Connelly Springs, North Carolina
Public Health & Psychology
When Cody Williams arrived at UNC Charlotte in 2016, he wasn’t the person his peers know him as today — a gay male student excited about public health and social change — something he talks openly about.
Cody began his undergraduate career as a transfer student from Western Piedmont Community College near his hometown of Connelly Springs, NC — a rural community approximately 64 miles west of Charlotte with a population of less than 2,000 people.
The transition to college and a large metropolitan city was challenging for Cody. He was away from home – no longer living on his parents’ farm — and navigating his own identity. Like many college students, he was trying to figure out who he was and if he was in the right place.
Now, three years later and with plans to graduate in May 2020, Cody shares the transformation and growth he experienced during college, and his passion for the field of public health.
“I didn’t come out as being gay until after my first year of college here,” Cody says. “I was still trying to accept that for myself because growing up in a rural community, in a Southern Baptist church, it was hard to accept that part of who I was. I was looking for a place I would feel safe where I could explore more about myself.”
During his time at UNC Charlotte, Cody has sought a number of opportunities to grow personally and professionally. After joining PLEASE (Peer Leader-Educators Advocating for Sexuality Education), a student organization of trained peer educators that is devoted to encouraging sexuality dialogues and safer sexual health practices, Cody found that space.
“It was when I started to become more social and meeting people on campus and being involved in more queer friendly environments that I felt like this is OK and I can accept this about myself,” Cody explains. “I’ve changed so much and have grown into myself.”
Determining What Success Looks Like
Cody has also found an academic program which aligns with his values and interests. Though, it took some exploration to get there. Initially, Cody was enrolled as a pre-med student.
“Coming from a low socioeconomic community, I came to UNC Charlotte with the idea that in order to be successful, I had to become a doctor,” he says. “When I started taking organic chemistry, I didn’t do well.”
He struggled academically in the pre-med track and as a student who typically received A’s during high school, this was devastating.
“I felt lost and like a failure because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t meet the expectation that my community and family had set for me,” Cody says.
He began looking at different programs when a friend told him about public health and suggested he look into the community side of healthcare.
He took their advice and explored the option, deciding that public health is, in fact, the right fit for him and his career goals.
“Through this experience, I realized that I don’t have to meet the standard of success that my community or family put on me,” Cody says. “It’s something within me that I have to find for myself.”
In addition to health education, Cody is also passionate about public policy and increasing resources for marginalized communities. As an out gay man, Cody has faced his own challenges with discrimination including harassment in the workplace from a former employer.
“That act of discrmination made me more passionate about advocacy and inclusion for everybody,” he says. “That’s why I am passionate about advocating for more policies centered around LGBTQ folks feeling included and accepted because there are no protections for people like me.”
Cody advocated for himself by leaving that job and as upsetting as the entire experience was, he says it is what propelled him to strongly advocate for the Equality Act and become heavily involved in policy change in the United States.
Figuring out for himself what is right for him has been a gradual progression. As he mentions, the person he is today is not the same person he was when he arrived at UNC Charlotte. It has taken a lot of personal growth, acceptance, exploration, learning experiences and even some difficult moments to help him find his place — not only on campus but in the world.
Joining PLEASE (and eventually stepping into the role as the organization’s vice president) provided a space to explore his true self. Becoming a public health major set him on a path he is proud of and passionate about. And as an intern with the Center for Wellness Promotion, he has gained valuable career experience working in health education.
Cody is set to graduate in May and will hopefully join Teach for America where he can use his passion for health education to serve students in low-income communities like the one he grew up in. He is in the process of applying now.
Until that next step is decided, though, Cody will continue his internship with the Center for Wellness Promotion by facilitating programming on campus related to interpersonal violence and sexual health.
Coming up on Jan. 29, he is leading an open discussion about stalking and stalking prevention based on the popular Netflix series “You.”
“We’re going to be talking about how social media can influence stalking behavior, as well as the warning signs that many people don’t recognize,” Cody says.
The event will be held in CHHS 159 from 6-7:30 p.m.