ST. PETERSBURG – Speaking at a Legacy Week event earlier this month, Dr. Tonjua Williams, St. Petersburg College’s first African American and first woman president, spoke about her determination and ability to take a critical eye to herself to become the success she is today.
Paying tribute to her mother who raised three children as a single mom, Williams said that before her mother passed away she shared some advice with her: “She said, ‘Don’t sell your soul to get there,’” noted Williams, SPC’s seventh president.
“I think beautiful and strong people are authentic and remain themselves,” she stated, “no matter what their salaries are, no matter what their positions are, no matter what kind of car they drive or the house that they pull it up to. If you’re going to be strong and beautiful inside and out, you have to love yourself inside and out.”
When you decide not to be yourself, she cautioned, you have sold your soul. You’ve got to be not only yourself, she urged, but your best self. Williams explained that she has spent 15 years outside her job volunteering on the football field for the Lakewood Jr. Spartans.
What does that have to do with being a college president?
“It has everything to do with being a college president,” she stressed, “because I use that time to learn how to give, to learn how to love, appreciate, value, listen understand. I think the biggest thing I learned from those kids is that with love, there’s nothing they can’t do.”
Of her personal journey to become a college president, Williams explained that it doesn’t matter where you came from but where you’re going. She also urged young people to get to know their grandparents.
“Trust me,” she said, “they know way more than you know, they have more strength and wisdom than you do, and they can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that they themselves experienced, if you take the time to listen.”
Williams began her tenure at SPC in 1986, working in administrative and academic roles. But things weren’t all smooth sailing for her. Admitting she had a bit of an attitude in those days, Williams said she even challenged a woman to a fight over a discrepancy about a financial aid check. She ultimately left the campus in a huff and called her mother.
“‘I raised you to be strong,’” Williams recalled her mother telling her, before admonishing her that she shouldn’t be stupid either. The elder Williams told her daughter to go back to the campus and face up to what she had done.
Williams did just that, and when her superior chastised her as well for her behavior, Williams admitted her actions weren’t acceptable and wouldn’t ever happen again. She sullenly went about her job after that but was told that though she had the ability, once again her attitude was “horrible” and needed to be fixed.
She started going to meetings of other departments and groups and even applied for a grant program. The provost at the time approached her and said, “‘I heard you have an attitude,’” Williams related. Williams responded by saying she was working on it.
“So I got through all of that and started working up the organization,” she said.
When she got to be an associate provost, she started thinking about her dream job, which was to be a provost. Yet even as she continued to work as an associate provost, it began to dawn on her that she could someday be the college president.
“Why not?” she remembered thinking. “I work hard. Love the school.”
So Williams started meeting with people and asking them outright what she doesn’t do well at her job and what needs improvement.
“A strong person? They’re not afraid of the ugly parts of themselves,” she asserted. “They’re not afraid to address the issues, they’re not afraid of hearing the negative things about them.”
If you’re going to be a strong and beautiful individual, she said, be yourself.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” Williams urged everyone. “The things that you need to fix? Fix them! If you have an attitude, fix it! If you don’t know how to talk to people, learn! If you haven’t learned how to listen, listen! If you’re a liar, stop lying! But you can only be yourself.”
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