Michael "Mike" Williams says he loved every second of his experience as a Saint Leo University student. He's now proud to say that his degree helped prepare him for an exciting career in multimedia production that recently resulted in, unbeknownst to him at the time, getting to work on Taylor Swift's latest album.
The 24-year-old was born in Tallahassee, FL and spent his formative years in Panama City Beach before his family relocated to Lakeland in 2003. They have a 13-year-old 'Heinz 57' dog, Ellie.
"I'm living my best John Mayer life right now, so I'm single as a Pringle," Williams says with a laugh.
Williams graduated from McKeel Academy of Technology in Lakeland in 2014. He then went on to earn an Associate of Arts degree from Polk State College in 2016.
Discovering Saint Leo University
According to Williams, it was a word-of-mouth recommendation that led him to pursue his bachelor's degree from Saint Leo University.
"My mom is a teacher and was considering earning her master's at the time," he says. "One of the assistant principals at her school recommended she check out Saint Leo. She said it was less than an hour away. So, we decided to drive over on a random Saturday. We stopped into the admissions office and they had us schedule a campus tour."
It was like love at first sight when he finally got a good look at the campus.
"It's a beautiful campus and I fell in love with it almost immediately, especially after that view they showed me from upstairs in the library. The old Florida architecture and setting totally captured me, and I could see myself spending the next few years there."
It was also his work that made him want to remain in the area.
"I had started building a relationship with Soundhouse Studios in Lakeland, and I was doing some audio production work for some churches."
He started at Saint Leo as an undeclared major, but he quickly realized that the multimedia management program (now called the Bachelor of Communication program) was a good fit for his academic and professional interests.
Living at University Campus
Williams spent all three years living on campus while attending Saint Leo.
"I was an RA in Roderick Hall during my junior year," he says. "This had such a big influence on me in a positive way. I remember Kristen Nash, KJ McConnell, Matt Helf, and so many others who worked there. They were all so fundamental in helping me develop as a person."
In January 2018, he was selected to attend a Florida Resident Assistant Seminar (FRAS) conference at Ringling College in Sarasota, FL.
"That was such a cool experience and I made so many great connections with RAs from all over the state," he explains.
He recalls playing video games in the game room, hanging out in the lounge, and eating in the cafeteria as all fond memories of his time on campus.
"Those were the best three years of my life. I really miss it. You form really close friendships and relationships with those both inside and outside of your major. There's nothing like being literally within 100 feet of a friend at any given time."
He also participated in many campus events and remembers seeing Smash Mouth perform for homecoming in 2017.
"My friends and I still have this group text we're in where we talk about all of our great memories of Saint Leo," he says.
During his junior year, he became a member of Kappa Sigma.
"I met some of my best friends through that fraternity," he explains. "I will definitely want some of them by my side on my wedding day."
He says all of his professors made a positive impact on him in some fashion.
"All of my professors were amazing," he recalls. "I honestly loved every single one of them. Most people go through at least one or two classes they don't really like for one reason or another, but I was so grateful because they truly care about their students and their craft. Plus, they are just good all-around people who also have connections in their respective fields."
A few who come to his mind are Drs. Kenneth Embry and Jennifer Toole, along with adjunct instructor Emma Brown. Mauricio Rodriguez, a music instructor outside of his degree program, was even quite memorable.
"As a musician, he is one of the best people I've ever met. He taught me so much about music, and he's just such a great guy to be around."
He also calls business instructor Peter Marian "one of the most bro-esque guys to hang out with," referring to the times he spent at gigs with Timewarp, a Saint Leo rock band at University Campus.
To top it all off, he played in the Saint Leo Rhythm Machine jazz band and was involved in several theater productions with Dr. Alicia Corts.
Practical Experience Working on Campus
In addition to his academic and social pursuits at Saint Leo, Williams had the chance to work on several multimedia projects around campus. He was a photography assistant for the university's communications team and worked under former art and design manager Ben Watters.
"On campus, Ben was definitely the person who influenced me most in terms of my career and the world of creative arts. It was a great environment to work in, and I became friends with several of the communications team members."
He also did some audio and video projects for residence life, including helping design the Haunted Marmion trick-or-treat event in one of the residence halls for Halloween.
"I wanted to give back to Saint Leo because of how much they had given to me. Plus, it's just so cool and fun to get to do creative things."
Influences from Saint Leo University's Core Values
Williams loved all of the six Saint Leo University core values, although a few in particular had a tremendous influence on him.
"Community has always been a big one for me, not only at Saint Leo but also in my own work and the community outreach I've done. I think connecting with those around you is so important. Also, with personal development, when Saint Leo says that 'you'll love the person you become here,' they are absolutely right. On graduation day, I had one of those sappy sitcom moments where I thought back and realized how much I had changed as a person."
Advice to Prospective Saint Leo Students for University Campus
He has some advice for any prospective student who is considering Saint Leo's University Campus for college.
"I would say take a tour but then go walk around the campus yourself. Look around and see what's going on. Walk by the residence halls, the church, Benedict's Coffee House, and any other places you want to check out. Let the campus speak to you. Then ask yourself if you could see yourself going there."
He adds that the smaller campus compared to much larger schools has so many benefits.
"You really get to know everyone on campus," he says. "Plus, the smaller class sizes and all of the cool events going on make it such a great place to go. You'll get some unique opportunities that you wouldn't normally get at a larger university."
Career in Music and Production
Williams says he was just a young boy when he first realized his love of music and how it can bring so much joy to one's life.
"The first sounds I ever remember hearing were songs from Van Halen, Darude, The Crystal Method, and other American and European artists, but also Hans Zimmer and John Williams."
His introduction to playing music came when he started playing Guitar Hero but soon after got a Fender Squier Stratocaster electric guitar right before his 11th birthday. He says he played it so much that he wore out the electronics in it.
In high school, he and a few other students had to do a group project in which they could perform a song with instruments for the whole school. His group chose "Enter Sandman" from Metallica.
"It was such a rewarding experience, and I realized in that moment that I had to get into music in some capacity in the future," Williams recalls.
His mom connected him to Jonathan Gautier, the owner of Soundhouse Studios in Lakeland. He started helping out with the recording of bands and other audio projects. Gautier then hired him as a part-time employee.
"I started to realize that I could help people spread their message in the world thru recording," Williams recalls. "I've worked with all kinds of artists, from rappers to gospel singers to rock bands to people doing spoken word."
He continued to work for the studio while attending Saint Leo. He became a session guitarist and started to play guitar and bass on tracks for other artists to use. He soon became the chief engineer for Soundhouse Studios.
An Unexpected Project for Taylor Swift
According to Williams, the studio received a request back in the spring to produce some violin recordings. An artist who goes by Bobby Hawk and his father wanted to book the studio for a few sessions. Then they started coming in twice a week.
"Bobby Hawk is a professional session musician and violinist from New York City who is big in the folk music scene. He got stuck in Florida because of the virus. He told us that he needed to record some violin tracks and layer them on top of some other tracks he had received from one of his producer friends, but he didn't know what this was all going to be used for. Some of the tracks he received were just labeled 'Project X.'"
Williams and Gautier later found out that these recordings were going to Jack Antonoff, a former member of the well-known pop group Fun and now with a group called Bleachers. Antonoff is also a producer in the record industry.
"After a little while, Bobby texted us a link to an Instagram post about how Taylor Swift was dropping a new album. We discovered that the recordings we had done with Bobby had been used for a few of the tracks on that album."
The album is called Folklore. Several of the tracks, including "August," "My Tears Ricochet," and "This is Me Trying," feature the violin recordings. The credits on the album state "strings by Bobby Hawk and production by Jon Gautier and Mike Williams of Soundhouse Studios in Lakeland, FL."
"It's so cool that at 24, a platinum album by Taylor Swift actually has my name on it. This is so crazy. It's also nice that people are starting to recognize our studio and the work we can do. Our big thing is giving back to the community, no matter how small or big a client may be."
In addition to his work at Soundhouse, he runs a company called Willowhill Productions which provides photography and videography services.
A Unique Attitude
Through his work with the studio and his other business ventures, capturing stories is a big part of his passion.
"I want to bring things in the community to life that were never noticed before. I also want to help people tell their stories and help them get their stories out to the world."
He has a few specific goals in mind as well.
"One of my big career goals is to create the score for an award-winning film. I also want to write music that makes people happy and gives them hope."
Learn More about Mike Williams
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Michael Williams and are used with permission.