He would leave the secure surroundings of the Bethune-Cookman University campus and head across the International Speedway Boulevard bridge and walk, sometimes all night. In the early morning hours, he would sneak into the lobby at the Bronson Hall dorm and sleep a few hours on a couch as if he lived there.
“I would go down to the beach sometimes,” he recalled. “Sometimes I would just take any direction and get lost and try to find my way back — I would just walk.”
Williams, 23, who is graduated last Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, was homeless for most of his first three years at the school but too proud to tell anyone.
But just like on his nightly walks, he always found his way. He survived on handouts, slept in empty trucks or on a couch at the apartments of classmates who thought he just didn’t want to go home after a late-night study session.
Remembering the poverty, drug dealers and random shootings he’d seen growing up near Miami, he knew he was on the right path. At school, he would find family, a sense of purpose and even win the title of Mr. Bethune-Cookman University and become the first student to organize a scholarship — but first he had to find a place to sleep.
“Before the sun comes up, I would make sure I was somewhere to lay down,” Williams remembered. “I knew I was homeless, but I said to myself I’d rather be in Daytona homeless trying to go to school than ever go back to Miami.”
NO PLACE TO LIVE
Williams arrived at B-CU in the fall of 2008 with $3,000 he saved from working at a gas station in Miami. He knew it wasn’t enough but felt confident. Then he found out tuition, room and board ran about $10,000 a semester. Williams wasn’t about to let that stop him.
He had never known his father, and he’s had little communication with his mother. A great-grandmother raised him in Atlanta until she was too sick to care for him. Then he moved to Miami to live with an aunt. Both women stressed the importance of finishing school. His great-grandmother, who has since died, always told him “to get as much knowledge as possible so I won’t end up on the streets.”
Life reinforced the lesson. He remembers drug dealers on the corners, kids skipping school and police in his aunt’s neighborhood all the time. He said her house was shot at twice while he was in college. His 16-year-old brother, who lived nearby, was found dead in a lake in 2011 from what Williams was told was a drowning.
Immersing himself at a young age in school activities gave Williams hopes of a college scholarship. He was on his high school track and football teams before being hurt his senior year. A teacher helped him focus on the admissions tests and applications he needed to apply to colleges. By the time he arrived at B-CU, Williams was so excited about his new circumstances that he was convinced everything would fall into place. The school put him in temporary rooms while he applied for loans and financial aid.
“It didn’t matter to me where I went, as long as it wasn’t Miami,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of that.” He stayed in a dorm his first semester but didn’t have enough to pay for both tuition and room and board after that. He then lied to school officials, saying he lived off campus so he would only have to pay for classes. In reality, he had no place to live.
‘WHERE WILL I STAY?’
Only a few people knew the truth of Williams’ living situation. Pride kept him from asking for help. “I didn’t want anyone to help me or look down on me or have sympathy for me,” he said. “I just wanted to go to school.” He took copious notes in class because he couldn’t afford textbooks. If he was able to borrow a friend’s meal plan card, “It was a blessing. If I didn’t, I was out of luck.” Plenty of days he ate nothing more than a cup of noodles he got from friends whose parents bought them groceries. The still-slender student had more worry than appetite in those days.
“I would be stressed and I would over-think and over-analyze and I just didn’t have an appetite,” he said. “I was always worried about my next move — Where would I stay? How long can I stay here? When is my family going to send me money?”
The nightly walks began once he left the dorms. Sometimes he found shelter in an unlocked U-Haul truck on the business next to campus. He could always sneak into a dorm for a shower before heading to class. He could hang out in a friend’s room until curfew at 11 p.m., then stow his stuff before heading out for the night. His friend’s three roommates never knew he was homeless.
Sometimes he would tag along with classmates who lived off-campus. “I would say, ‘Hey, I’ll come over and we’ll study for that test and we’ll just arrive to school tomorrow,’ ” he explained. “I would ask without asking. I was very prideful. I didn’t want anyone to know.”
His life changed after he found the courage to speak about his homelessness at a school assembly his junior year. An advisor who heard his speech made some calls and got him into a residence hall that year. Unburdened of his secret, Williams came to see he was a part of the campus community he’d been sneaking around for three years.
MAKING A HOME
“Joshua knew how to camouflage very well,” said Cheryl Lawson-Young, public safety compliance and prevention manager for B-CU’s department of public safety, who has known Williams for 3 1/2 years and helped with his field study internship this past semester. “When things are not going right in his life or he’s hurting, you really won’t know it.”
Williams has been able to turn his circumstances “into a real blessing by supporting others and being able to relate to their experiences,” said his former speech communications assistant professor Joanna Showell, who encouraged Williams. He has since motivated others by sharing his experiences and background at talks throughout the state.
Last spring Williams won the Mr. Bethune-Cookman University title, which made him an ambassador for the school. That also guaranteed him room and board his senior year, though he said he also wanted the position to change people’s viewpoint.
“When you think of Mr. B-CU you think of some uppity or overachieving person,” Williams said. “I felt where I have come from and what I’ve been through I would make the position different. I’m the same person I was when I stepped on campus.”
Not having books until his senior year inspired Williams to start a Keeper of Light book scholarship — the first scholarship started by a student, college administrators said. Williams has raised $2,750 and every Mr. B-CU after him he hopes will continue to raise money for the fund.
“He hasn’t left and he’s already serving others,” President Edison Jackson said. “His spirit and mind is in the right place.”
Eugenia Forte of Orlando, a 1980 B-CU graduate, was moved by that spirit when she heard one of Williams’ speeches in November 2011 at her church. She was “so touched and moved by his story” she has taken on the role of his godmother, calling often and having him participate in family holidays and other occasions. She and her family will attend graduation.
“I was so amazed at his courage and his strength,” Forte said. “I was just captivated by this young man because he was still in school. I’m so proud of Josh. The Lord has great things for him to do.”
After graduation, Williams hopes to get an internship for the summer at a law firm in Washington. Administrators want him to continue at the college and obtain a master’s degree, which he is considering. He wants a career either as a defense attorney, motivational speaker, professor or even a congressman.
“Coming from his situation to where he is now and with the energy that he still possesses, I think his future is bright,” said Fontaine Davis, the university’s chief of staff who has taken Williams under his wing.
As he looked ahead to graduation, so much has changed for Williams since he first showed up on campus. The dreadlocks he once wore have been replaced with a haircut. He often wears a suit as he walks across campus, cheerfully shaking hands with students and the campus safety officers he once had to avoid. Yet tucked in the book bag he always carries is a reminder of more desperate times: deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, a clean change of underwear. Old habits are hard to break.
Looking out from a top floor library window to the campus that he made his home, Williams paused to think when asked if he ever wanted to give up.
“Every day. All the time. I want to quit now sometimes,” he said, his voice tinged with sadness. “I ask myself, ‘Am I really doing this for me or am I only doing it to show my family that I could do it?’ Sometimes I battle with that. (But) I made it too far. I’m not going to quit. I just have my moments where I feel alone still.”
article by Deborah Circelli via news-journalonline.com