Kelly Willett’s (’14) love of medicine traces back to a childhood curiosity about hospitals, X-rays and shots, and with a dream of one day becoming a doctor herself. As a Riverside Medical Group Leadership Scholar in CNU’s Pre-Med Scholars Program (PSP), she saw plenty of the former, and had ample encouragement to continue her pursuit of a medical career. But it’s what she did after class that really drove her, that 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 the athletes in particular stands out. “They paired me with a little girl named Emily,” she remembers. “Even disregarding the fact that she has Down Syndrome, she was a very talented gymnast. Being with her and seeing how much she loved 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.”
Shortly after Willett arrived at CNU from her hometown of Gainesville, Virginia, she launched Special Olympics Gymnastics Newport News in partnership with a local gym. The program steadily grew from three athletes to more than a dozen, from a solo effort to one with several volunteer coaches, to whom Willett transferred leadership. “Success is defined by the program continuing to be successful after I’m gone,” she says. “It wouldn’t be fair to the athletes for me to say, ‘I’m graduating, sorry, the program is over.’” The class meets weekly, and the team has competed in several meets, where 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, getting a medal and getting to meet other people,” says Willett.
The experience served as a lab of sorts for Willett, as she was able to directly apply lessons learned in CNU’s President’s Leadership Program (PLP) to circumstances she faced managing the Special Olympics program. Effective communication, trust, teamwork and management all came into play, along with realizing the overall vision. “That’s the key to the leadership program, putting it into practice,” she says. “You can sit in the PLP classes and take notes, take the test and get an A, but not come out as a better leader. Leadership isn’t sitting down and reading a textbook, it happens out in the world.”
Back on campus, Willett’s pre-med experience was unparalleled — and she would know — she turned down the University of Virginia in favor of CNU. “There was no other program that offered me the opportunity for undergraduate research, guaranteed shadowing at a major hospital and early admission to medical school,” she says. “I was in the neonatal intensive care unit, I was in radiology, cardiology, the ICU — I was in places I didn’t even know existed in a hospital. I was able to stand next to physicians and see what they do.”
Equally instrumental for Willett was the support provided by the Riverside scholarship. “It’s what brought me to CNU,” she says. “It was a huge blessing that allowed me to pursue my education without as much strain on my parents, and further confirmed my dream of becoming a doctor. I can never express my thanks enough to the individuals who allowed me this amazing college experience.”
Through CNU’s PSP, Willett was also able to apply for early admission to Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) her sophomore year without having to take the MCATs. This benefit paid another dividend, too, enabling her to avoid a semester applying for and interviewing at medical schools and instead spend the time abroad in Scotland at the University of Glasgow. “It was a phenomenal experience,” she says of her college journey. “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 attends EVMS and is a recipient of a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps. The program provides full tuition support and a living stipend to students in exchange for a four-year commitment after medical school and residency to practice in an underserved inner city or rural area.