CHATHAM — Two of the 800 students graduating from Chicago State University this semester have an incredibly close connection, developed long before they enrolled in school.
Aaron Williams, 22, and his mother, Tonya Williams, 48, both finished their coursework — even taking an algebra class together — and will receive bachelor's degrees at a ceremony Thursday on the South Side campus.
Wendell joins DNAinfo Radio to chat about the proud graduates:
The two — who live together in Chatham along with Aaron's father Kevin and brother Evan — took vastly different paths.
Aaron attended Chicago Vocational High School, where he was a standout basketball player who received all-Chicago Public League Red-South honors and was a 2010 McDonald's All-American nominee. He then played for Dodge City Community College in Kansas before transferring to Chicago State. He played 2011-13 for the Chicago State Cougars — averaging 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds in 54 games, including seven starts.
He sat out last season while finishing his degree in nontraditional studies with a 2.9 grade-point average; he plans to play next year while pursing a master's in higher education. While he has a dream of playing in the NBA, he hopes to become an athletic director if he does not play professional basketball.
"Being a student-athlete is tough, but I got through it thanks to my mom. She is a superhero in my book," said Aaron. He said his mom often helped him with homework when he was tired after getting home late from practice or games.
Tonya, with a 3.4 GPA, will be earning a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Tonya completed one semester at Chicago State in 1983, with intentions of becoming a nurse, but stopped after she got pregnant with her oldest son, Kenny.
"Before I knew it, I had two more sons," she said.
Over the years, she's worked as an insurance underwriter, a bank clerk and a debt collector. She volunteers now for a nonprofit that works with mentally disabled adults.
But she's always wanted to return school.
"I wanted to finish what I started," she said. "I knew I wanted my sons to go to college, but how could I tell them to go to school if I never finished school?"
When Tonya returned to Chicago State in 2010, she enrolled full time and attended classes year-round, shifting her focus from nursing to psychology. It was a financial challenge, as son Evan — who this week graduated from Eastern Illinois University — was also in school.
"I filled out financial aid papers every year for all three of us. I had to take out student loans and a parents' loan to pay for our education," she said. "But it was well worth it."
Aaron was pleasantly surprised when he and his mom ended up in a math class together.
"I was unaware my mom was taking algebra until I heard her calling my name as she sat across from me," Aaron said. "I was not embarrassed at all to have her in my class. My friends thought it was cute. I loved it."
Aaron also gave a lot of credit for his family's success to his father — a self-employed jack-of-all trades who never attended college — with being the soldier who kept everyone in school.
"He sacrificed everything for us so we could have a chance at getting our education. He would literally go through a wall for his family," Aaron said. "I know there are a lot of stories about single moms raising their children, but that is not this story. I had two dedicated parents from the urban community that stayed together for 26 years and raised their family."
"[Kevin] has walked me to class. He has sat in the cafeteria and ate lunch with me, and he has sat in a chair in the hallway waiting for me to get out of class," Tonya said.
And both sons praised their mother. Evan said his mom is not earning just one degree this month.
"As far as I'm concerned, she earned three diplomas this month because without her, we would not have been able to do it," he said.