Tonjua Williams broke two glass ceilings this week by becoming the first woman and the first African-American to be named president of St. Petersburg College. Her rise to the top of one of Pinellas County's most influential institutions is an inspiring story of perseverance and dedication to SPC. Now Williams faces new challenges, from overcoming skepticism by some faculty members to the college's financial issues.
The college's trustees considered an impressive list of finalists to succeed retiring SPC president Bill Law, who has provided commendable leadership since taking over in 2010. But Williams was the only one listed by every trustee as one of their favorites, and she was praised for her data-driven proposals, interview performance and passion for the college.
Her personal story should be particularly motivating for SPC students who often are older than traditional college students and are looking for educational opportunities to enable them to seek higher pay and switch or advance careers. Williams is a St. Petersburg native who grew up in the city's low-income Midtown community. She spent 30 years working her way up at SPC, starting as a clerk and winding up as senior vice president of student services in 2013.
Now she will lead a college with roughly 40,000 students and about a dozen campuses or centers. Williams faces a projected shortfall of up to $10 million, micromanaging by the Florida Legislature and a need to be nimble with course offerings to prepare students for an evolving high-tech economy. But she knows this community, and she has successfully met challenges before. The trustees recognized her determination to succeed in their historic choice, and Williams has an excellent opportunity to help more SPC students write their own success stories.