For the past year and a half Ben Williams has been a man on a mission. Not only did he manage to complete his Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Recreation Administration, but he also received a new kidney after experiencing kidney failure, and has been accepted into the Carlson School of Management’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program for Fall 2020.
“The first word that comes to mind when I think of Ben is determined,” said Connie Magnuson, PhD, William’s mentor and the program coordinator of the Rec Admin degree, which is housed in the School of Kinesiology. “He submitted his final project to me from his hospital bed the morning after receiving his new kidney. Ben set a goal to complete his degree and stuck to what it took to accomplish it.”
Williams is a former University of Minnesota Gopher football player, and a former defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. He left the U of M before finishing his undergraduate degree, but promised his mother he would graduate from college.
“After I retired from the NFL, finishing my degree was always something I wanted to accomplish,” said Williams. “I decided I was tired of procrastinating and said, ‘Let’s just do this!’”
Williams jumped into his undergraduate courses with enthusiasm, and met with Magnuson early on about the Rec Admin program and the kind of coursework it would include. Together they mapped out an ambitious plan for him to finish in just three semesters.
What Williams didn’t know was that his kidney disease would escalate to kidney failure during the winter of his first semester back in classes. He was well aware of his need for a new kidney, and had been on the donor list for six years. But in a period of less than one semester he went from relatively healthy, to needing four to five hours of dialysis almost every day.
“I’ve faced quite a few hurdles,” Williams said of his journey to complete his undergraduate education. “I had just gotten over two back-to-back hernia surgeries, and then I had to start dialysis treatments on top of my regular daily load of school, work, etc.”
But Williams was determined, and was thoroughly enjoying his time as a Rec Admin student. “My perspective has changed so much since my first time around as an undergraduate student,” Williams said. “I’m a school junkie right now! I’ve learned so much, and experienced so much through Connie’s courses. She’s really been a mentor to me through this process, and I told her, I’m not going away!”
And, thanks to an organ donor, Williams wrapped up 2019 with both his BS degree, and a new, functioning kidney. He had his kidney transplant in November, and will be out of the hospital and recovering over the spring and summer. He’s anxious to continue with his education, but knows that taking care of his health is the first step to doing so.
Once he has completed the transplant recovery process Williams’ BS degree will function as a stepping stone as he moves on to start his MBA next fall. For Williams, the Rec Admin program was perfect because of the many tangible, hands-on experiences it offered that directly related to his current work running The Ben Williams Foundation.
“Some of my favorite experiences were the ones that allowed me to interact with groups of people who often get overlooked,” Williams said when reflecting on his time in the Rec Admin program. “Connie’s courses mix in real life interactions with more traditional academic work, and I really enjoyed that.”
Magnuson called Williams “a huge hit” when she and her Community Leisure Services for Persons with Disabilities class participated in an adaptive bowling league that provides services to people with disabilities. Additionally, one of Williams’ field experiences (REC 4271) included watching a Vikings football game with a special needs population.
“To watch the game and have the input of a former NFL player was off the charts for that group,” said Magnuson. “Ben is approachable and engaging and he makes connections in a very humble way. He wasn’t there to be a superstar; he had a genuine interest and personal connection with everyone in the room.”
“He and I have talked a lot about how life-changing it is to work with different populations—not only through what you’re able to offer, but what you receive in return,” she added. “And that’s the whole purpose of the class. If just one student has that experience it’s a success in my book.”
Williams specifically mentioned enjoying his time with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) community. He might even call them up during his downtime this spring to volunteer before he starts his MBA.
Williams said he feels prepared and excited for his next challenge with the combined knowledge he has from working in the industry and his recent Rec Admin coursework. He said he hopes people can look at his journey and be inspired to take on their own dreams and goals. “I hate when people discount their dreams,” he said. “Most people would look at what I’ve been through in the last year and half and see it as a burden, but I don’t regret a single day. To anyone who has it tough, I say, don’t give up.”
As the founder of The Ben Williams Foundation and Off The Field Plan, Williams plans to use the skills he’s learning through higher education to directly impact the work he’s doing to make healthcare, including dialysis, more accessible to rural and impoverished communities. Of his time in the Rec Admin classroom, William’s says that “education is something that stays with you forever; the time it takes to complete it is minuscule in the scope of life. I’m pleased to be a part of such a prestigious program.”
The School wishes Ben the best in his MBA endeavor and is proud to call him an alumnus! Keep an eye out for Ben Williams, MBA doing big things in the future.