A Principal Transforms
Kwame I.T. Williams '16 (Ed.D.)
Thursday, May 5, 2016
PHILADELPHIA (May 5, 2016) — Kwame I.T. Williams is a change agent. As a principal who is responsible for the cognitive development and social growth of 455 K-5 students at Chester Community Charter School in Chester, Pennsylvania, it’s part of her job.
An educator for 22 years, the divorced mother of three girls enrolled in Saint Joseph's Interdisciplinary Doctor of Education Program for Educational Leaders (IDEPEL) in 2011 after earning a master’s degree in educational leadership from SJU the previous year. Williams focused her research on democratic leadership and its effects on teacher job satisfaction because she was interested in finding out how principal-teacher relationships could be transformed.
“The sense of family and community in the cohorts and with the faculty — and that push to be greater, to make a difference — I’d recommend the programs to anyone,” Williams says.
As much as the development and growth of others have been the chief concerns of her career, Williams met the biggest change agent of her personal life in February 2014 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was the sense of family and the ongoing support she received from her cohort members and professors that helped to get her through what was to become an almost two-year ordeal, when after a double mastectomy, a total hysterectomy and breast reconstruction in 2014, she was diagnosed in July 2015 with brain cancer that had metastasized from the original cancer in her breast. She underwent surgery to remove the mass in her brain and returned to work last September, only to have the tumor recur with additional growth in October.
Through it all, Williams says, “I just kept doing the research and writing my dissertation. It might have been from the couch, or the bed, but I just kept working, because I felt the need to finish.”
The indomitable spirit that kept her going is familiar to her dissertation chair Terrance Furin, Ph.D., coordinator of international education programs.
“Kwame is incredibly positive in her outlook on life. She has battled cancer, more than once, and defeated it during her doctoral program,” says Furin.
“Her dissertation centers upon the positive attributes of democratic leadership styles among school principals that grow from within each individual and blossom outward,” he says. “Kwame believes in this leadership style and instills in her teachers the idea that the students are at the center of all learning. This is key to her success as a principal.”
As she traveled the gauntlet of chemotherapy and radiation for the second time, Williams says that when she tried to take it easy, she felt worse. So she stayed busy, and the frequent visits from her cohort and her dissertation work became the tonic she needed. “My classmates helped me more than they’ll ever know,” she adds.
Williams successfully defended her thesis in December, a few days after she was declared cancer-free. Now, the native Philadelphian is back at work, and feeling “pretty great,” she says. Every two months, she has MRIs taken of her brain — body scans are less frequent — and exults when the reports come back clear. “I still have times when I’m scared, but the scary moments are diminishing,” she says.
Recently, during a conversation with one of her daughters, the weight of her experience landed on her. “It was surreal," she recalls. "I said, ‘I had brain cancer twice, and I’m still here.' I got emotional, but they were happy tears, because I am still here.”
Post-cancer, she’s made changes on the cellular level. “They’re positive life style changes,” Williams says. “I got diabetes from the chemo, so I’m trying to reverse that. I walk every day, and I’m becoming a runner. I’m a pescatarian — no more meat — and I don’t do sugar, or dairy. I’m re-doing everything — cleaning out and starting again.”
Williams says that she, and her life, transformed the moment she was first diagnosed with cancer, and at each recurrence.
“I evolved into a stronger person,” she says. “I now have a stronger belief and relationship with God, I am free of negativity, and I eradicated all stressors and unhappy things from my life. I learned who I was, deep down, and I vowed to live for my children, my life goals, and me. I also have committed to myself to spend as much time as I can sharing my story and being a resource to other survivors.”
There is one more big change on her horizon. On May 14 at Saint Joseph’s commencement ceremony, she’ll walk across the stage and Furin will place the doctor’s hood over her head. With that, she’ll officially add three important letters to her name, and from then on will be known as Kwame I.T. Williams, Ed.D.