More on Shine: They Spoke at Graduation? Surprising Celebrity Commencement Speakers
It was life-changing news for the 31-year-old mother of two, who will now be able to pay off more than half of her financial-aid debt.
"It makes me feel like I want to work even harder, and help other people be able to have that same feeling that I've been able to have," Williams told Yahoo! Shine in a phone interview. "It's really inspiring to me that there are people out there who would hear what someone else has to say, and then want to give such a generous gift because of it."
In her speech, Williams, a high school and college dropout, spoke about persevering with her education, even while caring for her young kids. “Over the last two years, I have checked in on discussion boards while cuddling my newborn in the hospital,” she told the crowd last week. “Typed entire papers one-handed while holding my sleeping son, and read textbooks aloud to my kindergartner because she couldn’t fall asleep and I needed to study.”
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Then, earlier this week, she received an email from University president Paul LeBlanc, telling her of the generous donation.
"I read it, then I read it again, and then I started to cry," she told Shine. "I thought, this is unbelievable. And I still feel a little bit of disbelief."
Making it even more amazing, LeBlanc then informed Williams that the university would match the donation.
“There’s such a heightened consciousness of student loan debt now,” LeBlanc told Yahoo! Shine. He added that, while the school frequently steps in to help students with scholarship money, the way this donation happened was a bit unprecedented.
The couple, which LeBlanc knows, called him shortly after the graduation, explaining that they wanted to help Williams pay off any outstanding loans. He looked into her debt and the couple settled on a gift amount. “And I said, ‘You’re being so generous, we want to be generous, too,’” LeBlanc said, explaining that he was able to draw from a pool of scholarship dollars to match the gift.
The couple, he added, is very involved with local social services, and the woman was an immigrant to this country who “really started with nothing.” So when they heard Williams tell her story, “one of such persistence, grit and scrappiness,” LeBlanc said, they were moved to act.
“People can understand the difficulty of student-loan debts, but when you put a human face to it, it just tugs at the heart strings differently,” he said.
Williams told her local paper, the Nashua Telegraph, that she had struggled with depression and isolation in a small Massachusetts high school, running away from home for three months and, at 16, eventually dropping out. With her parents’ support, she earned a GED and began taking classes at a community college, but at 20, when she enrolled in University of Massachusetts-Amherst to work toward a degree, she again found herself floundering, and withdrew.
She told Shine that being a high-school dropout had weighed on her for years. "I had always planned on going to college and having a career, but my depression really got in the way of that," she said, adding that she's gotten professional help in recent years to help her cope. "I've felt for over 15 years that I wanted a college degree, to prove to myself, and to others, that I can do it."
And so, when her husband Brad looked into the university’s online degree program to continue his own education in accounting two years ago, Williams enrolled online, too. Then recently, when a search for a commencement speakers launched, she decided her story would make a good address, and tried out. And was chosen.
“I mean, I don't even know how to tell them how grateful I am. It's incredibly humbling," Williams said. "It helps us financially, but it also helps with my self-esteem. It's been a hard road to get where I am. And I can hold my head up a little higher knowing that someone was impressed with what I had to say and with what I've accomplished."