Dr. Talithia Williams on the Small Words that Propelled her to Success
Dr. Talithia Williams on the Small Words that Propelled her to SuccessAbby Hexter, Director, Communications
When Dr. Talithia Williams opened the Southwestern Regional Forum, she identified several seemingly mundane things adults said to her when she was a student. Now that she’s a member of the mathematics faculty at Harvey Mudd College, she attributes much of her success to these words of affirmation.
1. “You can get a C and still earn a B!”
These words from her high school math teacher were enough to convince Dr. Williams—along with five of her African-American friends—to take an AP calculus course. The teacher, recognizing that Williams was not necessarily an exceptional student but an above-average one who showed up and could probably handle the work, successfully enrolled five girls of color in a course where there had previously been only white students.
2. “Good effort, you get the extra credit.”
After struggling to solve an extra credit problem on the board in front of her AP calculus class, Dr. Williams decided to call it quits; she had gotten as far as she was going to get. Her teacher, however, recognized the effort she put in to solve “75%” of the problem and awarded her the credit anyways, instilling confidence and a sense of support.
3. “You should consider majoring in math when you go to college.”
It was never a given that Dr. Williams would graduate from high school and go to college, so the idea that she could pursue a mathematics degree never occurred to her. But a caring adult pushed her to think differently about her future, and it paid off. After graduating from Spelman College, Dr. Williams went on to earn her masters and PhD, and she eventually joined the Mathematics department at Harvey Mudd College. It was in this position that she decided to dedicate her time and math prowess to developing programs for girls of color to pursue STEM fields. She knew that for other girls of color to be as excited as she was about her work, they needed to see a connection between their lives and the STEM fields. So, Dr. Williams set about to make that connection more apparent.
3. “Call me Lonnie.”
During a summer internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, Dr. Williams was asked to call her boss by his first name. Given that she was still an undergad and had a background of addressing adults more formally, this was difficult. But that summer of making connections like this proved pivotal for Dr. Williams, as she not only succeeded in her internship under Lonnie, but also met her life-long mentor Dr. Claudia Alexander, a woman who would later support her during Williams’ Sacred SISTAHS program at Harvey Mudd.
The Sacred SISTAHS program is still a success in large part because of Williams’ efforts to involve senior leadership at Harvey Mudd. Trustees and alumni are given credit for donating supplies and resources to keep the program running—they’re invested and therefore have a stake in seeing the program succeed.
Dr. Williams’ emotional keynote ended with a few questions from the audience and a call to action for all participants to think about the things they do and say on a daily basis that could have a bigger influence on their students’ futures than they might think.
“I was a regular student who was supposed to maybe make it through high school," Dr. Williams closed. “And yet these teachers poured into me and others their intentions to make us succeed.”