Portrait photo of UC Davis alumnus Anthony Williams in a business suit, smiling.
Anthony Williams says that as a child growing up in South Sacramento, school wasn't a priority for him — until he visited UC Davis. Now the political science alumnus advises Gov. Gavin Newsom and personally supports programs to help first-generation and low-income students tap their full potential.

Deep Impact: Alumnus Anthony Williams Advises Governor

Anthony Williams leads the way into the courtyard of the governor’s office at the California State Capitol. As legislative affairs secretary to Gov. Gavin Newsom, he is working many long days in the post-legislative season and is happy to catch a few moments of sunshine.

The legislative session ended on Sept. 13, after which the governor has 30 days to render his decisions on some 1,000 bills that have made it to his desk. Williams advises him on each of those bills.

Williams (B.A., political science, ’90) leads a team that is responsible for analyzing and negotiating all the various pieces of legislation working their way through the California State Legislature. Nearly 3,000 bills had been proposed during the year; Williams and his team have worked with all 120 members of the legislature as they refined and winnow those bills down to the 1,000 that have been passed by both the Senate and the Assembly and are now up to become law.

“All these bills get reviewed by my team, and then I literally sit next to the governor, and we go through each bill, and I say, ‘This is our recommendation. This is the bill, this is what it does, they took these amendments for us, we’re recommending you sign it, or they refused to take these amendments, we’re recommending a veto,’ and he decides if it becomes law,” Williams said.

From south Sacramento to the Capitol

Williams spent some of his childhood and adolescence in south Sacramento where he and his four sisters were raised by a struggling single mom. “It was a pretty rough time. School was not a priority for me. Not getting in trouble was not a priority for me,” he said. “I used to be running around, watching all kinds of mayhem: shootings and stabbings and drug overdoses and prostitution.”

When Williams was in eighth grade, he and a friend planned to cut school after lunch. First, the friend had to attend an information session in the library and bring proof to his mom that he had gone.

“So I go with him,” Williams said, “and literally, that decision changed my life and my trajectory, because I was introduced to the UC Davis Early Academic Outreach Program. We ended up visiting the campus, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is what college is like?’ I had no idea. And from then on, I was basically on track.”

The UC Davis Early Academic Outreach Program was created in 1976 to serve students who are the first in their families to go to college or are socioeconomically disadvantaged. For Williams, it included several visits to campus that offered lessons in life skills, and an on-campus summer program that focused his attention on completing the college entry requirements.

When he enrolled, he was a part of the Special Transitional Enrichment Program, which offered support to first-generation and low-income students during their first two years of college.

Life-Changing Campus Mentors

Williams recalled the importance of two of his instructors in particular. Ellen Abrams, a writing instructor who still teaches on campus, remains one of his closest friends.

“When a teacher walks into a classroom for the first time, she can sometimes tell which students are really ‘with’ her. Anthony sat in the front row and was clearly very excited to be on campus and eager to get to work. His positive energy and enthusiasm were so obvious!” said Abrams, who formed a nonprofit with former students, including Williams, to raise money to pay for some of STEP when funding was cut.

As he approached graduation, another professor was instrumental in helping Williams go to graduate school, encouraging him to apply to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. A program there targeted undergraduates of color interested in public policy degrees. Williams earned his Master of Public Policy degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as a Wilson fellow.

“That’s the kind of difference a professor can make,” he said.

“Some [professors] were very supportive — they got it, and some of them didn’t,” Williams said of his experience. “And that’s fine because that’s how life is, and you want to be prepared for both.” (In recent years, universities across the country have recognized the importance of attracting and supporting first-generation college students like Williams. At UC Davis, the First Generation Initiative works with faculty to build awareness of the unique challenges first-generation students face.)

Room for more student internships

Williams returned to Sacramento to attend University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. From there, his career has spanned government service and government affairs in private industry, most recently at Boeing.

An early appointment after Newsom’s win last year, Williams said he sees opportunities in his city for the campus to engage with state government. He encouraged the development of internship programs that will bring undergraduates to Sacramento — especially for those with stories like his.

“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “Especially when I’m sitting there next to the governor of the fifth largest economy in the world going, ‘Hmmm, I used to be in South Sac.’ And I tell my story because they’re there, but you have to find them. With a little bit of effort, you can find a lot of those young people who are waiting to be tapped in terms of their potential.”

— Sharon Campbell Knox wrote this article for UC Davis Magazine, with contributions from Steven Morse

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