Leading Ladies: Desiree Williams

by Ryan Miller

By Barrett Baker

Dr. Desiree “Desi” Williams, PT, DPT
Director, William R. Harvey Leadership Institute and Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy

Dr. Desiree Williams is not your typical stay-at-home kind of person. In addition to her day-to-day duties at Hampton University as director of the Leadership Institute and her work in the Department of Physical Therapy, she also works one day a week for Riverside Health Systems in one of their outpatient clinics. She plans and hosts Hampton University’s annual 5K fundraiser, she has competed as Miss Virginia in the Miss USA and Miss America pageants, and—although she could not publicly confirm or deny it with us—she recently returned from Fiji where she was one of 18 contestants filming the upcoming 35th season of the hit TV show, “Survivor.”

Her interest in physical therapy was originally sparked in high school when she was working as head coach with a Special Olympics cheerleading team. “I was able to see through that experience just how physical activity was truly transforming the athletes’ lives,” Williams says. “They were becoming more social and obviously more physically fit. So, I just fell in love with the idea of helping people heal their lives through healing their bodies. That was my initial inspiration for physical therapy.”

Desiree Williams, Leading LadiesPhoto by Jim Pile

As a shy wallflower that sat in the back of the classroom in hopes that she wouldn’t get called on to answer questions, Williams credits her education with shaping her into the woman she is today. “Hampton University has a way of forcing you to step up to the plate and be a leader,” she says. “Dr. William Harvey has been a great mentor to me during my time here, especially now as a faculty member. I’d also like to mention the late Dr. Freddye Davy, who was Director of the Honors College at HU. To be truthful, I couldn’t stand her when she was my professor because she had such high expectations of her students and she’d call you in the middle of the night and expect you to do a speech the next day in class. But it was in those moment of discomfort that I realized I could step up to the plate and I could address a group of 500 people and be successful.”

Today, Williams admits that she doesn’t know how to relax but doesn’t mind being super busy all the time. “I think the most important thing for me is really managing your time and your relationships,” she says. “I’ve always had these bigger priorities that have kept me focused. So, all in all, staying busy is a good thing because you don’t have time to get in trouble when you’re chasing goals.”

Being a pageant contestant is just one example of how Williams is trying to live her life on her own terms through personal growth. “I’ve always lived by the philosophy of not having any regrets,” she says. “I’ve found that within my experiences—the experiences in which I grow the most—are when I’m stepping out of my comfort zone. My first pageant was during my senior year of college. I didn’t grow up doing pageants at all, and I was terrified to go on stage. But had I not taken that leap of faith and really jumped outside of my comfort zone to try something new, I can almost guarantee that I wouldn’t even be in the current job position I’m in today. I think it really helped me to grow as a woman. So, my biggest piece of advice to give people is just to take advantage of every opportunity, get comfortable with being uncomfortable and just don’t have any regrets. You don’t ever want to look back and say, ‘What if?’”

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