Yasin Williams ’15 says if he turned back the clock 15 years, he wouldn’t recognize the person he is today.
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, he attended Saint Benedict’s Prep – a K-12 urban Catholic school that serves a student population that is 55% Black, 30% Hispanic and 6% white, with other races making up the remaining 9%. And, while its mission is to prepare students for post-secondary education, and there is a connection to Saint John’s University via alumni and as a site for the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, Williams wasn’t considering college as a young teen.
“For a while, I was going through the motions, getting my diploma and then going off to do all the deeds of a misguided teen,” Williams said. “But Saint Benedict’s helped me turn things around, which is why they are so well respected. Most of the students are inner-city youth of color surrounded by systemic inequities that stack the odds against them. I was very much one of those people and had no interest in doing anything besides hanging with the wrong crowd, which is largely what I did. My high school took a number of chances on me. They knew that I had higher potential if I could only live up to it.”
First, he found himself in all kinds of trouble – including an expulsion at one point.
And this is the same guy who eventually graduated from SJU, worked three years in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office and is now halfway to his master’s in public policy at the University of Minnesota?
Yes. It is.
“There were some eye-opening moments when it clicked,” Williams said. “I realized that I needed to stay put and do better and not end up on the wrong side of the law. It changed my future and, eventually, I got on the right track with the help of different faculty and staff. My grades started to improve. Therapy was also a big part of it. And it didn’t happen overnight; it was a work in progress, but the more I worked at it the better and easier it got. Now, it’s surprising to many people – including myself – how transformed I am and how far I’ve come.”
Williams came to SJU as an Intercultural Leadership Education and Development scholar. The Intercultural LEAD program supports underrepresented, high-achieving, first-generation college students who have demonstrated leadership. He majored in history, minored in philosophy and wrote his senior thesis on The Invisible Church, a secret worship group among 19th century enslaved Africans in the United States.
He might not have gotten that far if not for Intercultural LEAD.
“It was helpful to have that community that I could fall back on if it started to feel rough for me being in a completely different culture, a more rural and less diverse area,” Williams said. “It was easy to feel isolated. People had their groups of friends and that was hard to penetrate. But many of my friends came from (Intercultural) LEAD and I’m still close with them to this day. That’s why I appreciate (Intercultural) LEAD. It provided support that was much more than financial.”
Williams’ transition to college was hardest in his first semester.
“I was used to being in a city with diversity and freedom to travel to different places, and I felt like I was trapped on campus, surrounded by people I didn’t know and couldn’t find out how to connect with,” he said. “I even entertained transferring but didn’t go through with it.”
One day during a communications class, a friend encouraged Williams to try out for the track team. He became a sprinter, running the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes and participated in several relay teams. As a result, he built another community of friends connecting him to the SJU community.
Williams was on the law school track but revised his plans during three years as a mediator for former Attorney General Lori Swanson, the first woman to hold the position in state history.
“I was doing what I would’ve been doing if I was a lawyer,” Williams said. “And it was exactly the type of law I wanted to do initially, involving consumer-protection law. It really interested me. But ultimately I decided I did not want to go over quite so many obstacles to help people.”
He worked as diversity and inclusion coordinator for Robins Kaplan LLP, a Minneapolis law firm, and briefly served as associate director of annual giving at SJU before enrolling last year at Minnesota. He should finish his master’s in 2023, after which his long-term plan is to go into racial equity consulting.
“Saint John’s first influenced my career,” Williams said. “I like to give things a chance before quitting on them – a motto of my high school. Now, I have some roots here. I’ve been In Minnesota nearly 12 years now, and it’s been great for the most part