It's a good story. A video in your social media feed catches your eye—a young African American student in joyful tears in front of a laptop, learning she’s been accepted to her dream college. She jumps from her chair to hug her proud family and excited friends. She has overcome the challenges of poverty to achieve good grades and earn a competitive SAT score. You click like, share the video, and continue scrolling.
It’s also Joseph Williams’ story. Williams is an associate professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Counselor Education Program. He grew up poor in Kansas City, Kansas; graduated at the top of his high school class; earned two associate degrees from Colby Community College; a bachelor’s in psychology and a master's in clinical mental health counseling from Minnesota State University; and a doctorate in counselor education and supervision from the University of Iowa.
Looking back on his experience, Williams could see why others thought he was an exception to the rule. While he worked toward his Ph.D. and the tenured position he holds today, his brothers were working to free themselves from a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets African American men and boys. Williams didn’t feel that he was exceptional, though.
“My brothers and I have similar character and personality traits. We also grew up in the same environment, with limited options and life-altering decisions. At first, I had trouble understanding why our lives turned out so differently. Then it dawned on me how our characteristics interacted with opportunities.”
For Williams, athletic abilities opened doors to opportunities. His coaches became his mentors. He was able to travel outside of Kansas City and imagine a different future.
The sense of guilt that nagged at him when he thought about his path compared to that of his brothers would come to inspire his academic inquiry. As he prepared the background research for his dissertation on academic resilience, he began to see that much of the scholarship on students from low-income backgrounds was deficit-based.
“Most educational research focuses on the causes and the consequences of underachievement,” he explained. “As a result, we have become experts on why students from low-income backgrounds fail.”
Williams wanted to understand the other side of that story: why students succeed despite adversity.
With support from community-based grants he received during his early career, Williams has become an expert on educationally resilient low-income students, particularly students of color. His work demonstrates how protective factors—supports from families, schools, and communities— interact with individual characteristics to create educational resilience.
“I had all these opportunities that my friends and family didn’t have. Research shows us that when given access to resources and opportunities, kids who are struggling in school can perform just as well as everyone else. That’s the whole point of equity.”
For Williams’ former student Shontell White (Curry ’17, ’19), support from her parents, her relationship with her sister, and the advocacy of a high school English teacher were the protective factors that helped put her on the path to becoming a first-generation college student and earning her master’s in counselor education.
“My English teacher invested very deeply in my academic success,” she remembered. “I hadn’t taken any AP courses prior to my senior year, but he reminded me that my past had very little impact on the direction of my future. He allowed me to enter his AP English class—despite the fact that I had not fulfilled the prerequisite course—and provided me with the support I needed to thrive in his classroom. Simply put, he believed in me.”
Williams’ research suggests that more low-income students could succeed if schools invested in partnerships that build on these protective factors. But these interventions require school leaders to flip the familiar narrative around low-income communities and recognize their positive potential. Protective factors are sometimes overlooked by the schools that serve low-income students. If parent involvement is measured by PTO meeting attendance or volunteering, parents who don’t have the privilege to participate in these activities are seen as uninvolved.
Williams’ work reveals the opposite: “Parents who live in poverty are highly involved in their kids’ education, just not in ways that are typically recognized by schools,” he said. This was White’s experience: “My parents worked tirelessly to support our family’s needs, while also managing to provide an outstanding amount of encouragement, selfless love, and affirmation for me and my sister.”
Williams is now pursuing funding for a longitudinal study of how naturally occurring peer networks in high-poverty schools are used to support the academic success of students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.
“In these spaces, students are able to encourage academic orientation while affirming their racial identity,” he explained. He sees potential for this line of inquiry to inform interventions: “Schools serving high percentages of low-income students have a crucial role to play in facilitating and activating these networks.”
Williams’ research aligns with the Curry School’s Counselor Education Program's mission to prepare graduates to identify systemic barriers to educational achievement and advocate for change. Students are taught to bring a social justice perspective to the schools where they work; Williams teaches a course on School Counseling Leadership, Advocacy, and Consultation. White is ready to be a change agent for her Prince William County Public School students in Manassas, Virginia.
“The Counselor Education Program at Curry prepared me to name, address, and support the emotional implications of having experienced some form of systemic discrimination or barrier,” she said. “The program reinforced to me how necessary it is to challenge the status quo in order to make sure each of my students are effectively supported.”
Supporting students who live with the challenges of poverty is more important than ever. For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public schoolchildren live at or below the poverty line. Private support of research like Williams’—research that could lead to recommendations for low-cost, sustainable interventions—is crucial for ensuring these students reach their full potential at places like UVA.