VCU senior guard Zakia Williams (second from left) at the graduation and awards ceremony for Henrico County's Basic Student Jailor Program earlier this month.

VCU senior guard Zakia Williams (second from left) at the graduation and awards ceremony for Henrico County’s Basic Student Jailor Program earlier this month.

RICHMOND, Va. – Bill Cosby once wrote a book called “Congratulations! Now what?”, which doled out postgraduate wisdom, laced with the comedian’s trademark humor, to college graduates. It’s said that there’s a little bit of truth in every joke, and Cosby’s cheeky title is a good example. Graduation can be an exciting time, but many students aren’t prepared to navigate life after the diploma.

But Zakia Williams doesn’t plan on being another rudderless graduate. She’s already planning ahead. This summer, the VCU senior guard took an important step towards a smooth “real world” transition. A Criminal Justice major, Williams was recently deputized through a joint program between VCU and the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department called the “Basic Jailor Student Academy”.

The nine-week program trained and certified VCU Criminal Justice upperclassmen in a number of areas, including firearms, mental health, defensive tactics and CPR. In its third year, the program was developed by Henrico Sheriff and VCU graduate Michael Wade in 2010 as a way to reduce overtime costs and prepare Criminal Justice majors for their careers. Students who complete the program are certified and eligible for part-time employment in the county’s corrections system.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for me because ultimately that’s what I want to do. I want to work in corrections,” said Williams, a native of Columbus, Ga.

There was plenty of upside in the program, but there was also a catch.

The program ran daily from about 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. That meant Williams, who averaged 3.3 points and 1.5 assists per game last season, would have to find time for her offseason basketball workouts around that schedule. In order to make it all work, Williams had to schedule separate strength and conditioning sessions at 5 a.m. Then, in the evenings, she’d have to find time to work out on the court, whether it be in pick-up games or with individual skills sessions. It would be a nine-week grind.

But Williams stuck it out. She says she was often in bed by 9:30 p.m. and up the next morning by 4:30 a.m. Williams says the NBA Finals were particularly difficult, as she was left to miss the games and sleep through the muted cheers of her roommates.

A Criminal Justice major, Williams averaged 3.3 points and 1.5 assists per game last season.

A Criminal Justice major, Williams averaged 3.3 points and 1.5 assists per game last season.

Her corrections training also included a lot of physical activity, much of it outdoors in the humid Richmond summer. She says the experience was a challenge like no other.

“My body felt like it got hit by a truck,” said Williams.

Despite the physical and mental toll, VCU Coach Marlene Stollings says Williams was dedicated and didn’t miss a single basketball workout.

“It is rare for a student-athlete to take on such an intense schedule during their offseason. Zakia showed an uncanny amount of grit, determination and self-discipline,” said the second-year coach. “It was neat for me to observe her teammates taking note of the long days and really admiring her work ethic. She is, without question, one of the leaders on our team.”

Stollings also believes that while Williams’ goal was to prepare herself for her career after basketball, the senior will also serve as an inspiration to her teammates on and off the court.

“I think it was powerful and very influential, them seeing, if nothing else, her daily schedule,” she said. “Because they get up to go to the track, and she’s already gone. They’ve taken a nap and had lunch and she’s still not back.”

The internship concluded with a graduation and awards ceremony in August. Williams, the queen of bleary-eyed 5 a.m. workouts, won the program’s physical fitness award.

Since the completion of the program, Williams has been working the night shift part-time at Henrico County’s Regional Jail West facility, where she tends to the inmates. Not only has the Student Jailor Program helped Williams get a jump start on her career in Criminal Justice, but it’s allowed her to gain valuable experience.

But like any good job, it doesn’t feel as much like work as it does a calling.

“I want to help people realize there’s always something better,” she says. “And I know you might not always see that behind bars. And if I can help one person, then they can help another person and then we have a better world, ultimately.”

Meanwhile, Stollings says Williams personifies one of the bedrock principles of the VCU program, and she can be an example for others to follow.

“When our student-athletes graduate, we want them to be knowledgeable and well-trained for life after basketball,” she said. “We take great pride in educating them on how to write a resume, how to dress for an interview and how to conduct themselves during the interview. Zakia went beyond the training and took advantage of a hands-on experience which will serve her well when she graduates this spring. She is a great example of what can happen when you maximize an opportunity.”