First-Generation Student Follows His Passion to Lead at a Christian College
“My story starts with family. But I guess everybody’s story starts with family,” said Jalen Williams, a third-year student at Grace College from South Bend, Indiana.
Williams grew up as the second oldest of fourteen children. As an older brother to eleven, he always felt called to set a good example for those younger than him. He held himself to a high standard in high school and never let himself fall behind.
“That’s what led me to look into going to a Christian college — having a mindset of always pushing myself to higher levels in school,” explained Williams.
But there was more to his Christian college search than that. Williams grew up in a Christian home which nurtured his zeal for small, faith-based communities. Grace College wasn’t just a good fit for Williams — it felt like home.
“When I got to Grace, I became passionate about being an active contributor,” said Williams.
And that’s what he did. Williams majored in design and visual communications and minored in music production. He dove into his courses head-first, determined to persevere through the assignments that stretched him. He distinctly remembers one of Professor Winey’s art classes that challenged him early on.
“At first, I hated it,” reported Jalen. “It was so intense and I felt a lot of pressure. But as I started digging into the course and applying what he was teaching, I started to grow. Looking at where I am now versus where I was then, I’m more eager to go out and experience new design opportunities. I am so thankful for the process he put us through.”
And his determination in academics didn’t go unnoticed.
His sophomore year, Williams was one of the 30 first-generation Hoosier students to be honored for “Realizing the Dream”, a $3,000 scholarship given by Independent Colleges of Indiana. Williams was thankful and honored to be selected for the scholarship. He described it as “a reminder that you never know who is watching you and taking note of your effort and hard work.” According to Williams, the day he received the email notifying him of the award, he was overwhelmed and stressed about school. The timing was providential.
“I was honestly reaching my limit and needed some form of hope to say, ‘Keep going.’ That’s when I checked my email. At that moment I felt God telling me, ‘Don’t give up when you’ve made it this far,’” recounted Williams.
Williams attended the event with his most influential teacher from fifth-grade, Mrs. Julie Congdon — yet another reminder of his roots and how far he had come. The award was validation for Williams’ that he was becoming the big brother he had always hoped to be.
As Williams grew as an artist and a scholar, he also grew as a campus leader at the Christian college. When he first arrived at Grace, he insisted he wasn’t cut out for leadership, but Kearstin Criswell, Director of Student Involvement, saw a leader in him.
“I appreciate the energy and boldness that Jalen brings into a room,” Criswell said. “He is willing to share ideas and is quick to remind those around him of the truth of the Gospel.”
During his first year at Grace, Williams met Kierstyn Worthem and some other students who were involved in the Black Student Association (BSA). He immediately befriended them and became interested in the BSA mission. In his second year at Grace, he joined the Council for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). By the end of the year, he had made an impression and was asked to be the president of BSA for the 2020-2021 school year. Since arriving at college, his passion for creating spaces for diversity and connection had grown. He felt ready to take a step forward as a leader. So he said yes.
It didn’t take long for Williams to fall in love with his role. He began to embrace servant leadership, make long-lasting connections on campus, and exchange stories and experiences in a space that celebrates the rich culture of many different backgrounds.
“My job as president is to create a space where black minority students can feel a sense of familiarity and build connections with other black students,” he said.
Williams has been building bridges on the Christian college campus ever since. He plans a variety of weekly events, hosts discussions with small groups, and organizes larger events open to all of campus. His first leadership role was in his family, but now, he’s leading a much bigger family at Grace.
Cokiesha Bailey Robinson, associate dean of student diversity and inclusion, is one of the staff members who has been impacted by Williams. “Jalen is a unifier on campus,” she said. “He is a friend to all students and a bright and positive leader for the black students. He fosters events that allow minority students to be themselves, to tap into their rich culture, and to enjoy safe spaces.”
“My vision is that people feel comfortable being themselves in any given space,” Williams explained. “As a black person, I can be comfortable in my blackness with all my white friends. And my white friends feel comfortable around me. There’s no weird racial tension. And that’s my vision for all of campus – that we can all be ourselves, but also be together in that and celebrate our uniqueness side by side.”
Williams’ philosophy made a difference. In the first semester of his leadership, attendance for BSA events rose significantly, and connections have been made among students all across campus.
Denise Terry, Director of the Center for Career Connections at Grace, has been a part of Williams’ journey through his time at Grace.
“Jalen is one of those people who you just know will make a significant difference in others’ lives because he cares deeply and moves with sincerity,” Terry said. “He leads in a way that invites others to live openly and generously as well.”
Williams plans to graduate sometime next year, then go back to the community that raised him — the very first place he was called to be a leader.
“Before I came to college, I couldn’t put a finger on what really resonated with my heart,” Jalen recalled. “But my family always inspired me to make connections with people around me, to be the first to step up, and to lead.”
If you’re interested in getting involved at Grace College, learn about a major in design and visual communications and discover the difference a Christian college can make at Grace!