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Why I Give: ‘As a Parent of a College Student and as Someone Who Employs Work Study Students, I Empathize with Students who are Struggling to Pay for College,’ Says NC-MSEN Pre-College Program Director Braska Williams

Braska Williams and Family

Editor’s Note: This is part of a monthly “Why I Give” series in which NC State College of Education alumni, students, faculty and staff share why they support the college.

Braska Williams started his undergraduate career at NC State as a computer engineering major. That changed by his junior year when he had a change of heart. 

While working in engineering study groups, Williams realized he was always the one who could explain the math and calculus concepts to those who didn’t understand it. At the same time, his younger sister, who was in middle school, was struggling with math and had developed a negative attitude toward the subject and school. That motivated Williams to change his major. 

“From that experience, I understood the power of teachers and their influence. As an African American man, most people have never had a Black math teacher, and I wanted to dispel the stereotypes that Black men could only play sports or entertain,” he said. “I wanted to be a role model to other Black children that as an African American, you can excel in math and science.”

Williams went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics with a minor in computer programming before earning a Master of Education from the College of William and Mary. He served for 13 years as a high school mathematics teacher and central office administrator for the Newport News Public School System in Virginia before arriving at the NC State College of Education. 

Now, he works for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, a part of the College of Education, as director of the North Carolina Mathematics and Science Education Network (NC-MSEN) Pre-College Program, a STEM pre-college program and college pipeline access program for underserved students in grades six through 12. 

In this role, Williams recruits underserved students from schools and districts, provides programs that help encourage these students to pursue college majors in STEM, and provides information that would position these students to enter a four-year college or university. His team also organizes and provides a multi-week Saturday Academy, a STEM competition day, a summer program and an awards ceremony, where they recognize the students and their academic achievements. 

When he isn’t working, Williams enjoys traveling. One of his fondest memories is taking a cross-country trip to California along I-40 with his family. Aside from traveling or going to the beach (he grew up on the beach in southeastern Virginia), he loves spending time with his family and friends and supporting Wolfpack Athletics. He can also be found playing board and card games — one of his favorite pastimes. 

In the Q&A below, Williams talks about what he enjoys most about being part of the NC State College of Education, why he gives to the college and how education has shaped him as a person and educator. The following is edited for length and clarity.

What do you enjoy most about being a part of the NC State College of Education? 

The people. The College of Education has some of the best people. They love K-12 students and have a heart to serve and support the population that our program serves. I’ve received so much support from our college. Our program is located on other campuses in the UNC System and my colleagues do not receive the level of support from other faculty members, administrators and students that our program does.

How has education shaped you?

I do not come from a family of educators. I’m the first person in my family, on both sides, to serve as a classroom teacher. My parents both attended segregated schools since they are both from the south. My mother grew up in rural North Carolina and my father grew up in southeastern Virginia. My father only completed the seventh grade, which he never told my sister and I (nor my mother). It came out by accident at a family gathering.

My father and mother both believed strongly in the power of education and understood the power of a college degree. My father told me that a college degree would give me the opportunity to use my mind to work for the rest of my life versus using my body. My father told me this when I was in the 10th grade and before I knew about his own educational background. So, I know for me how a college education has really opened some wonderful opportunities for me to impact other people.

Why do you give to the NC State College of Education?

As a parent of a college student and as someone who employs work study students, I empathize with students who are struggling to pay for college. I feel so blessed to still be employed and to be able to continue my work from home. I recognize that everyone has not been as fortunate. That was why I gave and want to continue to give.

What do you hope to see happen as a result of your gift?

Hopefully, it will help a college student to earn their degree.

Why do you feel it’s important to give back?

I believe that we are blessed to give to others. Giving to others sets up opportunities to receive in the future.

What is the last thing you read, saw, heard, or experienced that inspired you?

My former students. I engage quite often through Zoom video sessions or phone calls with former students. They are so inspiring to me. I have two young men in my life who are my “sons,” not by blood, but I’ve adopted them into my life due to the situations that they had when they were in high school. Both of them came from single parent families and struggled a lot financially. They both were determined to get out of poverty and overcame a ton of obstacles to go to college and earn STEM degrees. They participated in another version of the program that I currently direct back in my home city of Newport News.

Since the pandemic, we connect with each other quite often, at least once a week, and they are sharing some of the phenomenal things that they are doing to give back to others. One of them is pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering education, and he and his wife have formed their own STEM education non-profit organization to train teachers in STEM content and to help elementary students with riding the STEM train at an early age. The other young man is an engineer for the federal government, but he has started his own engineering advocacy group that promotes engineering as a career option for young people. He also spends lots of time mentoring and engaging with other high school and college students who have an interest in engineering. So, they have inspired me so much during the pandemic to grow and improve MSEN even more.