At just over 6 feet tall, Lesley Adams Williams usually stands out in a crowd.
Being tall can have an isolating effect during the teen years. Williams knows that firsthand. She also knows it can be an advantage: Her height and athletic ability earned her a college basketball scholarship. It also drew a troubled student to her, setting her on the path to a social work career.
A few years back, Williams took a counseling assistant job at her high school alma mater in Missouri, where a troubled student (Williams calls her Sadie, though that’s not her real name) started confiding in her. Sadie, like Williams, lived on what they joked was the “tall-girl island,” and their bond deepened quickly.
“Some people write these students off because they don’t look past their behavioral problems,” Williams says. But she loved helping Sadie and others one on one. She quickly saw how giving students a place to discuss conflicts and feelings helped them focus better in the classroom and in their everyday lives. The school’s social worker encouraged Williams to consider social work as a career, and she embraced it.
Now earning her master’s degree at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Williams is a student who wants to make a difference. She sees a future where teens have a safe place to go when home isn’t an option. One possibility, she muses: building 24-hour centers where youth in high-crime neighborhoods can leave their weapons at the door, eat, take a shower, relax or sleep.
USC’s online degree program suited Williams, who is on active duty in the Navy. She’ll complete her studies, internship and field work from San Diego, where she works at a Navy training command for helicopter pilots.
She still relishes hearing from Sadie, who recently texted her simply: “I’m finally finding my way.”
Williams hopes she can instill that same confidence in other struggling teens. “I tell them, you may not come from much, or you may not have much, but you have to believe in yourself when no one else does.”