Schuylkill Speaks: Adversity sparks ambition for double major Matthew Williams

A black and white photo of a man with a text overlay reading "Schuylkill Speaks!" accompanied by the Penn State Schuylkill logo
Credit: Kim Mousseau

Editor's note: This story is part of a series profiling exceptional members of Penn State Schuylkill’s spring 2020 graduating class.

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Penn State graduate Matthew Williams has earned three Penn State degrees in just four short years, all of which he completed with honors distinction. This past weekend, Williams earned bachelor’s degrees in international politics and digital journalism and media. In 2018, Williams earned an associate degree in letters, arts and sciences, and was invited to deliver a student speech at that year’s Penn State Schuylkill commencement ceremony.

Throughout his time on Penn State Schuylkill’s campus, this high-achieving adult learner seemed to excel with ease, helping others understand course material and offering reassurance to struggling peers. But internally, Williams was on a mission to find himself and prove his potential after overcoming personal struggles.

In his 2018 student speech at commencement, Williams spoke lovingly about his mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. He divulged that she was the reason he danced so passionately at THON the year before, and also shared with the audience that he enrolled at Penn State partially so she could see him earn a degree before treatment became too strenuous for her or her condition worsened. He earned that degree, and his mother recovered. He had given her every reason to be proud.

But Williams’ ambition was not satiated. After earning his associate degree, he pursued not just one, but two bachelor’s degrees. And though these degree programs were offered through Penn State World Campus, he remained a presence at Penn State Schuylkill. Williams took every course he could at Schuylkill and became an active member and leader in numerous clubs and student organizations. Most notably, Williams became a star tutor, earning the Tutor Award at Schuylkill’s 2020 Academic Program Awards Ceremony, held virtually in late April.

Darlene Young, instructor of mathematics and peer tutor adviser in Schuylkill’s Academic Resource Center (ARC), can’t imagine the last several years without Williams. “Matt has been with us for three years, and in that time, he has changed the course of the Academic Resource Center,” she recounted. “He has connected with faculty on a personal level to help provide optimal assistance for course tutoring while helping innovate new tutoring initiatives.”

Like many Penn Staters, Williams is a born leader. Young explained that, “Throughout this period of remote learning, Matt has continued helping students and even providing services beyond regularly scheduled tutoring hours. Matt stepped up and began guiding his peers in how to mentally deal with the current situation. His help was simple: talking to his peers about their day-to-day lives, how to deal with the kinks of remote learning, and how to continue to smile.”

Young concluded by saying, “Matt has become my right-hand person in keeping the ARC up and running throughout his time with us.”

With his undergraduate career complete, Williams reflects on his experiences, both in life and in academia. He understands that he is not alone in experiencing many of the hardships he did, and he hopes that sharing his experiences will inspire others to reimagine their futures, as well.

Q: What made you choose Penn State Schuylkill?

Williams: I was originally slated to attend Berks but after having the opportunity to visit the Schuylkill campus, I really loved the energy I found there. The campus and people were incredibly inviting, and I had the feeling that I could succeed there.

Q: What surprised you most about your time here?

Williams: The time that I spent at Penn State Schuylkill has been revolutionary for me. It has really shown me just how much power I have to change my own life and make any goal or dream that I have into a reality.

Prior to attending Penn State Schuylkill in the fall of 2017, I had struggled with a pretty severe addiction to prescription and street opiates from 2010 until January of 2017. I got clean and once I had a few months of sobriety under my belt, I had this aimless, “What am I doing?” and “Where do I belong?” type of feeling. So I decided to take those emotions down a constructive route and attempt to fulfill my lifelong dream of acquiring a college degree.

Penn State and everything it encompasses — the professors, students, staff, and energy which can be felt on our campus on any given day — brought me back to a reality where I could have a limitless future. It instilled in me a hunger for something more, to be better than I ever previously had been or had thought possible.

Penn State has nurtured and supported me 100% throughout this process. I have been blessed to develop incredible relationships with my professors, mentors, and fellow students. And I think that, if nothing else, my experience is a testament to the extraordinary transformative power of community and education. With Penn State, I finally felt part of something so much greater and more powerful than myself. I honestly owe a debt of gratitude to this university for playing an instrumental role in affording me a newfound purpose and ultimately saving my life.

Q: What extracurricular activities — clubs, sports, etc. — were you involved in?

Williams: I danced at THON my freshman year. From my freshman until my junior year, I was actively involved with the Lion Ambassadors organization and even had the opportunity to serve as the Nittany Lion for a handful of events on campus. At the beginning of my junior year, I became a peer tutor and remained actively involved throughout my undergraduate career. I tend to tutor Spanish and English more heavily than any other subjects, and I have cultivated a following of students with whom I’ve worked that have truly enriched my own academic experience, as well.

Q: What class or instructor had the most impact, and why?

Williams: Dr. Stephen Roman has probably been my greatest mentor during my undergraduate career and has consistently made himself available to me whenever I needed help understanding a particularly weighty political science concept, wanted to discuss a current event, or simply wanted to chat about life. Dr. Roman possesses a wealth of experience and information which he freely and eagerly offers to his students, and I will not soon forget him nor the influence he has had on my work ethic and overall experience as an undergrad student.

Q: What’s your favorite spot on campus?

Williams: My favorite spot is tied between the library and the small group room in the Academic Resource Center. I spent literal hours (sometimes full, eight-hour days) tutoring students between these two locations.

Q: What is your favorite Penn State Schuylkill memory, or a “first” you experienced made possible by Schuylkill?

Being a Penn State Schuylkill student afforded me the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time. During the spring semester of 2019 I was fortunate enough to visit Athens, Greece, on an alternative spring break trip with the interdisciplinary philosophy and criminal justice course that I participated in. This experience was truly eye-opening and inspired my wanderlust, which resulted in me studying abroad in Spain for two months during the summer of 2019. Independent of being a student, I might never have had the amazing opportunities that I have enjoyed traveling and studying abroad.

Q:  Can you tell us a bit about your more prolonged study abroad experience in Spain?

Williams: I studied in Mallorca at la Universitat de les Illes Balears, or the University of the Balearic Islands, during the summer of 2019. I participated in a Mediterranean gastronomy and wine cultivation course as well as a conversational Spanish course. The island of Mallorca is a cultural playground with rich history having seen occupation by the Roman Empire, the Arab Caliphate, and the Roman Catholic Church. There are three dialects of Spanish alone spoken on the island in addition to a host of other languages spoken by European tourists who regularly visit the island.

Q: What are you most proud of from your time at Penn State Schuylkill?

Williams: I am most proud of the fact that I am graduating with a B1 level of conversational proficiency in Spanish. The classroom exposure to Spanish I received at Penn State Schuylkill afforded me the foundational understanding of this language, which I needed to succeed in my study abroad trip. When I was in Spain, I was able to take the vocabulary, grammar, and concepts which I had learned at Penn State (shout out to both Profesora Unger and Dr. Heep) and put them into daily practice, which really solidified and expanded my understanding of this beautiful language. This allowed me to facilitate twice weekly Spanish conversation tables on campus which received amazing student engagement and participation.

Todavía estoy aprendiendo pero ahora sé mucho más debido a Penn State, which translates to “I’m still learning but now I know a lot more because of Penn State.”

Q: What’s next?

Williams: I’m currently weighing my options for grad school while simultaneously continuing twice weekly lessons with my Spanish professor from Spain. I want to continue sharpening my mastery of this language with the hopes of one day living and working in Spain.

Q: As a Penn State Schuylkill grad, what advice would you give to an incoming student?

Williams: Take absolutely every opportunity and resource that you are given here and run with it. Get involved. Ask questions. You never know how you might end up surprising yourself or finding your passion. Most of all, don’t take a moment of it for granted — have fun, make connections, and embrace every ounce of the experience that you will have here.