Tonya Williams dreaded registering for the algebra class that was required for her bachelor’s degree in psychology. When the first day of class arrived, she found a seat near the back of the room – and was delighted to spot a friendly face.
“Aaron,” she whispered to her 6-foot-6 son as he entered the classroom.
“Oh, are you in this class?” Aaron Williams replied, sliding into a seat next to his mother.
She watched him closely during that first class, excited to have a unique glimpse of her son as a peer, a classmate. “He sat there, and he had this stern expression on his face, and he had his chin in his hand, and he narrowed his eyes,” Tonya Williams said. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, look at him. He’s serious about this.’”
The pair’s lives have been intertwined with Chicago State since before Aaron was born, so facing the spring semester of 2013 side by side wasn’t too much of a surprise. The bigger stunner came this spring: Aaron Williams, 22, and his mother, Tonya Williams, 48, who took her first class at the university in August 1983, will both graduate in May.
The younger Williams, a forward on the Cougars’ men’s basketball team, took four years to earn his undergraduate degree; the older one was on a 30-year path to graduation. But in May, their different means will reach the same ends at the same time.
“It wasn’t planned for all this to happen at the same time,” said Aaron Williams, whose older brother, Evan, will also graduate from Eastern Illinois this spring. “It’s truly amazing.”
Tonya Williams and Aaron’s father, Kevin, have long worked to forge a path to education for their sons, even when it meant delaying their mother’s work toward her degree. Their first goal was to keep their children safe from the influences of drugs, gangs and other pressures they might encounter in their Chicago neighborhood.
Even Aaron Williams’ decision to start college at Dodge City Community College in Kansas was part of his plan to separate himself from any temptations that might linger in Chicago. He returned to the city a year later, enrolling at Chicago State and pursuing an individualized curriculum with a focus on physical education.
“I’ve been around this school since I was younger,” he said. “It almost felt like I belonged here. My mom being here helped make the decision.”
In 1983, Tonya Williams became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She had big plans for her future, but within weeks of starting her first semester, she became pregnant and dropped out of school.
When the baby was born, the new mother struggled with the daunting change in her life. “I felt as if something had happened that I wasn’t expecting, and that led to postpartum depression immediately after my son was born,” Tonya Williams said. She was hospitalized several times.
Years later, after two more sons came along and Tonya Williams had her life back on track, she tried – “with starts and stops, and lots of hindrances,” she says – to seek a degree from Chicago State.
“I’ve grown to love Chicago State,” Tonya Williams said. “They know me very well up there. They’ve seen the journey, and it has been a big effort on my part because there have been many times that I have said, ‘I’m just going to leave it alone.’ But I always had that drive in me, and I always wanted to finish what I started in the very beginning.”
She also switched her major along the way and will earn a degree in psychology, inspired by a psychologist who helped her.
“I have a passion for people who are suffering with mental illness because of what I’ve experienced in my life with the postpartum,” she said.
After graduation, Aaron Williams plans to return to Chicago State this fall to pursue a master’s degree in higher education administration and play out his final year of eligibility.
Tonya Williams, meanwhile, hopes to work for the outpatient mental health clinic where she now volunteers.
And her sons plan to treat their mom, the graduate, to a weekend in a downtown Chicago hotel, just to spoil her. “She sacrificed nights going to school and working and raising us,” Aaron Williams said. “We respect education because of her.”