Marilyn W.'s Story

“When my school counselor told me about QuestBridge, it was a game changer to think I could actually go to any college I wanted.”

Marilyn Williams always knew she wanted to go to college. “My parents made it very clear that I could do anything I wanted — the sky’s the limit — with the caveat that they could not afford to fund that journey to the stars,” Marilyn shared.

Born and raised in Fairhope, Alabama, Marilyn thrived in the classroom, but wondered how paving a path to college would be possible. “My mom and dad raised four daughters on $40,000 a year,” Marilyn said. “I was one of the few African-American students in the predominately White Fairhope School System who had perfect attendance, enjoyed AP classes, and studied relentlessly. … College was always the goal; money was the obstacle.”

From her first year at Fairhope High School, Marilyn searched for scholarships, grants, financial aid packages, and more. “I thought I could only apply to colleges that offered inclusive packages for low-income students,” Marilyn explained. “When my school counselor told me about QuestBridge, it was a game changer to think I could actually go to any college I wanted.”

Thanks to support from her parents, siblings, and local community, Marilyn worked her way through the QuestBridge National College Match application. “They cheered me on the whole way,” Marilyn shared. Still, completing the application presented its challenges. “My family shared one computer at our house with terrible dial-up internet,” Marilyn explained. “I went to the library each day after school to fill out the application.”

After months of hard work and patience, Marilyn found out that she had been admitted to the University of Chicago. “I screamed,” Marilyn said. “All these years later, I still have my admission packet. It’s in pristine condition in a wicker basket in the front hallway closet. It remains one of my proudest achievements and fondest memories. … I’ll never forget dancing and squealing with my mama when I got that letter.”

When Marilyn moved to Chicago to begin her first year of college, she started as a geophysical sciences major. “That lasted one quarter,” Marilyn explained. After a course in Greek Thought and Literature and an internship at a local children’s hospital, Marilyn realized that she loved Classics and working with children. She decided to combine the two, aiming for a career in teaching.

At the same time, Marilyn found that college itself had a learning curve. “At first, UChicago knocked my intellectual ego down a peg,” Marilyn shared. “College taught me that I had to ask for help. I learned to be humble, how actually to study, how to learn — not memorize, and what it means to work. I still have so much to learn.”

In the years since graduation, Marilyn has taken her dream of being a teacher all over the world: “I have taught science in Kentucky, ESL in China, English Language and Literature in Egypt, Biology in Colombia, ESL in Andorra, and even more in between them all,” Marilyn explained. In 2023, Marilyn also earned a master's degree in Ancient Worlds (Classics & Archaeology) from the University of Edinburgh.

Now, Marilyn teaches Ancient World History, Medieval European History, and Indigenous History of the Americas at The Altamont School in Birmingham, Alabama. “Altamont is an independent 5-12 school that has allowed me to teach the areas of history that I know and love,” Marilyn shared.

Reflecting on her journey, Marilyn said, “You really should never let money, or a lack thereof, determine what you apply for or do. The money is there — apply for it. The opportunities are there — seek them out. The answers are within reach — ask for them.”