In 2011, Merrill Williams escaped an abusive relationship and sought shelter at Safe Place in Olympia.
At that point, she had been a crack addict for nearly half her life, and drug use had taken its toll on her body.
“I needed assistance standing up,” Williams said.
What a difference four years can make.
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Williams, 53, of Tumwater has earned an Associate of Arts degree and was chosen as the student speaker for South Puget Sound Community College’s commencement ceremony on Friday night. This year, the Olympia-based college awarded more than 1,100 associate degrees, and 419 certificates, 136 high school diplomas and 170 GEDs.
Karama Blackhorn, program coordinator with SPSCC’s Diversity and Equity Center, said Williams will be “super missed” on campus. She’s known for giving a shout-out from windows or across courtyards to friends, faculty members — even college President Timothy Stokes.
“There’s no way to pass her without smiling and being like, ‘Hey Merrill,’ ” Blackhorn said. “She’s kind of famous around campus.”
It wasn’t always like that, though.
Williams recalls the first day she stepped onto the campus in the fall of 2012.
“That was scary,” she said.
Williams said she didn’t see anyone who looked like her, and she assumed she wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone on campus.
After all, she was a grandma. She grew up in public housing in New York. She hadn’t finished high school, and she was new in her recovery from drug addiction.
Williams spent the first year catching up on skills in Adult Basic Education courses. After that, she enrolled in as many social science courses possible. Psychology became her favorite subject, she said.
She also enjoyed courses on multiculturalism and ethnic studies. In fact, those were the classes that helped her understand the life that she had escaped.
“I feel more confident with myself,” she said. “(I’ve learned) to really strive to live outside that box. … I can even construct my own box.”
Mary Johnson, 50, of Tacoma, said she couldn’t be more proud of Williams. The two have been best friends for 20 years.
“She’s awesome,” Johnson said. “She’s come through a lot.”
Johnson said she’s learned a lot about perseverance from Williams, and she credits Williams’ Christian faith and strong will to create a better life for herself.
“She’s helping other people,” Johnson said. “I see a better Merrill. She’s wonderful.”
Williams went on to serve as the Associated Student Body Senator for Diversity and Equity Affairs, a job that required her to help plan several special events and conferences for students of color.
This past school year, she worked as a peer mentor in the college’s Diversity and Equity Center, where she helps students navigate through school.
“Merrill is always real and understanding, and she always speaks from a place of experience,” Blackhorn said.
Sometimes, she can help other students who are struggling to find their way in college simply by telling her personal story, Williams said.
“I went from academic probation to being on the vice president’s list,” she said.
Williams is SPSCC’s nominee for the Trustees Association of Community and Technical Colleges Transforming Lives Award, and has served as a guest speaker for several of the organizations that have helped her in the past, including SafePlace and the United Way of Thurston County.
Williams plans to attend The Evergreen State College in Tacoma this fall to study social work. She said she already has an internship lined up with the Department of Social and Health Services, and will attend Evergreen on a scholarship.
Williams said her advice to other college students is to get involved in campus activities. Socialization and community are a big part of the college experience, she said.
Williams said she’s excited about the future, but said SPSCC will always hold a place in her heart.
“I’ve really grown at this college, in so many ways,” she said.