Commencement Keynote Speaker Shares the Wisdom of Personal Choices
As each graduate walks across the stage to receive their diploma during any of South Florida Community College’s commencement ceremonies, there is no question that one, two, or perhaps even a series of personal choices and decisions have led them to that moment. SFCC student and this year’s commencement keynote speaker, Keiaria Williams, will tell you that she is no different.
Raised by her grandmother, Williams moved to Sebring from a beach town in California. At first, she was caught off guard by the new culture of people that surrounded her. “People seemed to live a simpler way of life than I was used to,” she said. “They drove pick-up trucks; they went mudding; they raised farm animals…it was a huge culture shock compared to where I was from.”
As a high school freshman, Williams struggled to fit in and didn’t make many friends, but then the opportunity to join the Sebring High School Color Guard arose, and Williams soon found a group where she belonged. Not only was she finally making friends and acclimating to her new home, she also found that the Color Guard was teaching her important values including discipline and respect – for those around her as well as for herself. “I learned that you are not going to be like everyone else, and everyone else is not going to be like you. It really helped me embrace people’s differences.”
After some family struggles and poor choices led her to a stay in a group facility, Williams decided she needed to do something to positively improve her life. When she was 17 and a senior in high school, Williams became legally emancipated. “I didn’t have anyone else in my life anyway, and I felt it was the best thing I could do for myself at the time.”
But becoming legally emancipated at 17 was not an easy feat, and the discipline Williams learned in Color Guard began to take on a whole new meaning for her. “I had to prove to the courts that I was serious about it and not just some whiny, selfish kid.”
Williams moved in with her band instructor, and for three months, in addition to her schooling, homework, and after school activities, she had to complete mounds of paperwork, find a job, find an apartment, and convince a landlord that at 17 years old she would be a responsible tenant. With no means of transportation once she was granted legal emancipation and living on her own, she then had to depend on others to help her travel to and from school and work as well as take her shopping or any other place she needed to go.
“I knew that once I was independent I had to be responsible, so I set a game plan. I figured out what I needed to do, and I just did it without complaining. That was the easy part. But I was still in high school, and everyone else was hanging out and having fun, and I couldn’t do those things anymore. Being lonely was the hard part.”
Williams successfully made it through high school and began taking college classes at SFCC the day after her 18th birthday. She quickly became involved in student clubs and activities, taking on even more responsibilities. She is a member of SFCC’s Brain Bowl team, has served as public relations officer and secretary for the Student Government Association, lent a student voice on the SFCC Museum of Art and Culture (MOFAC) advisory committee, and formed SFCC’s first Yoga Club. “I feel like it’s our choice to attend SFCC, and being involved in activities and giving to each other as college students is the best way to show we care.”
Williams credits her band instructor, Colorado Paniagua, with teaching her how to use her imagination and express herself without being afraid, her friends and roommates for always supporting her and helping her when she needs it, and three SFCC faculty and staff members for being inspirations to her. “Dr. Theresa James helped me recognize my abilities; Lisa Johnson-Decarie acknowledges every student and makes us feel like we matter; and Dr. Charlotte Pressler taught me that a single thought or question can take us farther in life than we ever imagined.”
Williams will attend the University of South Florida in the fall to pursue degrees in French and Sign Language. She wants to teach, travel, and build a career where she can make a difference. She recognizes that there is a world of possibilities out there for her. “I could work anywhere – big companies, small businesses, the government.” But her biggest dream she says with a smile, “Maybe someday I’ll work for a magazine in Paris…maybe.”
“Everyone goes through struggles, but all of your decisions and choices are on you,” she said. “Nobody else is responsible for what you do. Know yourself, realize what you want, and do what you have to do to get there.”
SFCC’s commencement ceremony will be held Thursday, May 3, 6:45 p.m., in the SFCC Theatre for the Performing Arts, Highlands Campus.