Dr. Harry L. Williams '86 '88 '95 of Dover, Del., a first generation college student, attended Appalachian on a track scholarship. Instead of leaving after graduation, he stayed to take his first job in the university's Admissions office.
"It was just a great opportunity to ... learn from the best faculty in the world, and that prepared me to go to that next place," Williams said.
He eventually went on to work as a national consultant in enrollment management for higher education. One of his assignments was to revamp the enrollment management operation at Delaware State University.
"In that process, a position in the provost office opened up," Williams said. He said his goal was always to be a college president.
Williams achieved his goal and more. He is the 10th president of Delaware State University (DSU) and a fierce advocate for higher education and anyone hoping to pursue a college education.
Under his guidance, DSU's national ranking rose from 17th to 13th in the 2013 Historically Black Colleges and Universities rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The university's research portfolio increased considerably, attracting more than $25 million in grants and project funding, and a scholarship program was implemented to provide financial assistance to first generation college students.
"The reason why I love this work is because I see the lives that we are impacting and that we are changing," Williams said. "We're in the business of changing lives."
"To get a Distinguished Alumni Award—man, it's a big deal because we have over 100,000 alumni," he said. "I'm humbled by it."
Dr. Harry L. Williams '86 '88 '95, 2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient: I'm originally from Greenville, N.C. It's the eastern part of the state. I ended up here in Boone on a track scholarship, and I had never heard of Appalachian State, being from the eastern part of the state. I had several schools recruiting me, but when I got up here, that closed the process right away because when I walked around campus and talked to people and felt really at ease. And that's what you have to feel when you go to college. You have to feel comfortable, and you have to see yourself in this place graduating. And I could see that and I could feel that, and the people here made me feel really, really good. So, I said 'yes,' and that's how I ended up here in Boone.
HW: I started there in 1982, graduated in '86, went to graduate school back in '86. I stayed there for two more years—worked with Jeff Fletcher in the educational media program and Joe Murphy—and then graduated with a master's in '88. Instead of leaving, I ended up staying there and getting my first job working in the admissions office. It was just a great opportunity to stay there and to learn from the best faculty in the world, and that prepared me to go to that next place. So, over that time period, you develop a lot of relationships with people and a lot of friendships—I mean real, sincere friendships with people. You know, when I think of home, I think of Boone, N.C. Once you get there, it'll always be with you.
HW: I used to work as a national consultant for enrollment management, and we ended up receiving a contract from Delaware State University. They assigned me the job, and the job was to come in here to completely revamp the enrollment management operation. When I arrived here I was just blown away. And in that process, a position in the provost office opened up, and my goal has always been to be a college president.
(transition to marching band drummers and various scenes from the Delaware State University campus)
HW: I tell you, I've been here—this is my fourth year and we have seen an amazing transformation over that three-year tenure. We've had record enrollment every single year. We've seen the quality of our students increasing. The SAT scores have been going up. The GPAs have been going up. This is a historically black institution, meaning that we started out primarily to serve African Americans, but now it's a major diverse place. Out of 50 states, we have 33 states represented; we have 26 foreign countries represented; we have faculty members, literally, from all over the world here. When you say diversity, we have it here. A large number of our students would be classified as first members in their family to go to college—first generation. And I'm a first generation college student myself, and so being a first generation college student, you have a lot of challenges. Some of it centers around finance. Finance has always been a challenge here and we're in the process now of our very first major campaign—that's exciting. We're raising dollars for scholarships, and that's what we're putting the emphasis on because we know if we can get the dollars for these students, that they will matriculate and they will graduate, and they will be productive citizens in this world. And that's what it's all about, is providing these young people with an opportunity.
HW: The reason why I love this work is because I see the lives that we're impacting and that we're changing. We're in the business of changing lives. I get up every single day excited about going to work because I know that we're going to do something exciting here on this campus. We're going to run in to some student that's going to be excited about the research they're engaged in. We're going to run in to a faculty member that's going to be excited about the scholarship that they're engaged in. So, when you have that type of energy in a campus environment, you feel really good about what you're doing. So, the young people come here and they are exposed to that, they get something that I can't put a price tag on and that's so exciting to be a part of something like that every single day.
(transitions out with the marching band drummers; background music begins with panning shots of portraits of past Delaware State University presidents)
HW: I remember coming in this room for the first time and the feeling I got was just so moving. I was in awe because you look around ... and you look at these individuals and you know that they're the ones who preserved what we have here today—and the responsibility that you have to carry that on and to do it in the right way. Here, in Delaware, being the president, it's a big deal. It is a big deal in Dover. One of the individuals who really impacted me and I learned a lot from was Dr. Durham because he was a man of the utmost integrity. And Dr. Durham, you could take whatever he said to the bank. And the reason I got my doctorate was because Dr. Durham came into my office one day in the admissions office when I was working as an admissions counselor, and he said, 'Harry, if you want to stay in this business, you need to get your union card,' and the union card was a doctorate. He never mentioned it to me again. But I knew the fact that he left his office, walked into my office and said that, that's all I needed to hear because he was taking the time from his schedule to say, I want to say something to this young man, I see something in him and I want to encourage him. He said it one time. And that's the type of power, when you have someone with that type of integrity, that you cannot put a price tag on.
HW: Wow. Receiving this award ... it's just so humbling to know that I started here as a freshman in 1982 coming on this campus and having a goal just to graduate, and by having an opportunity to come back here to get the Distinguished Alumni Award ... man, it's a big deal because we have over 100,000 alumni, and to be selected out of that group, because we've had so many people that have done some wonderful things in this world, I'm humbled by it. I'm humbled by it because I love this place. Anything that has ever happened to me in my life, that's positive, occurred here. My wife—meeting my wife, Robin, who's a faculty member here; having my two boys here, born right at Watauga Medical Center here; building my first house here in Boone; buying my first car here in Boone; getting my first job—it all started here. Right here. It just means so much, so I'm truly grateful.
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About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives. App State is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System, with a national reputation for innovative teaching and opening access to a high-quality, affordable education for all. The university enrolls more than 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and 80 graduate majors at its Boone and Hickory campuses and through App State Online. Learn more at https://www.appstate.edu.