Andre Williams was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1986, at a time when the United States military sorely lacked the resources to help soldiers reintegrate into civilian life. Seeing few options, he took a job in construction while DJing on the side for extra money. His terminally ill father, a master carpenter who passed away near the end of Andre’s service, had encouraged him to find less physically demanding work.
Williams’ career did change course, by accident, when he was faced with prohibitively high repair costs for his DJ equipment. Out of necessity, he succeeded in fixing it himself, which sparked a lifelong passion for electronics. He sought training in computer networking and eventually landed a dream job at IBM, where he worked for the next 15 years.
Unfortunately, his career was derailed by serious heart complications, leading to an aortic valve replacement in 2009 and a long, painful recovery. When he was finally ready to re-enter the workforce, it was in the midst of a recession, and jobs were hard to come by. He knew he needed to upgrade his skills to compete -- that meant going to college. A friend told Andre about the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound (Penn VUB) program which helped veterans prepare for higher education.
Entering college as an adult is always difficult, but it can be especially challenging for veterans. The Penn VUB program was created to meet their unique needs. Participants in the program are often first generation college students and most are facing economic hardship. Penn VUB’s successful formula combines traditional college preparatory work with immersive cultural experiences and field trips to college campuses.
“Once I found out about the Veterans Upward Bound, that was it, I said, ‘I’m going to go there and I find out how they can help me get reacclimated into getting back into college,’” said Williams.
What he discovered at Penn VUB was a camaraderie reminiscent of his military service and a program that offered so much more than just college prep. He especially appreciated the inspiring leadership style of Program Director Diane Sandefur, who patiently encouraged the veterans to work hard and achieve their potential.
“She reminds me of one of the most serious units in the Marine Corps called Recon,” said Williams. “She’ll do whatever she can to help you to succeed, but you have to put in the effort.”
The classes were rigorous and prepared him for the academic workload of college while the lively environment helped him learn to manage his PTSD, which can be exasperated in social settings. “For me, Penn VUB was a saving grace,” said Williams.
More than anything, he enjoyed the cultural field trips. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Penn VUB has been able to expand its humanities curriculum and provide enriching cultural experiences at theaters, museums, and historical sites that relate to classroom studies. Williams went on a few such trips, but his most memorable was to New York City, where he paid a solemn visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, toured the Apollo Theater, took in a showing of Wicked, and walked the campus of Columbia University.
“I could actually see myself in Columbia as the result of being there, being able to touch the statue Alma Mater, and seeing the library,” recalled Williams. “It was a wonderful, life-changing experience.”
Even after they enroll in college, Penn VUB graduates are able to stop by and access computers, receive guidance, sit in on a tutoring session, or just enjoy some fellowship with other veterans. Williams completed the program in 2016, but he still keeps active in the community. He proudly represented Penn VUB, along with Diane Sandefur and other students, in the First and Second Annual Philadelphia Veterans Day Parades.
Williams is currently attending the Community College of Philadelphia with advanced standing after scoring high on his placement exam. He credits this achievement to Penn VUB, which he says gave him both the skills and confidence to be successful. It has been a long road from his heart surgery, but he now feels ready to take the next step in his educational journey -- a technology bachelor’s degree at either Drexel University or Pierce College.
“I want to teach computer networking and I would love to be able to teach computer networking to other veterans,” said Williams. “That would be a lifelong fulfillment for me.”