One of the best decisions Albert Williams Jr. ever made was enrolling at Thomas Nelson. Now a few months shy of his 64th birthday, he is entering a new and exciting stage of his life.
“When I came to Newport News in 2016, I had a great change of heart and new that I had to make some better choices in life, so I decided to take a chance of furthering my education,” he said.
He started at Thomas Nelson in 2017, and last month took part in the online commencement exercises. He needs to complete one more class and two labs before officially receiving his associate degree in Human Services. Then it’s on to Old Dominion University.
“It’s only by the grace of God that I’ve done all that I’ve done and that I’ll continue to do,” he said. “I know that’s my foundation.”
When he thinks of his journey at Thomas Nelson, he points to conversations with three College professors and administrators.
The first was with his former Spanish instructor, Isidore Kessel, who no longer is at Thomas Nelson.
“When I met him, I told him about my past,” Williams said. “This man, in less than 120 days, was prepared to go to bat for me in a way that we were brothers.”
One of the pieces of wisdom Kessel imparted on Williams was if you want something done, you go straight to the top. So Kessel took Williams, who at the time was in the Liberal Arts program but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, to meet Dr. Susan English, Vice President for Academic Affairs.
“We talked for like 20 minutes,” Williams said of that meeting with Dr. English. “After we finished talking, she said to me, ‘You need to be in Human Services.’”
Dr. English remembers that conversation.
“When I first met Mr. Williams, we were both new to Thomas Nelson. He came in and shared his life’s challenges,” she said. “Mr. Williams was very reflective as he spoke about the personal strengths and life goals he had discovered along the path dealt him. By pulling his experiences, gifts and passions together, the pieces pointed to a career in the field of Human Services.”
Dr. English encouraged Williams to speak with Keisha Samuels, program head and professor of Human Services. Samuels noted Williams’ struggles, desire to help others, discipline and courage all make him a great fit in Human Services.
“I think (he) is such a model of what Human Services is,” she said.
His background and life experiences seemed to put him on this path.
“It was like I already had most of the knowledge, but I just didn’t have the documentation,” he said. “Human Services is all about life, anyway.”
Long, eventful journey
Williams was born in Richmond, but also spent some of his younger years in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. He attended Catholic school from kindergarten until eighth grade.
“Once I got out of private school, that’s when it seemed like my whole world turned over,” he said.
He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, but earned his GED six months later. He attended Southside Community College for a short time in the mid-1980s. Returning to school all those years later wasn’t easy. He had to get reacquainted with math and English, and learning the latest technology was a little scary.
“I had a (cell) phone but I couldn’t do more than call,” he said. “It was a great learning process.”
He said his classmates, although much younger, welcomed him with open arms. However, he did have to show his driver’s license a few times because not everyone believed he was in his sixties. He even thinks he was an inspiration to some of them.
“Oh yeah. I think we really enjoyed each other and the professors,” he said.
“Mr. Albert is the type of student that if he doesn’t agree, he can respectfully tell you. That’s OK,” she said. “Sometimes he would chuckle at some of the younger perspectives. … We can agree to disagree.”
She did say they had to work a few times on how he delivered his message.
“You can’t talk at people. You have to have that dialogue where they can hear you,” she would remind him.
However, he never believed he was in over his head.
“There were some times,” he said before pausing, “I never thought of giving up, but I just had to go that extra mile. I’m just grateful to God that I was able to do that.”
He’s also thankful to his late mother, who was nearly 97 when she died.
“I credit it all to my mother making all those sacrifices that she did. I just wish they had the normal graduation so she could see me walking across that stage,” he said, noting that his mother died a few weeks after Thomas Nelson's online ceremony took place.
Williams was among students featured on slides during the online event. His paid tribute to his mother and mentioned Proverbs 22:6.
A voice for others
After graduating from ODU, he wants to work with at-risk people, and the younger generation. One of the reasons comes from his upbringing.
“I’ve always wanted to help people. I’ve just always had that instinct,” he said. “I think I got that from seeing people at a disadvantage. I just don’t like people taken advantage of.”
He backs up those words with, well, words and actions. He has spoken at city council meetings on a variety of issues, including public transportation, which he has experienced firsthand. He’s heavily involved with his community.
“A lot of the time, people have problems but they don’t know how to address them. They need a voice, and for me, I think I’m that person,” he said. “I always felt that I wanted to help the underdog. I just enjoy people.”
Samuels said Williams would often pop into her office to update her on what he had been doing in and out of the classroom. He would thank her for helping him be the voice for others. She said he deserves the credit.
“I told him, ‘You had that voice all along.’”
She said he just needed to see his belief and intrinsic motivation were there all along. He just had to believe in himself. It’s taken him awhile, but he has begun to realize that.
“I continue to make mistakes but I know there’s no room in my life to ever give up, no matter how hard the struggle might be. And believe me, it has been a struggle,” he said. “But it’s good.”
He’s looking forward to this next stage, and expects to be around awhile.
“I know my calling, even at this age,” he said. “It’s going to be a long run. My mother … I think I have her genes. I’ll be around for quite some time.”