First-generation UNL Student Overcomes Fear To Build Better Life

Dywan Williams poses for photo in front of pool table.

By Connie White

Dywan Williams learned early on to work hard for what he wanted.

That ambition was evident in the sixth grade when Williams got the idea to mow lawns in his North Omaha neighborhood to earn cash to pay for extras like a Lunchable to take on his school field trip, so he didn’t have to eat school lunch. His ambition to succeed continued in junior high when he played football, wrestled and ran track in hopes of earning a college athletic scholarship.

At Omaha North High School, Williams switched gears. Although he played football, he decided he lacked the passion to compete at the next level. Instead, he set his sights on a new goal: to get to college through the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy (NCPA) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

NCPA prepares academically talented first-generation, income-eligible students from four Nebraska high schools — Omaha North, Omaha South High School, Grand Island Senior High School and Winnebago High School — for college and their future careers. Through the academy, students receive mentoring and support beginning in their freshman year in high school and continuing through their time at UNL. NCPA covers students’ full cost of college attendance.

Williams, who was raised by a single mother, said the NCPA staff were there for him as he dealt with adversity and believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself. During his freshman year at North, he said he was at risk of being disqualified from the program because his GPA didn’t meet the required threshold.

“They said, ‘Dywan, you can do this. You got this.’ And I did it,” Williams said.

He studied hard and graduated from North with a 3.5 grade point average.

When he arrived on the UNL campus for his freshmen year, Williams said he was scared and intimidated — no one else in his family has graduated from college.

But as he spent time with the program’s staff and students, who come from similar backgrounds, his confidence increased. “If they did it, I can do it, too,” Williams told himself.

He was right.

Williams, 19, is a sophomore accounting major in the College of Business. He has a 3.82 GPA at UNL and has lined up an internship for next summer at Ernst & Young (EY) in Minneapolis, where he will shadow accountants at the firm and learn about public accounting work. If that goes well, he will move on to a second internship the following summer, when he will have the opportunity to engage with clients and gain real-life experience. He said he hopes to receive a job offer after he graduates.

His dream job is in auditing, where he would work with companies on their financial reporting and internal controls and learn how companies operate their businesses. “Accounting is the language of business,” Williams said.

Kurtis Krentz of Minneapolis, a senior partner at EY, connected Williams to EY’s internship program. Krentz said he first met Williams through his involvement with NCPA providing support to students. He and his wife, Jill, are donors to the program through the University of Nebraska Foundation and view NCPA as serving a critical role in addressing inequalities in society by supporting students who may not otherwise have been able to pursue a college degree.

“When I met Dywan, it didn’t take long for me to see Dywan’s potential. He is doing terrific in school and is so driven to better himself and his future,” said Krentz, who graduated from UNL with an accounting degree in 1989. “Understanding his story, you can’t help but be impressed by how he’s changing the course of his life.”

Williams said he feels grateful to be at UNL. Asked what he likes about the university, he answered: “Everything.”

“I like the food,” he said, with a smile. “I like the fact that I’m around people who also want to be successful. I like the fact that I get to create a better life for me and my family.”

Williams said the scholarship assistance has taken a burden off him.

“My mom didn’t have to worry about paying for college,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about taking out loans and being in debt for a long, long time.”

Williams expressed gratitude to the donors who are “making an impact on my life, making an impact on my community and the next generation that’s coming up.”

“Thank you, thank you so much,” he said. “It helps me realize there’s people who want to help people like me have a better life. We’re not alone.”