Zaniyah Williams amassed 18 scholarships in her pursuit of higher education.
Before she graduated from Vanguard High School in May, Zaniyah Williams had already been awarded 15 scholarships during the Evening of Excellence, an annual event to recognize the academic achievements of Marion County Public Schools (MCPS) seniors.
Kevin Christian, APR, CPRC, Director of Public Relations for MCPS, and the event’s emcee for the past 10 years, says he does not recall “a single student receiving so much recognition at one event.”
“Many students receive one or two scholarships (at the annual event), some maybe three or four,” he offers. “Zaniyah’s 15 is certainly a record for recent memory.”
Since then, Williams’ award total has risen to 18 scholarships, including the University of South Florida’s Green to Gold Grant. At USF, she is majoring in biomedical sciences with a double minor in public health in women’s and gender studies, and Spanish.
Williams, a first-generation college student, was raised by Terri Haynes, a single mother and MCPS employee, and her father, Willie Williams, a small-business owner. She says she knew finances would constrain her dreams, but she had a plan for college and worked it well.
According to Sallie Mae’s report, How America Pays for College 2021, parents’ income and savings contribute the most, at 45%. The rest comes from scholarships and grants (25%), borrowed money (20%), the student’s income and savings (8%), and relatives and friends (2%).
To make her dreams a reality, Williams used the power of connection. She began pursuing excellence in the eighth grade.
“It is not what you know, it’s who you know,” she professes.
Terri Haynes, a bus driver at Forest High School, inquired about a math tutor when Williams was in middle school. Haynes was introduced to Raymond James, an FHS math teacher, who began weekly tutoring sessions with Williams free of charge through her senior year. Williams says James has become a mentor for life.
Williams also was fortunate to participate in the Take Stock in Children mentoring program, which qualified her to apply for one of six annual Leaders for Life scholarships. In December 2021, the organization’s benefactor, Mark Asofsky, made an 11th-hour decision to make Williams his seventh recipient that year. That scholarship, the largest of all of Williams’ awards, valued at up to $10,000 per year, will pay for her college tuition.
Community involvement opened other doors. Williams was a member and officer of the Pink Ladies & T-Birds Service Club at Vanguard for four years. Club sponsor Debra Lipphardt, who also was Williams’ career coach, frequently reminded the teen about the free money that is available for college students.
“She preached it,” shares Williams. “She would say, ‘There is this scholarship you qualify for. Go apply.’”
And, within two days, Williams says, she would have the application in the mail.
Williams also participated in activities such as #CAP (College Admissions Process), sponsored by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and earned a scholarship.
She says she encourages students to “make those connections with the people. Don’t be afraid to make your appearance visible.”
A young woman wise beyond her years, Williams further admonishes students to advocate for themselves. She proactively emailed the Take Stock in Children director and the Vanguard principal for letters of recommendation to accompany her applications.
“I am pretty independent,” she notes.
She also stayed connected to her supporters, visiting Vanguard regularly while taking full-time college courses during her senior year, oft en to see her “school mom,” Amanda Stinski.
Williams says her mother was her biggest supporter. She was determined not to ask her parents to get financially involved unless one of her scholarships did not pay for something she needed. That probability is small, as Williams is frugal, a trait she says she learned from her father.
“He always said, ‘Don’t spend money like you got it,’” she explains. “Always save for the unknown.”
She says she did not understand his words until she got to college.
“I didn’t even know books were $200,” she says with animation.
Both mom and daughter share the same approach to hard work and frugality. Williams says students teased her about “always wearing her work clothes” instead of the latest fashions, but she did not mind. She says she told classmates, “I am always working.”
September marked Williams’ fourth anniversary as a Publix employee.
Working two jobs and going to school concerned her mother, however.
“I was worried about her health,” shares Haynes. “But she planned it out.”
Williams kept her grades up, graduating with a weighted 4.3871 GPA.
Williams says her parents’ sternness grounded her and made her a responsible young woman. She recently completed an accelerated six-week program at USF. She does admit there can be a temptation to overindulge in college frivolities, but she says she understands her purpose.
Her catalyst for higher education is to help find a cure for cancer. When she was 7, her grandfather, Joe Haynes, died of prostate cancer. Her loss is now her motivation. She has a new job at a Tampa hospital and is volunteering at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. She says she plans to become a physician’s associate or a medical doctor.
In 1643, Lady Ann Radcliffe Mowlson, a wealthy merchant’s widow in London, was the first to contribute a financial aid scholarship to Harvard University. Then, as now, scholarships are necessary for middle- and lower-income students to achieve a competitive secondary education.
Nya Brigham, a 2021 summa cum laude graduate from West Port High School, with a 4.53 GPA, can attest.
Brigham received 15 scholarships, including Florida A&M University’s prestigious Presidential Special Scholarship. Like Williams, she received her associate degree while in high school. Brigham is on track to graduate from college in a year and a half with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing.
Her mother, Monica Edwards, a local healthcare professional, says Brigham used the Marion County scholarship directory, scholarships posted via MCPS high school websites, her guidance counselor, church, the internet and word of mouth to search for scholarships.
Brigham was relentless, applying for 40 scholarships and ultimately receiving enough “free money” to pay for her BS degree. Edwards says this would not have been possible without financial assistance, adding that her daughter “should be able to graduate debt free.”
Williams says she doubted she’d get certain scholarships, but thanks God she applied anyway. She believes students should not have a negative, defeatist mindset about the competitive process. Her biggest regret is not taking the initiative to apply for more scholarships because she might have been awarded more. She recommends that students “apply for whatever they are qualified for,” which is sage advice from the recipient of more than $55,000 in scholarships.
Stress about funding a college education is legitimate. Brigham believes it is essential to talk to high school students about planning for college. She says there is a difference between planners and non-planners.
“My peers who planned fared better in the sense that they weren’t as limited and were able to experience everything they wanted,” she offers. “They also didn’t have as much of a financial bur-den to worry about.”
Both Brigham and Williams circumvented those anxieties with similar plans. They studied hard, earned good grades, took accelerated courses, which boosted their GPAs, and were dual-enrolled, allowing them to gain college credits for free. Both were involved in extracurricular activities, did volunteer work and held jobs in order to gain experience and earn money for their education. They put in the work to reap the numerous scholarships necessary for their educational dreams.
But an ambitious Williams is not in a rush to graduate. She has curated another plan to excel. She articulates her desire to reflect on her college years as enjoyable, “not drudgery.” So, although she could graduate in two years, she is looking toward 2026.
Within that time frame, she says, “I can pick up a few minors, maybe double major; the sky is the limit.” OS