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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

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SBCC to remember star student, veteran, friend Robert Williams

Courtesy of Virginia Estrella
From right, Robert Williams, Celina Lazaro, Daniel Gonzalez, and Maribel Anguiano at the SHPE scholarship award ceremony.

Robert Keith Williams was known by his friends at City College for never failing to crack a joke, flash a smile, or be there for anyone who needed it.

“He genuinely cared,” said Elizabeth Sydney, his friend and fellow co-worker in the Math Lab. “When he asked someone how they were doing, he wasn’t just asking it in passing or to be polite. He actually wanted to hear how they were doing.”

Williams took his own life March 9. He was 27 years old.

A former Marine and star student, Williams began attending Santa Barbara City College in 2014 to pursue a career in chemical engineering. He was also a tutor in the Math Lab and a member of the Black Student Union. He spent many hours each day in the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement Center. He also participated in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and volunteered with the City College Veterans Program.

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“He knew everybody,” said Celina Lazaro, a friend and fellow member of the MESA and SHPE programs. “Robert was the definition of a ‘people person.’ He made friends with everyone he met.”

Williams grew up in South Florida and lived there until 2009, when he graduated high school and joined the Marines. He is survived by his mother, brother, and sister, who all still live in Florida.

In a GoFundMe page, his sister, Racine Williams, described his childhood upbringing to be “in a rambunctious and traditional Jamaican family.”

Williams served in the 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division and spent most of his time at Camp Pendleton near San Diego from 2009 to 2014. In 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months.

According to Luz Reyes-Martin, City College’s executive director of public affairs and communications, he was awarded a hosts of medals and accomodations.

They include the Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, Nato International Security Assistance Force Medal for Afghanistan, International Service Medal for Afghanistan, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.

He also received a Certificate of Accommodation, Meritorious Mast, and was named an Expert Rifleman.

In a personal essay he wrote in 2014 for the MESA program, Williams noted that serving in the military helped him gain the confidence he needed to go to school and pursue his dream in chemical engineering.

“I was fortunate enough to work with many great men and women who had a very positive effect on the way I live my life,” he wrote. “I left the military because I wanted to pursue a career in STEM. I was interested in it since I was a kid, but before joining the military I did not have the confidence or discipline to actually pursue it.”

Williams also described another way his time in Afghanistan motivated him to go to City College and study engineering during a radio interview with KCSB earlier this year.

”My interest in chemical engineering started materializing more a few years ago when I was deployed…, “ he said. “There were several incidents where having a specific type of body armor, like kevlar, actually saved some of the guys in our unit. I started to link that type of technology to what engineers actually do and it led me to following this path.”

Williams had many friends in the MESA Program who shared his passion for the STEM fields. Daniel Gonzalez, a friend majoring in materials engineering, described him as “incredibly intelligent.”

“His work ethic was off the charts. He kicked my butt in the SHPE 2017 engineering competition,” he added with a laugh.

Williams ended up winning a scholarship from SHPE for his contributions to the Santa Barbara chapter.

Friends also remembered William’s sense of humor and his great care for those around him.

“Robert never kept the conversation on himself,” Gonzalez said. “Robert always kept it about you. Me being the person I am, I took advantage of that when I would tell him about my day. I took advantage of that medicine that he offered— of that advice, that guidance, that reflection that all of us need in our lives.

“We can all beat ourselves up and ask, ‘Why weren’t we reaching out more to Robert?’ or ‘Why weren’t we giving the same medicine that he was giving us?’

“But you know, Robert wouldn’t have wanted that. He would have wanted to know everybody he encountered are taken care of.”

Virginia Estrella, director of the City College MESA Program, was one of William’s mentors.  She said she is now trying to get students to focus on the happy memories they have of him, rather than getting stuck in sadness and grief.

To honor his life and contributions, the college is hosting a Flag Lowering Ceremony 11 a.m. Friday, May 11, on the front steps of the Luria Library.

The SHPE Ingenium group at City College has also paid tribute to him with the “Robert Williams Award,” which will be given annually to the student who contributes the most to the organization.

This year’s winners will be announced May 12.


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