Kelly Willett’s love of medicine hearkens back to a childhood curiosity with hospitals, X-rays and shots, and with a dream of one day becoming a doctor. As a Riverside Medical Group Leadership Scholar in CNU’s Pre-Med Scholars Program (PSP), she sees plenty of the former, and has ample encouragement to continue her pursuit of a medical career. But it’s what she does after class that really drives her, that has led her to see her chosen field not simply as a job but as a way to reach others in a most profound way.
A competitive gymnast from childhood through high school, Willett got involved with Special Olympics during that time as a coach, and one of her students in particular stands out. “They paired me up with a little girl named Emily,” she remembers. “Even disregarding the fact that she has Down’s Syndrome, she was a very talented gymnast. Being with her and seeing how much she loved to do gymnastics and how excited she was when she walked in the door, I just fell in love with it, and I fell in love with her. I was so excited to go and coach every week.”
When Willett, a junior biology major, arrived at CNU, she hoped to launch a program locally in order to continue giving back to the sport that so shaped her. She began coaching children’s gymnastics at a nearby facility and found that the owner shared her enthusiasm to launch a Special Olympics program. She began coaching the gym’s special-needs class, all the while looking for children who wanted to join a new program, and whose parents were eager to see them take the next step in the sport. “Those parents became my biggest supporters when I was going through the process and getting things approved,” Willett says. “They were so excited about it, and it was their support that got me through.”
Special Olympics Gymnastics Newport News was founded in 2010, Willett’s freshman year, and the program has since grown from three to 15 athletes. She has had to hire additional volunteer coaches, and the team has competed in several meets, at which the children’s passion for the sport is no different than other gymnasts. “It’s the same joy that I got out of it when I was little, of getting to show everyone what I could do and getting a medal and getting to meet other people,” says Willett.
Back on campus, the experience PSP offers Willett is unparalleled — and she would know — she turned down top schools in favor of CNU. “There was no program that could offer me the opportunity for undergraduate research, guaranteed shadowing at a major hospital and early admission to medical school,” she says. “I’ve been in the neonatal intensive care unit, I’ve been in radiology, cardiology, the ICU — I’ve been in places I didn’t even know existed in a hospital. I’ve been able to stand next to physicians and see what they do.”
Last summer she completed a paid internship at neighboring Riverside Hospital and has two mentors there who advise her on her future career. And, through CNU’s PSP, she was able to apply for early admission to Eastern Virginia Medical School her sophomore year without having to take the MCATs. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” she says of her journey so far. “I want to go into developmental pediatrics, and that came from Special Olympics. I had never considered that field until I started working with these kids. It brought me to the compassionate side of it, of seeing patients not as procedures, but as people, as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister.”
Dr. Gwynne Brown, PSP Director, says Willett’s “drive, dedication to service, positive attitude and intelligence will get her extremely far in the medical field. I have no doubt she will make an excellent physician.” Willett is quick to credit CNU faculty with inspiring her and helping her prepare for the coming challenges. Biology Professor Dr. Christopher Meighan is Willett’s research adviser and says, “Kelly gets the most out of every opportunity she encounters, embracing challenges and striving for success.” And of Meighan, Willett says, “He knows exactly how far to push us; he’ll never outright give us the answer, but put it just out of our reach, and then he’ll help us get there.”
That’s probably the measure of a good gymnastics coach, too.