AAS President Leaves Long-Lasting Legacy
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:35
Tomi Williams '16
Williams’ interest in politics began in high school as president and then as a student member of the board of education.

Born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents but raised in the United States, Tomi Williams was forced to learn how to make himself at home in any environment. At Amherst, this adaptability led to a successful political career for the two-term Association of Amherst Students president.

“An Overconfident Little Kid”
“I had the luxury when I was younger of being oblivious,” Williams said. At a young age, Williams’ family moved from England to Ann Arbor before moving again to the Baltimore area. Williams found that he frequently didn’t know how to operate within the norms of the new place, so he learned to find the universal commonalities in his surroundings.

For the young Williams, one of those universals was humor. “I was kinda the class clown when I was younger,” he said. Williams described himself as an “overconfident little kid” with “a pretty strong British accent.” Other members of the community were taken aback by his distinctive confidence.

Williams’ family helped him forge his way forward in a new place. “When you go to a different place and you have to take kids with you, that’s scary,” he said. At first, Williams’ parents kept him and his older brother, Tunji, close. Tunji served as a role model for Williams and as a sort of guinea pig for their parents.

Going through it with Tunji, Williams’ parents learned how to operate in their new situation. “My parents were a little bit more relaxed with me. I think [Tunji] is still perturbed by that,” he said. Williams attributed many of his successes to the example of his brother. From Tunji, Williams found his love of soccer and saw an example of how to apply for college and balance extracurricular activities and schoolwork.

At the beginning of high school, Williams focused on soccer, playing varsity all four years. However, he soon cultivated interests in politics and the law that would become hallmarks of his college life. His first experience as president of his first-year high school class, however, was surprisingly negative. “I absolutely hated it,” he said. “I thought we would be doing more policy stuff and helping kids in the school, but our main objective was to plan a float for the Fourth of July parade.” Still, Williams sought ways to stay involved in politics.

Williams’ passion for representing and helping his community was evident from a young age. He created a Young Democrats club at his high school, which had a two-year speaker series and volunteered for campaigns around the country. He then won a race to serve as the student member of the board of education for Howard County (the county where Williams lived) his senior year. “I was working on substantive stuff, policy that had an effect on students,” he said.

Tom and Jerry
Williams entered Amherst with an ambivalent relationship to school. “I always had a Tom and Jerry relationship with my teachers,” he said. “How could I convince the teacher I’ve done enough to do well without really doing it?” Williams said it took him time to adjust to the different style of learning at Amherst. He said office hours, debating with professors and talking questions over with them set the educational experience here apart.

Williams’ passion for politics and the law stayed with him in college. Entering Amherst, he knew that he wanted to become a political science major. When he entered, Williams said he was focused on “the here and now, things you can touch.” However, Amherst’s political science department and various other classes have encouraged him to not just focus on certain laws but also on abstract concepts and bigger pictures.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more interested in political philosophy, the things that are foundational amongst all human societies. Once you understand that, you can put any template on top of it and find how things go back to your Hegels, your Kants, as opposed to limiting yourself only to particular policies at particular times,” Williams said.
Aside from academics, varsity soccer played a key role in Williams’ transition to Amherst. Academically, Amherst challenged him to a level he had never seen before, and daily practice added an additional burden. However, Williams found some of his most important mentors on the team. “While soccer was taking a lot of my time, I was learning tricks and study resources that I wouldn’t have found if I was on my own,” he said. Older teammates advised Williams on office hours, professors to take and to avoid early in his college career and tips on managing time.

“Yes Man”
While Williams grew close to his teammates, the older members of the team encouraged him to branch out. Williams and two of his teammates responded with a weeklong “Yes Man” pact. Each Wednesday during their first year, Williams watched a movie with teammates Greg Singer ’16 and Forest Sisk ’17 in a different common room on campus. They watched “Yes Man” one week, a movie in which the negative main protagonist decides to change his life by saying yes to everything he encounters.

Williams decided to try adopting this approach: That week, he received an email about writing a weekly column for Her Campus about international students, and he said yes. “It was a great experience.” Williams said. “And it lasted significantly longer than the weeklong Yes Man pact.”

Williams also became closer to friends outside of the soccer team. “I thought I had my friends, the soccer guys,” he said. However, he found a special relationship with his roommate, Nasir Albashir ’16, and with floormate Doyle Judge ’16. Williams enjoyed going out at night, but he found himself staying in more often second semester and talking to Albashir. “A lot of times when you’re out it’s cool to do things that contradict your moral sensibilities,” Williams said. In contrast, he felt that he could be his “best self” with Albashir and Judge.

To Albashir, this is simply attributable to Williams’ outgoing and welcoming personality. “Tomi’s the only guy who literally talks to everyone on the way home,” Albashir said. “You go to Val and then you come back and he makes a point to have a decent conversation with anybody who says hi.”

After his sophomore season, Williams decided to quit the soccer team. “I loved it as much as my other interests, if not more, but it definitely had the least of a future for me,” he said. Williams has remained close to the team, but the extra time has enabled him to explore other activities at Amherst.

“I Lost Horribly”
Williams entered the AAS the second semester of his first year at Amherst. Over winter break, students received an email that the Judiciary Council chair had gone abroad. Still trying to diversify his experience at Amherst, Williams decided to run. “It was essentially the chief justice of the Supreme Court for the AAS, so of course I should run for it with no knowledge of the AAS constitution,” he joked. But Williams pointed to experiences from high school in serving as student member of the board of education and his experience with a non-for-profit to underline his credentials.

Williams served as Judiciary Council chair for two years and then decided to run for AAS president. He fared poorly in the initial election. “I lost horribly; there were four of us running and I came in dead last,” he said. “I avoided the elections tab on the Amherst College webpage.” But after a controversy ensued over one candidate’s campaign sending, the election results were voided. A new election was held in the fall, and Williams won.

Williams recognized that he entered the presidency at a time when much of the Amherst community did not trust the AAS. His initiatives as president aimed to improve communication between the school’s various entities, from the board of trustees to the typical Amherst student. Williams created the position of communications director within the AAS and worked with the administration to make the disciplinary process clearer for students. He also worked with the board of trustees to get a recent graduate on it, an initiative to which the board will vote on shortly, and led the Branches project.
“Hopefully we’ve put the next couple of generations in a position where they can regain the trust of the students and implement larger changes,” Williams said. The most striking part of his presidency is not just his concern for improving Amherst during his time here, but also his investment in making the college better in the long term.

Hands on Works
While handling the demands of schoolwork, extracurricular activities and the presidency, Williams has also found time to grow his own nonprofit, Hands on Works.

As a senior in high school, Williams began Hands on Works in order to educate members of the Baltimore community, especially high school students, about entering the work world. He recognized the importance of seeing role models in the professional world within his family.

“I knew that someone who looks like me, in fact someone with the same blood running through their veins, could become a doctor, like my dad, or go to law school, like my brother did,” Williams said. He saw that this realization was not possible for many members of the Baltimore community.

Hands on Works has an ongoing speaker series in which students can interact with members of the professional community, such as U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings. The nonprofit also helps members of the Baltimore community in writing résumés and learning how to network through various workshops. Finally, Hands on Works runs a three-year program for aspiring high school lawyers in order to teach them not just how to enter the work world but how to engage with the law as it is now.

Stir Fry
Williams will continue his political science education next year, pursuing a law degree at Columbia University.
His continued curiosity applies to all facets of his life. When I asked him about any regrets from his time at Amherst, he said, “I wish I had found stir fry earlier.”