Alumni Joseph J. Williams, M.D., and Gwendolyn V. Williams, Ed.D., credit Community College of Philadelphia for not just paving their paths toward academic and career success, but for bringing them together as partners for life.
Their courtship, however, did not begin smoothly. When Joseph first asked Gwen out on a date, she declined, saying she was seeing somebody else. But her friend and matchmaker Joyce Crawley was not having it.
“She was like, ‘You told him no after I fixed you all up? No, you tell him yes,’” recalled Gwen. “We went around the whole college trying to find him, and we found him in the library at some point.”
The year was 1966, and Community College of Philadelphia had just opened its doors to students the year before. Classes were held in the former Snellenberg Department Store at 34 South 11th Street (between Chestnut and Market) while a permanent campus was being sought.
“I remember [Joyce] literally pushing me to go up there and tell him that I wanted to go out to the date,” recalled Gwen. “He put his head down and he paused for a really long time, and then he said, ‘Okay’ (laughs). That was how it all started.”
Gwen was a member of the inaugural class at the College while Joseph started the following year.
Joseph remembers the excitement among Philadelphia residents when news about the College’s opening broke. “When they announced in the newspapers and TV that they were going to start a new community college in Philadelphia, most of us didn’t believe it because promises had been made before and never came through,” said Joseph. “But when it came to fruition that summer of 1965, when people started receiving letters of acceptance, it was surreal. It was something that truly was going to happen.”
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the College has graduated more than 54,000 students who found their path to possibilities here. Joseph and Gwen are among the College’s first alumni. Today, Joseph is a Yale University-trained urologist with over 30 years of experience in private practice in Philadelphia. Gwen, who received her doctorate at Rutgers University, is an educational consultant and adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University with 32 years of experience as an elementary school teacher.
Both Joseph and Gwendolyn recall caring faculty members who were firmly committed to providing a top-notch education to their students.
“My favorite faculty member was Dr. Ruby, my science teacher,” said Gwen. She remembers once studying for a test before a class so intensely that she studied through the test. “I told Dr. Ruby what happened, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Come into my office and I’ll give you the test now.’ You got a chance to have a good rapport with the teachers and professors. We were all striving and so we had some really good times.”
For Joseph, Chemistry professor Rufus Cox was an influential mentor who propelled him toward his medical career. He hired Joseph as a lab assistant, giving him the opportunity to strengthen his grasp of the subject matter by tutoring other students. Professor Cox also taught fundamentals that fueled the budding doctor’s success inside and outside the classroom. “He taught me a lot about studying technique,” he said. “It carried over to other classes—I got an “A” in biology and an “A” in organic chemistry—I mean it was just like a whirlwind. I was more outgoing, more forceful. Professor Cox gave me that good feeling about myself and he said, ‘You can go anywhere, you can compete against anyone.’”
The couple met numerous lifelong friends during their time at the College. Joseph counts nine students from his organic chemistry class who hold M.D. or Ph.D. degrees, out of a class of 12. And like their alma mater, scores of Gwen’s former classmates are now leaders in education, including principals, superintendents and assistant superintendents.
Fifty years later, Community College of Philadelphia continues to be “the college that keeps on giving” for the Williams’ family. After Gwen graduated, her mother, brother and two nieces followed in her footsteps and either attended or earned associate’s degrees here. More recently, she learned about another nephew who is currently a Colonial. The family’s cross-generational ties to the College have inspired them to support President Obama’s proposal to make community college free for most students.
“If you’re a forward leader in the free world, you understand the importance of affordable education as one of the cornerstones of free society,” said Gwen. “If you don’t have that, you’ll have people struggling who don’t have the skills in this technological society to feed their families and live out their full potential.”
Being debt-free in their own college years helped them afford to send their daughter to Brown University, they say.
“Community college afforded us an affordable education that allowed us to slingshot back to help our kids and keep them from being in debt,” said Joseph. “We’re very, very thankful to Community College [of Philadelphia]. If I had to do it, I would do the same thing again.”