Desiring to earn a bachelor’s degree and become a teacher, Sheila Vernesa Williams-Martin identified Aquinas College as the place to pursue her goals and sought admission to the College in the Spring of 2009. With toddler and teenager in-tow she explained her past educational experiences and expounded upon her current hopes and dreams.
She was a single mom with one child ready to enroll in college and one barely walking, but she had a burning desire to graduate from college and an even greater desire to be a teacher. Sheila explains, “I knew I wanted a better life for my myself and my children. My personal journey to find a decent and didactic education with morals and dignity led me to Aquinas.”
Sheila was positive about the possibilities, but it was clear that this woman had a great many other qualities that would put her in good stead as she began her studies at Aquinas. Determination, courage, and faith are a few adjectives that come to mind when one thinks of Sheila. However, the overarching gift shining forth from Sheila was hope—rooted in a deep trust that all would be well. Her gentle spirit and ever-present effusive smile were outward manifestations of this inner conviction.
Soon she was known by students all over campus, regardless of their area of study. But they never called her Sheila. To them she was always just “Smiley.” Flashing that smile, with words of encouragement for each and all, she was always full of hope.
As one might imagine, returning to the rigor of higher education after time away is not always easy and can contain both obvious and hidden challenges. Spring turned to summer and then to autumn and back to spring again. Smiley kept chipping away. She embraced life, but it was full—children, classes, daycare, finances, high-stakes exams, projects—the list goes on. Smiley stayed strong.
Smiley embraced the Aquinas experience whole-heartedly. Not only did she delve into the content of her coursework, but she sought to know and understand more about her walk with the Lord and Christianity rooted in the Catholic Church. Smiley recalls, “The first time I attended Mass, was indescribable. The moment I walked in the chapel I felt God’s presence and was humbled. I knew that this is where I was supposed to be.” Not too many semesters passed before she was received into the Church, bringing her growing little one along with her.
Conquering each hurdle with unstoppable resilience, Smiley arrived at the student teaching semester in Fall 2013. She requested placement in a school where she knew she would once again be challenged to grow as a person and a professional educator.
However, before the end of the semester, Smiley was facing new difficulties with some health concerns. Hospitalized two times late in the semester, her capstone presentation was postponed until February.
With the presentation in mid-February and the receipt of her Tennessee teaching license in early March, Smiley had met each milestone with success. Now, five years after her first visit to Aquinas, she was eager to put into practice all she had learned by teaching children in a classroom of her own.
Then in late March, Smiley suffered a stroke while driving. Once again she spent several weeks in the hospital and in rehabilitation, learning to walk and speak again.
Smiley’s graduation day was approaching. With characteristic determination and with her ever-present smile, she told everyone, “I will walk across the stage. I will get my diploma. My daddy will help me.” And, indeed, on Saturday, May 10, the Aquinas College class of 2014 led everyone in a standing ovation and affirming cheers for Smiley. Although she was in a wheelchair, she chose to walk across the stage. Leaning on her father’s arm, Smiley became the first member of her family to earn a college degree.
Sheila Vernesa Williams-Martin was all smiles!
For a full account of the Commencement ceremonies, including a video of Mother Agnes Mary’s address, please visit the Graduation news story.