Malcolm Williams was 78 when Clemson accepted him as an undergraduate student in 2018. Now in his 80s, Williams has earned a degree in social sciences with a minor in black global studies. It’s taken a lot of energy — simply getting to the classroom is not easy at his age — but through perseverance and careful planning, he’s accomplished something he’s dreamed about for more than half a century.
“It’s been quite a trip!” Williams says. “We grow through progression. If you stay back, you don’t learn anything. You don’t go anywhere. It’s also good to exercise your mind as well as your body — it keeps you sharp.”
An unwaveringly dapper dresser with a thick, curled mustache, Williams stands out among his peers like a visitor from another time. Indeed, he is undoubtedly the only undergraduate who experienced the Jim Crow South. Having grown up in Detroit, he vividly remembers seeing “White Only” and “Black Only” signs when the Army sent him to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, for training in the late 1950s.
“It was a real eye-opener. I said oh mercy, this is going to be pure hell, and it was.”
Williams joined the Army in 1956 straight out of high school, served in both Korea and Vietnam as a surgical technician, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.”
Williams left the Army in 1962 and moved back to Detroit, where he spent the next chapter of his life working as a chauffeur for Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio and a bartender in the Detroit club scene, among other things. After that, he moved to California for a time and then returned to Michigan to attend Ferris State College in Big Rapids, where he became a charter brother of the school’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity Zeta Beta chapter in 1966. He left before graduating when state funding for the school was cut, leaving him without the means to continue. Fifty-seven years later, he’s finally finishing what he started there.
Williams came to Clemson by way of Greenville Technical College, where he studied for a few semesters after moving to the Upstate in 2001, earning a membership in the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society during that time. He heard nothing but good things about Clemson while at GTC, so he set his sights on becoming a Tiger and succeeded.
“I had no choice but to go to school. I don’t know the streets, so I have no hustle,” he chuckles. “I do have hustle, grit, and determination, just not in terms of street hustling. I knew with an education, I’d always have something to fall back on, and I wouldn’t ever be destitute.”
Williams says his favorite memories of his time at Clemson are in the classrooms.
“My favorite times have been in my sociology classes,” he says. “I think, really, understanding where I belong has been the most important thing I’ve learned. I belong in sociology because I want to understand people.”
After graduation, Williams plans to move to Denver, where he will be a consultant for the Denver Police Department. He was stationed in Denver from 1958 to 1960 and looks forward to getting reacquainted with the activities he loved learning during that time, like skiing, tubing, and horseback riding.
He says his advice for young people is to “study hard and try to live clean.” He doesn’t drink or do drugs and feels that’s a big part of why he’s so vibrant at 84.
“If I’m blessed, I’ll get to 100,” he says. “I can only say it’s been an interesting trip so far. As for Clemson? To quote Julius Caesar: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’”