Syracuse University Magazine

A Helping Hand

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Ryan Williams

Ryan Williams grew up in New Castle, Indiana—a small town outside of Indianapolis whose only claim to fame is that it has the largest high school basketball gymnasium in the world. He played basketball at New Castle Fieldhouse until his junior year when he realized his true athletic talent was in playing football and running track. During his high school years, Williams considered several career possibilities. “At one point I wanted to be an architect because I liked drawing floor plans, but then I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist so I could travel the world and discover ancient civilizations,” says Williams, associate vice president for enrollment management in the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Programs. “And like many other students from low-income families, I thought my ticket to a better life was to become a doctor.”

It was very important to Williams’s mother that he go to college because he would be the first member of their family to earn a degree. He attended Earlham College, a small Quaker liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, not far from home. “Looking back, it was clearly a good decision for me to remain close to my family and have a support system while I was in college,” he says. “My advisors and professors also watched out for me on a day-to-day basis, making sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have made it.” 

At Earlham, Williams continued to search for his true calling. He knew he wanted to have a career in a helping profession, but with a major in experimental psychology, he wasn’t sure what direction to take until just before graduation when his advisor asked if he would be interested in working at the school. “It just so happened there was an admissions counselor’s job open at Earlham College, and I was encouraged to apply,” he says. “It was an easy job for me because I loved my undergraduate experience at Earlham, and I really enjoyed traveling around the country talking with parents and students about my alma mater.” 

Williams was confronted time and again with the one question he didn’t know how to answer: “How do I afford college?” Realizing he needed to learn more about financial aid, he left Earlham after one year to become a financial aid counselor at the University of Rochester. By the time he left a decade later, he had become the director of financial aid and earned a master’s degree in education administration. “Having the educational credentials in combination with my practical experience gave me career options down the line,” says Williams, who went on to financial aid positions at Boston University and Harvard, and served as vice president of enrollment management at the College Board in Washington, D.C., before moving to Syracuse with his family last spring.

When Williams interviewed for his position at SU, he was impressed with the University’s vision of Scholarship in Action and how that translates into student and community engagement. “Everyone I spoke with echoed the same vision,” he says. “I found it significant that Scholarship in Action has permeated the entire campus.” He was also impressed with SU’s commitment to diversity by increasing access to academically qualified first-generation students, students of color, and students from low-income families, as well as reaching beyond the Northeast to recruit students from several targeted geographic areas around the country. And after several years away from university life, Williams is happy to be back on a college campus because he loves working directly with parents and students. “At Syracuse I feel needed and fulfilled,” he says. “I can be engaged and involved and help make a difference—even if it is one student at a time. That’s what makes me excited and feel good about what I do.” —Christine Yackel

Photo by Steve Sartori