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EDWINA WILLIAMS WANTED her community college students to discover how the classroom material applies to the outside world, and maybe find their purpose. So several years ago she created Project LIKE (Literacy is Knowledge Empowerment), a nonprofit that connects students to nonprofits and community agencies in the larger Northern San Diego County where they can volunteer, intern or do work study.

Williams, who teaches sociology — plus statistics, African studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies and more — estimates that approximately 40 students participate each semester. Many of them come from challenging backgrounds, and she can relate to that.

“The students are learning diverse perspectives, learning about different cultures and meeting people who speak different languages. I am so proud of my students.”-Edwina Williams

“I never thought I would ever be in a college class, let alone teach one,” says Williams, associate faculty at MiraCosta College in Oceanside and adjunct faculty at Palomar College in San Marcos. She shares her story — becoming pregnant at 17, dropping out of high school and eventually earning a master’s degree — to show students anyone can transform their life.

Project LIKE participants combat social problems and make communities stronger by serving at food pantries, reading and promoting literacy at the Boys and Girls Club and other agencies, and teaching personal finance and career education to youth at Junior Achievement of San Diego. Some participants conduct fundraisers for worthy causes.

Project LIKE participants

Project LIKE participants earlier this year.

“The students are learning diverse perspectives,” says Williams, a member of the MiraCosta College Academic Associate Faculty. “They are learning about different cultures and meeting people who speak different languages. This is what sociology is all about. I am so proud of my students.”

She received a $33,000 grant from Blue Cross to fund a health literacy program, and the health care company kicked in another $7,000 so students could provide free meals at churches and schools for those experiencing food insecurity. She also fundraises through her

Williams was a student at Ocean Shores High School in Oceanside when she became pregnant and dropped out. Between associating with gang members and caring for her younger siblings, she felt destined to continue living in a cycle of poverty.

The turning point came when her son entered kindergarten, and she found herself struggling to read his homework instructions. She wanted to be a role model for him, so she enrolled in the High School Diploma Program at the MiraCosta College Community Learning Center. She earned her diploma two years later, and then enrolled in MiraCosta College, where she earned an associate degree in psychology, received several scholarships and landed on the President’s List. She transferred to Cal State San Marcos, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2012 and a master’s degree in sociological practice in 2015.

While earning her master’s, she decided to become a teacher, and was awarded a one-year faculty training internship at MiraCosta from the San Diego Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association. She is currently enrolled at the University of San Diego in the education for social justice doctoral program.

Her own role model is a now-retired educator named Susan Daniels, who taught Williams in elementary school and later at a continuation school.

“She was a nurturer and knew what equity and inclusion meant before these words were commonly used,” says Williams. “She took time for students who were low-income and had a non-traditional upbringing. She would pull those kids aside and say, ‘I see you.’ She would ask what we needed and show that she cared for us. She invited us to parties and barbecues at her house.”

Williams strives to be that kind of teacher and create an “ethic of love and community” for her students to help them succeed in the classroom. Former students testify to her success.

“Project LIKE gave me the opportunity to explore my interest in the field of art therapy by allowing me to incorporate my art skills and creativity through an internship,” recalls Dianne Preciado. “Now as a graduate student in a program for marriage and family therapy with a specialization in art therapy, I am grateful for Edwina Williams’ support in my vision of using creativity for community and educational empowerment.”

“Project LIKE helped me discover my love for teaching and helped me go from community college to a four-year university,” says Angela Harris. “It placed me inside a classroom teaching, tutoring and supporting elementary aged children. I am now student teaching for my state credential certification and I have Project LIKE to thank for the confidence I have.”

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