While growing up in Saint Lucia, David Williams knew that education would change his life. Although his parents never graduated from high school, they encouraged him to study hard and to strive for success.

Williams, a professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Harvard School of Public Health, recently discussed the importance of receiving an advanced degree and how to succeed as a minority in college. –amir shaw

Why is it important to receive an advanced degree?

We are living in a time where skill, expertise and expert knowledge are really the most valuable assets an individual can have. And being well trained, and having credentials — which is what a degree is, a credential or evidence of your training — is one critical determinate of success in many fields. So, I think it’s important to get a degree … to apply yourself and really become the best that you can be and put all the hard work and effort in so that you can ride to the top because in every field there is opportunity at the top for those who apply themselves and make a difference.

How did an advanced degree change your life, your outlook and who you are as a person?

I think advanced knowledge enhances our understanding; it gives us opportunities. Because of my advanced training … I have had opportunities to travel to places in the world and work on topics that I find personally, intellectually satisfying. I have been very interested in the ways in which racial oppression works in the United States and within other societies to affect the health of the population. One of my questions has been, “What impact has apartheid had in South Africa?” I’ve been to South Africa over 15 times and I’ve worked with researchers there and published on that topic. It’s an example of experiences I would have never had were it not for my advanced training and my degree.

On your campus, black students are the minority and often experience culture shock. What advice would you give them to remain strong in pursuing their degree?

It’s very easy when you are first-generation, college educated and you haven’t had parents who have gone there before or cousins, uncles, aunts or friends, and you encounter difficulty, the natural inclination is to think it’s you. One of the important perspectives that I had, that helped me in new experiences from my family and doors I went through, was to think that if God had opened a door for me to get here, he had already provided the resources to get me through to success. So my own religious faith was central to my success. I think more generally, if individuals can think not of failure, but of the fact that so many others have done what I’m doing here and if I apply myself, I can be successful too. So think of all the millions who have graduated from college and gotten an advanced degree and think ‘what do they have that I don’t?’ Maybe you don’t have all of the background and experience, or maybe you didn’t go to the elite elementary and high schools they went to. But God has given you a brain too, and if you can apply yourself, you can be successful.

  • George Harris

    Good info. I’ve always believed that black kids must take education seriously. With so many disadvantages that are presented by the good ole boy network, education can be a great equalizer.