Palm Beach State College Provost Van Williams is all about reaching out and changing lives
Van Williams is the big man on campus now. Appointed last year as provost and dean of student services at Palm Beach State College, his career in higher education has already spanned 26 years, including work as Director of TRIO programs (designed to give low-income and first-generation students college prep skills) and assistant dean at Palm Beach State. He was a talent search specialist at his alma mater Savannah State University, and director of Upward Bound at both Florida State University and Florida A&M. He was also on the Florida Commission on Human Rights, the state’s anti-discrimination agency. Today, he finds himself facing all the challenges of a post-pandemic higher-ed climate, but he is even more committed to serving the students he’s always served—the ones who need his leadership the most.
On starting out:
“The Upward Bound program changed my life. I’m from a low-income first-generation college background too, the second of my seven brothers to go to college. My dad had a second grade education; my mom had a 10th grade education. All of us lived in a two-bedroom house. When you are growing up in those kinds of challenged populations and communities, you just kind of think that’s how it’s supposed to be, right?
“When I went to the Upward Bound program in the summer [it’s residential for six weeks] I got a chance to sleep in my own bed; I didn’t have to fight with my brothers. I could get up at night and go to a refrigerator and get a snack, or some juice. I got an opportunity to travel. I went to New York, I went to Broadway, it just changed everything for me. I have been extremely excited about the academic pursuits ever since. There’s nothing in life I would rather do than be in education, because for me it is the greatest equalizer, if properly applied.”
On changing lives:
“For me, it’s about being in the continuum. Life is cyclical in nature. But I also understand those who came before me who helped empower me and expose me to a lot of those things—a lot of them are no longer with us, so someone has to step into those voids and continue the process of exposing young people to possibilities. We’re all bigger than our circumstances, but sometimes it takes someone external to sort of pull that out of us and show us what the possibilities can be.”
Why he does it:
“That, for me, is my calling in life: to work in capacities where I get a chance to touch a lot of young people and make connections—not just young people but influential people as well, who connect people and keep building community. I think the greatest thing in life is to be in service to others. Because for me, when you look back on it, you can say that’s a life well lived. It wasn’t about money. It was about having a good quality of life and helping other people have that access to the same quality of life.”
Challenges for Palm Beach State:
“[I think] it’s local community engagement and making sure that the college is seen as a true player in the Boca Raton and Delray Beach areas. There’s a sentiment that we were a junior college and then we became a state college and somehow or another we are ‘less than.’ That we’re not a university. That can’t be further from the truth. We have young people leaving this college going to the Ivy Leagues just like everybody else does. As a matter of fact, we have a student who was with us two years ago who is at FIU now and is a finalist to be a Rhodes Scholar.
“Also, for me, it’s about taking the college to the community. So often, colleges and universities have relied upon place-bound individuals to just kind of show up at the door. I want us to be engaged with the community external to our doors. It’s about moving the campus in a way that it hasn’t been moved before.”
Words he lives by:
“It’s about excellence and caring about other people. Try to be the example in the world that you want to see. We all just need to take more steps toward each other—not away from each other.”