Ashley Williams ’17 ’23 wore a smile as she held back a flood of tears.
Joined by her mother, Dr. Kathy Bass ’06, and a care assistant, Becky Jackson, Williams achieved a milestone during Columbia College’s Orlando, Florida, commencement ceremony on Aug. 5 that she always believed she would.
“It didn’t feel real until my name got called and I was crossing the stage,” Williams says.
Williams is a veteran of the Air Force who served overseas. While stationed in Germany, she was struck by a drunk driver on a military base as she rode her bicycle with friends, receiving a severe spinal cord injury.
But on this momentous late-summer Saturday afternoon, she received her Master of Arts in Teaching, a degree she completed utilizing adaptive communication equipment at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, where she has lived for the past three years in a specialized long-term care unit.
Nothing would stand between Williams and her mission – or celebrating her accomplishment.
“It was important for me to attend graduation as it was something that I had worked hard for,” Williams says, recalling her graduation during a recent interview over Google Meet. “When you are in the hospital for this long, it is good to celebrate the precious moments in life.”
Unable to speak, Williams, 33, communicates by typing words with her eyes and mouth into an Eyegaze device that voices the messages.
This technology – coupled with a strong support system and her even stronger sense of determination – made it possible for Williams to finish the last two classes toward her master’s degree. She took a pair of eight-week classes this year, one starting in March and the other in May.
“I hope to use my education to teach others and show that you literally are a student every day,” Williams says.
‘A beautiful day’
While Williams kept her emotions in check during commencement, it was a different story for her mom.
Williams was determined to take the two-hour road trip from the hospital in Tampa to attend the ceremony in person with her family at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando.
“The whole experience was breathtaking and a blessing,” Dr. Bass says of her daughter’s graduation.
Dr. Bass and her husband, Will ’08, took classes at night and graduated from Columbia College in the mid-2000s while they both worked at a Naval training center in Orange County, Florida.
The couple provided unwavering support as Williams continued the family’s tradition of attending CC. Williams’ brother, Torrance, also has taken classes through the college.
“Having my family at graduation just made it even better,” Williams says.
After the ceremony, Williams visited the family’s home for just the second time in the past four years, staying for a while before returning to the hospital.
“Ashley wants the world to know that they can do it too,” Dr. Bass says. “She’s a gift. She’s definitely a gift. She keeps me going and she says she’s not stopping. This is just the beginning.
“It was beautiful. She just had a beautiful day all day.”
Serving her country
Williams graduated from high school at the age of 17, then entered the Air Force as an aerospace medical technician.
She viewed the Air Force as an opportunity to see the world and to serve her country, and she could continue her education.
Her military service included travel to multiple countries and about two years stationed in Germany.
“I never worked a day in my life because I loved what I did,” Williams says.
Williams was transferred from Germany to North Dakota after the life-altering crash, and she later moved back home to Florida. Over the next several years, her health began to stabilize and she completed her bachelor’s degree in General Studies from Columbia College.
“I never worked a day in my life because I loved what I did.”Ashley Williams ’17 ’23 on her Air Force service
Things began to take another turn, however, when Williams learned she had worsening paralysis in her stomach, and doctors recommended a procedure to help correct the problem. Further complications in the hospital resulted in her becoming paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak.
Now in the hospital for an extensive stay, Williams says she has learned to look at things differently.
Her deep faith in God is what she credits for carrying her through the toughest of times.
“My faith and how I see it is my timing is not God’s timing,” she says. “I have watched others walk out of this hospital and they were not supposed to. I was told I would not be able to write, and I write and paint with my mouth. If I would have listened to what the doctors told me, I never would have tried.”
Finishing her goal
Williams says she never once doubted that she would complete her master’s degree.
She began the Master of Arts in Teaching program in 2017 but was forced to pause her progress in 2019 due to health challenges. She was just a couple of classes short.
Williams proposed an idea to her family and doctors this year: Instead of continuing to wait, she would finish her degree from the hospital. Dr. Bass reached out on behalf of her daughter to Dr. Dianne Montfort, senior academic advisor at Columbia College-Orlando.
“Over and over again, Dr. Montfort was very patient,” Dr. Bass says. “She spoke with me and Ashley and said, ‘Let me look into this.’”
Melissa Hill, director of Student Accessibility Resources at Columbia College, first met Williams in June 2015 when Williams was working toward her undergraduate degree.
“My interactions with her have always been very positive,” Hill says. “She has a ‘can-do’ attitude. Her focus is on what it will take to accomplish something rather than focusing on the barriers.”
Over the years, Hill and Williams met to discuss the changes in Williams’ circumstances and to determine what would be needed to provide her with academic access.
When their interactions resumed earlier this year, it was no different.
“Ashley is an insightful person with a mission,” Hill says. “She was aware of what she needed and had the support of our office, her medical providers and her family. Once we determined what was needed, our office communicated that to the instructors and they worked with her accordingly.”
Throughout the whole process, Hill found that Williams “exemplifies strength, perseverance and positivity.”
“She is a warm, kind and respectful individual,” Hill says. “As a student, she was a high performer with her mind set on her goals. Once she had the tools she needed, she took the rest by storm.”
Dr. Clevenger was the professor for Williams’ final class in the program this summer, a course called the “Integrative Project,” a reflection on the program and a synthesis of the courses. The last course includes a series of assignments based on the student’s cumulative learnings.
“Anyone can hear Ashley’s story and think of things like determination, tenacity, and so on, and of course those qualities come to mind for me as well,” Dr. Clevenger says. “But it wasn’t just a determination to complete her degree that impressed me. She was determined to finish her degree in style, to complete her final project as if she had no limitations, and she asked for very few accommodations beyond the oral presentation. In fact, she ultimately required no additional accommodations at all.”
Dr. Clevenger says she discussed the possibility of flexible deadlines with Williams, but her essays were always submitted on time after being typed using adaptive technology.
Williams kept in close communication with Dr. Clevenger throughout the entirety of the final course.
“I feel a great deal of pride for my students when they complete their project and thus complete their MAT,” Dr. Clevenger says, “but the pride I felt for Ashley was at a whole new level.”
“I feel a great deal of pride for my students when they complete their project and thus complete their MAT, but the pride I felt for Ashley was at a whole new level.”Columbia College Education Professor Dr. Kristi Clevenger
‘Ashley is a role model’
Dr. Kevin White has never treated a patient quite like Ashley Williams.
As chief of the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at the James A. Haley VA, Dr. White says Williams is his first patient to complete a college degree while in the hospital.
“It’s pretty remarkable what she’s doing,” Dr. White says. “She’s a go-getter.”
“The team works together to help her,” he adds. “Not just the nurses and doctors and staff, but her mom is involved and our therapists are always helping to make sure there is an adaptive piece of equipment or technology that we can use to help her with whatever task she needs.”
Occupational therapists at the hospital work with the Eyegaze and similar devices on a regular basis, and they rallied around Williams’ goal of continuing her education.
Williams says she learned how to use the technology for class assignments with “a lot of time and patience.”
Hospital staff were “ecstatic” about Williams’ graduation and celebrated “the whole way,” Dr. White says. Many of them watched a livestream or replay of the commencement ceremony.
“It was a remarkable day for all of us,” Dr. White says.
Dr. White says Williams sets an example for fellow veterans or active-duty service members who are patients at the VA.
“Ashley is a role model,” Dr. White says. “One of the things we always tell patients is that life isn’t over; they can continue to reach for their dreams. We often want them to be paired up with mentors, and Ashley is definitely in that category. … We look forward to introducing her to other younger or more newly injured patients to let them know that they can do it too.”
“We look forward to introducing (Ashley) to other younger or more newly injured patients to let them know that they can do it too.”Dr. Kevin White at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida
‘Never give up hope’
Williams is one class away from earning her bachelor’s degree in Nursing, the next goal she is setting for herself. She would like to pursue a doctoral degree in the future.
She hopes her story resonates with students facing similar obstacles between them and their goals.
“You have to focus on your ability and not your disability,” her Aunt Debra Coleman told her – and that is what Williams did.
Dr. Bass says her daughter’s journey can encourage those who have started but not finished their degree.
“Between the school, the hospital, and Ashley’s faith in God and determination, everybody made this happen and she made sure to see this through,” Dr. Bass says.
All the while, Williams has been living proof of the power of perseverance.
“People can learn to never give up hope and to never quit,” Williams says. “As scripture states in Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ There will always be someone who will say that you cannot do something.
“The difference is,” she concluded, quoting her Uncle Anthony Wiggins: “‘How bad do you want it?’”