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Les Williams
Stephanie Gross
Les Williams

U.Va. Engineering Graduate Les Williams: A Technology Leader With a Flair for Helping People

May 2, 2000 -- Running his hand into his pocket, Leslie Williams whips out a bright orange and blue Dr. Seuss hat. "I wore this on the Lawn to encourage students to come to tonight's "Reflection on Complexion" forum.

In May the colorful Williams will graduate from the University of Virginia with the distinction of being not only a well-rounded engineer but also one with a dramatic flair--as well as a love for volunteering.

An honor student from northern Virginia, he epitomizes the phrase "to whom much is given, much is required."

"It would be wasteful not to give back," he said. "I feel it's my responsibility to excel and to give back to other black males."

At the "Reflection on Complexion" forum, an annual gathering to discuss racial issues, Williams incorporates humor, such as donning the Seuss hat, to ease tension during frank discussions. His creativity has helped draw more than 400 students of varying backgrounds to the forums. Because they encourage openness in a non-threatening environment, the talks are a popular attraction. "This huge student gathering is one of the rare occasions where many come together to discuss issues affecting us all," said Sylvia Terry, associate dean in the Office of African-American Affairs.

The forums have been a significant contribution to the University, said Timothy C. Scott, associate professor of engineering.

Despite the engineering school's rigorous and demanding program, Williams strives for fulfilling experiences outside the classroom. "I think engineers should be well-rounded individuals with the ability to interact with anyone, he said. "There is no excuse for me not making the most of a well-rounded education."

In 1998 Williams co-founded Brothers United Celebrating Knowledge and Success (BUCKS) to encourage U.Va. students to help African-American youths. With some financial support from the city of Charlottesville, Williams and other BUCKS members now tutor youths in computer labs at three low-income housing complexes in Charlottesville.

U.Va.'s award-winning Peer Advisor program is one of Williams' favorite extracurricular activities.

The program pairs African-American students who are academically successful and involved in extracurricular activities with first-year entering and transfer students.

As a peer advisor for the past three years, Williams often worked late at night and gave up fall breaks to study with other students. "I loved every minute of it," he said.

"Les is a role model to advisees," Terry said. "He has not allowed the engineering field to consume him so that he's unable to connect with all University students."

Whether socializing on Rugby Road or mentoring on Hardy Drive, Williams is very much a "people" person and achieves his best successes in motivating and working with others. Because of his people skills, he has chosen to work in plays and similar activities. Because he is bright, he's able to divide himself between a number of activities that are not traditional.

"Balancing my academic schedule and my extracurricular activities keeps me centered," Williams said. During his toughest semester, while carrying 18 hours and leaving little time for sleep, Williams played Mercutio in the highly acclaimed Spectrum Theatre production of "Romeo and Juliet." The multicultural student production, which kept the original dialogue, but focused on campus issues such as interracial dating and self-segregation, was a hit in the national press. For his dramatic performance, Williams was featured on "CBS News: Eye on America with Dan Rather." For his academic performance, he ended the semester with a 3.3 grade point average.

Williams also performed in the production, "Voices of the Class," which brings to life a selection of essays written by entering first-year students. He used his own example as an African-American student at the mostly white Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia to reflect the feelings of alienation experienced by many black first-year students. The play lead to a feature story in The Washington Post.

Williams loves to laugh. "Not only do I like to laugh at myself, but also I like to hear others laugh at me. It makes me feel like I am brightening someone else's day, and that makes me feel better as a person."

Williams said he's been able to deal with tough times by adhering to advice from his grandmother. "Always treat people with respect, even if they do not reciprocate."

And it has worked. During his four-year collegiate experience, Williams has netted many honors and awards. This spring he received theVirginia Engineering Foundation's Outstanding Student Award. It was announced this week that he will receive the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award during Valediction Exercises on May 20. The award recognizes excellence of character and service to humanity.

Williams is a Rodman Scholar, one of a highly motivated group of student engineers who, in addition to meeting other requirements, must design and create an original project. He was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship and inducted into the Raven Society. Other awards include membership in the IMP Society and the National Society of Black Engineers.

After graduation, Williams will begin his engineering career at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, but not without keeping his ties to the theater. Whether he settles in as an engineer or as an actor, one thing is certain -- Les Williams will always be about helping people.

For an interview, Les Williams may be reached at (804) 243-0847 or at lhw3a@virginia.edu.

Contact: Katherine Jackson, (804) 924-3629

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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