
He called her every week, and visited as often as he could. But when his mother passed away unexpectedly in late 2011, Williams found himself in an odd situation – free of all his responsibilities, but adrift.
“It left me in a really awkward funk,” says Williams. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I volunteered at the hospital; I volunteered to deliver meals for Meals on Wheels.”
He began thinking about college, and in April 2012, he visited Valencia – where an adviser told him that the college was opening the new James M. and Dayle L. Seneff Honors College in the fall. Intrigued, Williams began trading emails with the honors college director, Valerie Burks.
Burks, who has guided Valencia honors students into a wide range of elite schools from Emory University to Smith College, assured Williams that Valencia could be a path to Amherst – and possibly to his ultimate goal, Harvard Law School.
Accepted into the honors college, Williams started classes in August 2012. Immediately, Williams plunged into his studies – and extracurricular activities – with a passion. He became one of the founders of the East Campus Student Research Community. He founded the Vegetarian and Vegan Society on East Campus. And he became very involved with the Valencia Earth Studies Association.
“I became very involved with the things that I’m very animated about,” says Williams, noting that the scholarship enabled him to participate in extracurricular activities because, for the first time in years, he didn’t have to work. He took out a few small student loans to pay his living expenses, but is grateful he did. “The experience,” he recalls, “was out of this world.”
Starting with his first semester, he found his professors to be excited and engaged. He asked lots of questions and visited the writing center routinely.
“Some students simply feel like that they don’t need the help (on papers). I understand that. But I wanted an A. I was never too good to get extra help. I always wanted every little tool that I could get,” says Williams. “I can see that some students don’t take advantage of that… but I got into Amherst because I took advantage of those extra tools that are available to students.”
With stellar grades, Williams was a semi-finalist for a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, which awards $30,000 a year for three years to exceptional community college students to complete their education.
“There are courses at Valencia that you likely would not have an opportunity to take at other two-year colleges,” says Williams. “A lot of these professors teach at UCF too, but you get a very personal experience at Valencia. That was wonderful for me because I was very hungry for that kind of attention. I would email my professors almost daily, asking questions, as papers and projects became due.”
He sought out professors who were demanding and tough. Those, he thought, were the professors who could help him get into Amherst. “Valencia will offer what you need as high as you want to take it,” he says. “Whatever it is you want from Valencia, Valencia will likely offer it to you.”
During his two years at Valencia, Williams never took his eyes off the prize: Amherst.
He visited three colleges over spring break: Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury. He applied to all three. Bowdoin didn’t accept him, but on May 8th, when he was supposed to hear from Middlebury, he opened his email and got a big surprise: Amherst had accepted him.
With need-blind financial aid, Williams, now 29, won’t be facing huge student loans to pay for college. “The financial aid is entirely need-blind, which is good, because in my case, I needed a lot. And thankfully they were able to cover that.”
Now he’s excited about heading to Amherst in the fall – and the soon-to-be philosophy major is already thinking about reviving the college’s philosophy club.
And in the long run, he’s heading to law school. Harvard or not, he intends to go into fields such as human-rights law or immigration law or animal rights. He’s not sure what the job market will be like when he graduates from law school or what opportunities will be available, but he’s optimistic. “I think as long as I stick to my values, I’ll be happy.”