Published October 1, 2019
Imagine a UB hall of honor for students who show an undeniable track record of determination and success, perseverance and leadership. Imagine an online presentation — a UB Won’t-Give-Up Wikipedia page, if you will — for students who embody those qualities.
Without a doubt, senior biological sciences major Aliaya Williams’ image and resume would be front and center. And now, thanks to the SUNY Educational Opportunity Program, that distinction is official.
Williams — whose ability to juggle classes, research, leadership in a mentoring organization and the demands of her personal life awes those who guide her — has been chosen for the SUNYwide Norman R. McConney Jr. Award. It’s an award honoring students who demonstrate that determination, success, perseverance and leadership.
“I am determined,” says Williams, almost in a whisper. “I really want to get my degrees, and get my life in order.”
The Oneonta native's idea of getting her life in order is an ambitious one. But with her drive, energy, past accomplishments and the sheer force of her personality, it seems doable. She is on schedule to finish her undergraduate degree program this spring. She is president of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, carries a 3.4 to 4.0 academic average, is a research intern with the Collegiate Science and Technology Program (CSTEP), does research with the Nutrition and Health Research Lab and is a student assistant in the Experiential Learning Network.
“The Educational Opportunity Program exists to ensure students with potential, like Aliaya Williams, are offered the support needed to graduate from college and return to their communities as leaders,” says Betsy Rodriquez, director of the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program at UB, which sponsored Williams’ nomination.
For Williams, just graduating and getting into medical school isn’t enough. In between, she hopes to earn her MBA at UB. Somewhere down the road, she wants to be a hospital administrator and “run a hospital.” This way, she says, she can hire more people of color. “I feel increasing diversity in the health care field is essential,” she says.
The medical school part — after the MBA and before running that hospital — was something she knew she wanted by the time she was 12. Her mother gave birth to twins then, one of whom was born with Down syndrome. Her infant sister, Brittanya, was born with a severe heart defect, so for a year and a half Williams’ single mother went back and forth from Oneonta to a hospital in Albany where the baby underwent multiple heart surgeries, and Aliaya stayed home to take care of her three other younger siblings.
Williams remembers holding Brittanya as a tiny infant in one hand, and then gradually watching her gaining weight, getting healthier.
“Just seeing her go through all that at such a young age has inspired me to help kids in situations like that,” says Williams, who says Brittanya will be 10 in November.
“Oh, she’s a brat,” Williams says. “We’re thankful she is here to be a brat.”
So count her family as one defining motivator. Next one up: her driving desire to be a role model for minorities within the health care field.
“I just want to be able to give back to my community as an African American person,” says Williams, her words gathering speed as she continues. “I feel like there is a lot of confusion, miscommunication and a lack of education within the African American community. And the best way for that community to be educated is by some of us getting our degree and learning as much as possible, and then going back and relaying that message to them.
“Since I was raised in that culture, I can speak in a different way they will understand, rather than a Caucasian or an Asian American coming to them and saying, ‘Do this and you will be healthy.’ It’s a different message if it comes from me, a doctor and also an African American. It’s different if it comes from someone who looks like you and was in a situation like you.”
Darryl K. Barnes, senior counselor for the EOP who wrote the nomination letter that did its job, says he wouldn’t call Williams a “perfect student.” But she has something just as good, if not better.
“This is someone who understands what it means to be a successful student,” Barnes says. “She is dedicated. She doesn’t let nonsense interfere with her dedication. She is not distracted. She is very focused. She is not perfect, as in the 4.0 all the way through. But she gets the job competently and completely done.”
Williams notes that being the first person in her family to graduate from college brings mixed emotions — from the awkwardness of being more educated than both parents to that desire to emulate her mother.
“Some days it feels difficult,” Williams says. “My days are really like ‘class, class, class.’ I do work, I do research, and I’m president of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students. So it’s like I’m constantly on the move.
“And yeah, it becomes hard because I feel I’m not progressing. So it’s hard to stay motivated all the time. I do all this work, and I’m feeling, ‘Is this actually making an impact? Will this really affect my future?’ ”
The EOP award will change that, at least for a while. She travels to Manhattan Oct. 17 for a reception and ceremony, where she will meet the other 40 McConney winners and pick up her award.
It’s affirming to have others acknowledge all you’re doing to build a better future, she says. But ultimately she returns to her life, which as positioned now, can get scary.
“People are watching me,” Williams says. “My siblings are watching me. My cousins are watching me. They’re saying, ‘Is she going to make it through?’ That kind of adds to the pressure because college is hard.
“Everybody is watching me to see if I will be the first one to graduate from college.”