Family, faith and friends are what LSA senior Brittney Williams credits to her success today. The presence of all three has empowered her to overcome her own struggles with depression, an ill mother and the academic challenges she faced during her time as an undergraduate student.
Williams, who began her undergraduate odyssey in 2005, acknowledges her path to graduation later this month has been atypical — but don’t try and convince her that she is not representative of the leaders and best.
“For many students here, the typical experience is that you succeeded, you didn’t face that many obstacles, and it can make students who have had significant challenges feel badly or like they don’t fit in,” Williams said. “But to me, what I have gone through, and what other people who have faced hardships have gone through, is the quintessence of what a victor stands for. To be a victor and to be a Wolverine means that you have had to fight to get to where you are today.”
Williams had to fight harder than most. When she enrolled in the University of Michigan in 2005, she planned on pursuing a degree in Political Science. Her first four years at the University, however, were less defined by her academic ambitions and campus involvement than by her battle with depression. Williams’ depression became so severe in November 2009 that she attempted suicide and was hospitalized for five days.
Following the hospitilization, Williams was faced with the decision of whether to take time off from school to focus on her mental health.
“ I was advised by my advisers, my family and my friends to take a semester off to figure some things out,” Williams said. “I just kept on saying, ‘I’m OK’ and so I kept pushing through. I would continue to struggle academically, personally, mentally. But some of that was the culture that exists here at Michigan that compels you to burn yourself out before you take any sort of break.”
“My advice to those who are considering taking a break is that if you really need a break, and it would be positive for your mental state and academics, do it,” Williams said. “You can always come back.”
Williams continued her studies at the University until 2011, when stress caused her academic performance to deteriorate until her academic suspension at the end of the winter semester in 2011.
When she returned home, Williams faced her next challenge — caring for her mother, who had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in April 2008.
She became the primary caregiver for her mother, whose health was quickly worsening.
“When my mother was diagnosed, I was a junior,” Williams said “My siblings were, at the time, 17, 11, 10 and 9 years old. So it was really rough on everyone in my family, but it was the most heartbreaking for the youngest, who would later struggle to remember her before her disease.”
Her mother passed away on Oct. 11, 2013, a day after her sister’s birthday. Williams assumed responsibility for all of her mother’s funeral arrangements, which took place the day before her 26th birthday.
In May of 2015, Williams returned to Michigan and re-enrolled at the University. When she returned, she said she found the place that she left in 2011 had changed in many ways: some positive, some negative.
Upon her return, she joined the Central Student Government and founded her own organization, Michigan Organization of Non-Traditional Students (MONTS), to give voice to other nontraditional students.
“When I came back I had a hard time because I was so much older than everyone, and I did a focus group where the Center for the Education of Women was doing a study on nontraditional students,” Williams said. “And the focus group had such a great conversation, and it led me to want to start a student organization to bring people like this together.
In her typical “victor” fashion, she embraced and overcame these challenges. Later this month, Brittney Williams will be graduating with her bachelor’s degree in sociology. She hopes to attend the University’s graduate program in Social Work and pursue a career in Alzheimer’s advocacy, using her skills in gerontology to help families — especially children — of Alzheimer’s patients receive counseling.
“My goal, down the road is to be lucky enough to not have a job,” Williams said. “That would mean that we have accomplished our goal, and Alzheimer’s will be a thing of the past.”