Joseph Webb stood in front of the crowd of students and faculty in Beers Lecture Hall last Wednesday waving a crisp $20 bill in his hand.
“Come up and take it,” he said. “Anyone can. Just come up, grab it and it’s yours.”
No one stirred until minutes had gone by. Finally, a student tentatively walked up to take it and got to keep it.
“If an opportunity is right in front of you, you take it,” Webb said. “That’s what college is: an opportunity waiting for the taking.”
As a part of Black History Month, the Center for Multicultural Affairs brought in Webb for this year’s keynote address.
Webb discussed how he came to understand resilience and success throughout his life.
Now as director of student support services and interim director of student affairs and enrollment management, Webb spoke about how his success started with a rough childhood and subsequent failures.
“Higher education changed my life,” said Webb. “If it could change me, it can change anybody. I wanted to be able to give that back.”
When he was only seven years old, Webb’s mother was incarcerated. He was forced into foster care and separated from his siblings.
“In the group homes, there were two kinds of boys,” said Webb. “There were those, like me, who were taken and placed there and there were those who got in trouble with gangs or other problems. I had to learn to be street smart. I had to learn to survive. Eventually, I got involved in football.”
Football became an outlet and before he knew it, he was getting scholarships left and right.
He ended up taking one and going to college, a wildly unfamiliar territory.
“I had no support system,” said Webb. “With no family to go home to, no money, I slept in bushes at the school over breaks.”
Webb’s education was interrupted during his freshman year as he was arrested and spent time in jail.
Upon his release, he went back to his old neighborhood, but something inside him had changed.
While working as a dishwasher, he enrolled part-time in a local county college before getting a call from a past coach looking for someone to fill an immediate running-back position in Ohio.
“I had two garbage bags full of clothes and that’s it,” said Webb. However, he still had to pay a fine he couldn’t afford.
Seemingly miraculous, a Board of Trustees member at the local college and an Allstate CEO overheard his problem and offered to pay it in exchange for thirty minutes of yard work, every day, for a summer.
Little did he know that when he agreed, Webb had also signed up for lessons on success and wisdom from this benefactor as well as the coach, who became a father-figure and role model for him.
“One day, I looked around and realized I was sitting in class, right there, with the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Webb. “The only thing that separated me from my peers were my decisions. From that day on, everything changed.”
Eventually, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Marietta College in Ohio and then his master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
While he was getting his masters he started working in admissions than to retention.
“The hard work you put in today won’t benefit you now or next semester,” said Webb. “It’s setting a foundation for the rest of your life.”
Webb now spends his days helping students achieve their utmost potential while working to provide the best possible lives for his children.
Departing some of his wisdom, Webb shared several tips and tricks for success.
He advises students to make a list of their top three successes thus far, their top five values that keep them going and circle the first, most important. Then, answer the question: What can you contribute to society, your family or community? This answer followed by their number one goal or achievement.
After that, students are encouraged to identify a common theme that emerges and write it onto a notecard in order to remind them when they are feeling down that they are working towards something real, attainable and personally meaningful.
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