Woodstock notable soars in spite of the odds

by: , Dilafruz Williams -- a Woodstock resident, a Portland State University professor, and a Portland Public School board member.

She lives in Woodstock. You know her from her high-profile service on the Portland School Board. But you will find her personal background fascinating.

'In India, when I was a teenager, my female cousins were married off by their parents at 15 and 16. They had no choice in selection of their spouses, nor in finishing their studies. Friends and family would put pressure on my parents, asking when would they arrange my marriage, too,' says Dilafruz Williams. 'They would raise their eyebrows when our parents would say their daughter was getting an education instead.'

The eldest of four children, Williams, a Woodstock resident, Portland State University professor, and Portland Public School board member, defied all odds to become who she is today.

'Neither of my parents graduated from school, but they were very keen on education for their children,' remarks Williams. 'My mother would tell us that there were two things that no one can take away from you--good character, and an education.'

The story of how Williams acquired that education is reflective of her culture and character. In the sixties, after secondary school, in India there were three career path choices - arts, commerce, or science. Science was a male-dominated field. Always at the top of her class, Dilafruz was one of very few girls who went to a Science College at the University of Bombay, a school reserved for those who ranked highest on public exams.

'To finance my education, I tutored students in science and math, subjects I loved, and ones that, luckily for me, were in demand for tutoring,' she recounts. After getting a Masters of Science in Botany she received a fellowship to enter a PhD program, studying the diseases of rice. She says it was her 'altruistic self' that determined the PhD interest.

'I wanted to save every grain of rice from diseases, because I saw so much hunger and poverty around me.'

After two weeks of being alone in rice fields, and working at a microscope in a lab, she realized that this isolation didn't suit her. 'I began to discover that I was people-oriented. I decided to become a teacher. When I look back, I realize that teaching was always my forte, my passion. In secondary school, I loved teaching everyone in class during lunch break. When we were finished eating, I would organize study circles, and we would do math exercises and quizzes.'

Williams' love of teaching math and science led to teaching biology at the University of Bombay, followed by certification for teaching math and science to grades 6-12. After several years of teaching in India, she received scholarships in 1978 to come to the U.S. to study at Harvard.

She says, 'I didn't know a soul here. I came with two small suitcases, one full of gifts.' She earned a degree at Harvard and then wrote a PhD dissertation at Syracuse University on 'Democracy and Education.' Teaching and research positions at Boston University and Syracuse University were followed by research and lecturing, focused on how to keep minority and low-income students in school, and inspire underprivileged students to continue on to higher education.

'I've come full circle,' she reflects, looking at the strands of interest in her life. 'My love of botany and science and math, then my desire to probe the foundations of education--to be involved in urban schools and service learning. All of this has led me to where I am--Department Chair of Education Policy at PSU, Portland Public Schools board member, involved in community education projects that support learning about the land, sustainability, urban schools, and different cultures.'

Williams is also a Zoroastrian by faith, a little-known religion in the U.S. Zoroastrian members are dedicated to a three-fold path, as shown in their motto: 'Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.' In 2001 Williams' service to community was recognized when she was awarded a prestigious national service award.

Looking back, Williams seems awed at how important the Portland Public Schools have been in her life. 'PPS provided a good education for James [her 22 year old son, who graduated from Princeton, and has just won a two-year Soros Fellowship to study at Harvard or Stanford law school]. He had fabulous teachers. And as a PSU education professor, I have been exposed to dozens of excellent PPS schools and programs.'

Giving back to a system that gave so much to her son is important to this mother, who was widowed when her son was four. 'James and I became best friends, and have been ever since,' she confides.

The full circle also leads back to an environment where learning was highly valued, but resources were sorely lacking. 'In India we had no libraries, but I loved reading. When I would get a book I would read it front to back, over and over.' In a one-bedroom apartment with three siblings, to make quiet time for reading, she would rise at 4 am when her father woke to go to work. 'As the oldest daughter, I would make tea for him and study in those quiet morning hours.'

From those quiet moments with books, the financial challenges of her family, and a love for nature and learning, an educational philosophy was nurtured. 'I believe that education opens up a world that can take you many places,' Dilafruz Williams concludes. 'It fosters a sensibility of care--for self, for community, and for a healthy environment, all intertwined.'