25 Years of Women at VMI

Williams ’01: Water off a Duck’s Back

Melissa Williams '01, D.O. posing by walll at U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland.

Melissa Williams ’01, D.O., on her last day on the job at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland.—Photo courtesy Williams.

Melissa Williams ’01, D.O., currently works for the U.S. Department of State. After VMI, she earned her medical degree from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and completed family practice residency in Maine. After practicing medicine for a few years, she explored opportunities to practice medicine overseas.

The search led her to the State Department. She applied to become a regional medical officer, and her first posting was in New Delhi, India. Her journey with the State Department started more than 10 years ago, and during her tenure, she’s served tours in India and Warsaw, Poland. Her current assignment is in Washington, D.C.

At U.S. embassies, RMOs provide medical care to assigned U.S. staff and their dependents. RMOs work both at their home post and cover a region of surrounding countries. They have opportunities to work with other foreign service medical providers and local medical staff at each embassy. “You spend a lot of time on the road,” Williams said.

U.S. communities overseas are not large, and it is much like living in a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and that goes double if you’re the doctor.

“That’s a really important lesson from VMI. Your reputation is everything,” Williams reflected. At VMI, she was part of the first group of women to matriculate, and it felt like everything was “under a microscope.” In her current post, there are similarities; people watch what she does. “You have to act like a leader—because you are a de facto leader when you’re the doctor. You have to set an example with your demeanor and your actions.”

As a teenager, Williams knew she wanted to be a doctor. Specifically, a Navy doctor. She attended a college fair during high school. Around this time, VMI was in the news following the Supreme Court decision allowing women to attend the Institute. Williams was applying to the U.S. Naval Academy, and her father told her to talk to the folks at the VMI table. She asked, and Col. Tom Mortenson gave her a huge smile, saying, “Sit down. Let me tell you all about it.” He convinced Williams to attend an open house at VMI.

The open house was “the beginning of that journey,” Williams remembered. During the visit, she found out that she could major in biology as a pre med student, “which was way more interesting to me than chemistry”—the USNA’s prescribed major for pre-med students. Then, VMI offered Williams an Institute Scholarship, covering 100% of her costs.

“VMI made me unafraid of so many things. ... It taught me to just try because if you fail, try again tomorrow. And you probably won’t fail. So go ahead, try.”

Melissa Williams ’01, D.O.

Before matriculation, her father told her not to take anything personally and to let it go— “like water off a duck’s back.” She held tight to that advice. She remembers meeting cadre: “I’m straining my little rat heart out, thinking, ‘Water off a duck’s back, water off a duck’s back.’ That really helped me keep a perspective going through the process.”

Intense media attention at the time complicated an already challenging environment. For Williams and her female BRs, the media’s focus on them was also a little puzzling. “We didn’t feel like we were trying to prove a point. We felt like we were going to college,” Williams remembered. “I was there getting a free ride to a great school with incredible placement for medical school. I think it didn’t feel like as much of a big deal to those of us who were going through it as it did to everybody else.”

VMI was “academically rigorous,” Williams said. She “fought hard” to meet Institute Scholarship GPA requirements and keep her scholarship. Running through the names of her professors, she remembered Col. Tom Baur ’75, Ph.D., and his “power hour;” Col. Dick Rowe, Ph.D.; Col. Alan Baragona, Ph.D.; and Col. Wade Bell, Ph.D.

Bell, she said, “changed the whole trajectory of my life.” And, knowing the mind of a college student, Bell did it by mentioning the one thing no college kid can resist: Free food.

One night, Bell was taking a van of cadets to visit WVSOM. He encouraged Williams to get in the van and go, too. She declined, saying she did not want to be an osteopathic doctor. After a bit of back-and-forth, Bell threw in, “There’s free dinner.”

“I literally got in the van because he said, ‘There’s free dinner,’” Williams laughed. The visit “changed my whole life. It was the only place I wanted to go to school. It was the only way I wanted to practice medicine. It spoke to me so clearly.”

From providing professors who cared about her, to friends she still talks to 25 years after they met, to directing her to a career she loves, VMI made a mark on Williams. The Institute’s training, like the Rat Line, was tough. “It sucks. … It’s scary. But it’s supposed to be,” Williams said. She had some disappointments, like finding out asthma disqualified her from commissioning in the Navy. But when she earned her diploma, she also gained something more.

“VMI made me unafraid of so many things. VMI is imperfect, but it really made me unafraid,” she said. “It taught me to just try because if you fail, try again tomorrow. And you probably won’t fail. So go ahead, try.”

  • Molly Rolon

    Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist