When Tomi Williams moved to Howard County from Ann Arbor, Mich., as a sixth-grader, he made a huge effort to make new friends. Sometimes, he says, he went a bit too far, becoming the class clown to get their attention.
When his efforts backfired, his mother opted for a year and a half of home schooling midway through seventh grade. Williams later arrived at River Hill High School grounded and mature enough to win over not only his schoolmates but peers throughout the county. Now a junior, Williams was recently named next year's student member to the county Board of Education, earning the votes of students in middle and high schools.
"It's very humbling in a way," Williams said about the honor. "I remember when I was in ninth grade, we had to vote for it, and I told my mom that I really wanted to run. Since then, I kept it in the back of my mind, and when I became a junior I knew I was going to run. I thought it was going to be a long shot, but I was blessed enough to win it."
Williams has made connections with students, said River Hill Principal Nick Novak, as a member of the school's Young Democrats Club, and he has invited local politicians to the school. While running for the Board of Education seat, he visited schools and contacted members of middle school student councils and such high school groups as Best Buddies.
"I'm proud to know that the student board member is a student who came from here; it shows the kind of things we're doing and the positive impact we're having on students," said Novak. "When I speak to Tomi about [the position] we speak about the growth opportunities, and with something like this he has a chance to enhance his leadership skills."
Williams grew up in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan, where his father was on the staff of the hospital. He remembers going to restaurants with his family to watch football games between Michigan and its rival, Ohio State.
He said initially it was difficult to leave Ann Arbor and come to Howard County.
"I started to make new friends, and it's tough in middle school, so sometimes I think I would try a little bit too hard," said Williams. "In the middle of seventh grade, my mom took me out to home school so I could focus more on school. That really helped me, and I was able to come back and focus on school a lot more. I still had the ability to make friends, but I kept that balance."
Williams compared his experience in his two homes, saying that living in a university setting exposed him to diversity at an early age, as he came across people from all walks of life.
"There were a lot of people there who were just outside the Detroit area and some from the suburban area, and the school that I went to was a mix of both of those kinds of kids," he said. "Being in that environment, and the way my family brought me up, I was really blind to race and to differences.
"It's more prominent here. With less diversity, there's more emphasis on the differences," said Williams. "But the education here and the opportunities that I have and the teachers are great."
Williams said that he hopes to venture into politics and has his sights set on attending Georgetown University.
"I had a chance to meet with Tomi last year when I was a speaker at a River Hill leadership conference," said school board member Brian Meshkin. "I was very impressed with Tomi. It has been a pleasure working with the current school board member and I am looking forward to working with him on our issues."
Williams is replacing Oakland Mills High School senior Alexis Adams. His one-year term begins next month, and he recognizes that the position comes with limited voting rights. He said that he initially wants to make full use of the powers the position has.
"I think there is a lot of potential as of now that hasn't necessarily been tapped into," he said. "I'm not saying that later on there can't be more powers given to the student member, but until we've totally tap into that potential … we should try to push more with what we have now."