An Inspired Community College Leader’s Rise from Poverty to the Presidency

With more than 30 years of experience in higher education, Dr. Tonjua Williams is recognized nationally as an expert in student development. She has a passion for helping others realize their potential and has made it her personal mission to do so through her community outreach and higher education career.

“I believe everybody’s worth the investment. People need to be encouraged and assured that they have the capability to succeed. Too many times, people are being told what they cannot achieve and they tend to believe it.”

Her own origins as a first-generation college graduate from a poor family shaped her beliefs as an advocate for student success. The proud daughter of a single mother, Dr. Tonjua Williams forged a path that would propel her from the projects to being president of St. Petersburg College. Williams saw the struggles her mother went through to provide opportunities for her family:

“It is the drive and the grind that keeps you moving, because you don’t like the life you were living. I did not like the conditions under which I was brought up. I did not like what was happening in our family and neither did my mom, and while she just didn’t have the ability to do what she wanted to do, she did know how to instill in her kids that grit to persevere and never give up.”

Her mother encouraged her to push herself beyond her circumstances to achieve greater opportunities. As high school graduation approached, Williams’ mother gave her two choices: go to college or go to work and help pay the household bills. Williams decided to go to college and was accepted at Clearwater Christian College, making her the first in her family to attend college. As the only African-American on campus, Williams was initially skeptical but credits her undergraduate success to two professors (Peter Traversa and Dean Spock) who helped her see anything was possible, regardless of her family background.

With the help of community mentors and professors along the way who believed and invested in her, Williams graduated from Clearwater Christian with Bachelor of Science degrees in Business Administration and Humanities. Following undergraduate school, Williams knew she wanted to take her education further. Although it took four attempts to get admitted, Williams persevered and started a specialized program for students of color at the University of South Florida. While attending USF, she received her calling to work in higher education. “From there [USF], I got my calling. I realized what I was truly capable of. I realized the responsibility to pay it forward and enrich the lives of others

She eventually received a master’s degree in Counselor Education at USF and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Barry University. Williams started her higher education career at St. Petersburg College, rising through the ranks in various departments to become the seventh president of the school in 2017. She knew she wanted to be part of larger effort to help people like her achieve their full potential.

“We forget to see the faces behind the decisions we make. We’re making decisions, but we don’t see the students who are sleeping in their car, the ones who can’t afford to put food on the table and those who are the working poor.  Sometimes, decision-makers don’t see the students who are not connecting with the institution and feel that they don’t belong.”