Five Questions With: Gerald Williams

Having held the position for 20 years, Gerald Williams is the third and longest-serving director of the Special Programs for Talent Development program at the University of Rhode Island. The program serves Rhode Island high school graduates who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, a majority of whom are persons of color. TD recruits students with college potential, admits them through a rigorous summer program and upon successful completion assigns them an academic adviser who remains with them until graduation.

Williams graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies followed by a master’s degree in adult education in 2000. During his time at URI, Williams was a member of the 1984 and 1985 football teams, the two winningest football teams in school history, which advanced to the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs both seasons.

PBN: You are both a graduate and director of URI’s Talent Development program. On its 50th anniversary, how do you feel it has helped build a community of skilled workers in Rhode Island?

WILLIAMS: For the past 50 years, Talent Development’s 3,580 scholars have walked through the halls of Taft Hall, the organization’s home on the South Kingstown campus. They earn bachelor’s degrees from URI’s eight degree-granting colleges and most of the graduates buy their first homes in Rhode Island, where they contribute to the economic growth of the state. They serve as educators, politicians, engineers, digital and print media professionals, biotechnicians, nurses, doctors, lawyers, first responders and so on.

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One cannot go too far within the state without hearing someone say they graduated from URI’s Talent Development Program.

PBN: How did enrollment in the program help you better define your career goals?

WILLIAMS: When I enrolled in the TD program I was unsure of my career path. I changed my major three or four times, from pharmacy to dental hygienist to education, finally choosing communications studies. With Frank and Sharon Forleo as my academic advisers, I experienced the passion and conviction they brought to the program on a daily basis. From there I knew that TD was for me.

Upon starting my career in the TD program, I never intended to rise to director. It just so happened that at that time, one of my most influential mentors, and my predecessor, Mr. Leo DiMaio, was retiring. I felt it was my duty to continue the legacy that TD began in 1968 into the 21st century. Being the director has allowed me to share my story with prospective TD students and show them I can relate when it comes to college life academically and socially. I am able to bring the same passion, belief and conviction that others before me have. I truly do bleed TD.

PBN: Would you please define and explain the program’s RAMS ethos?

WILLIAMS: TD is a department within the Division of Student Affairs and, two years ago, it went through a comprehensive review as part of a directive by Kathy Collins, vice president for student affairs. The review team recommended TD change its mission and realign with that of the university and the division of student affairs.

We came to realize our values are the lifeblood of the program. Respect is something that scholars are told is both earned and given. Academic excellence is most important as it relates to TD scholars taking advantage of what the university offers for major choice, studying abroad, internships and more. Mental health and wellness are paramount to the TD scholar’s success – the culmination of years of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and discipline, which lead to graduation.

PBN: What kinds of URI students are eligible to participate?

WILLIAMS: TD scholars come from almost every high school in Rhode Island. To be eligible for the program, students must graduate from a Rhode Island-based high school. They must have completed the necessary core units for admission to the university, have taken their SATs and maintained an overall grade point average of 2.3 or higher.

Not all who apply get accepted. On average, TD reviews roughly 1,100 applications and accepts approximately 600 scholars each year. Once accepted, they must complete the preparatory program and the Summer Success program. The summer program is an on-campus, six-week session, which allows scholars to earn up to 10 college credits. They must pass these courses with grades of C or better. Once they complete this step, they are official URI students.

PBN: What are your hopes for the program’s next five, 10 or 50 years?

WILLIAMS: I would like to see TD stay relevant, whether five, 10 or 50 years from now. It is important to maintain access to the program that has existed since 1968. It is always important to stay current with best practices, especially when one of our goals is to be the program that leads the way for others to follow. It is my hope that when the story is told, people understand its consistent level of excellence and that the program is emulated, duplicated and replicated. Our focus is to keep TD in the forefront of higher education and to accomplish this, we must always strive to improve our retention and graduation rates.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email,