Disciplined & Motivated: The Journey of Ensign Shaun Williams

ENS Williams standing next to an aircraft. ENS Williams after successfully troubleshooting and fixing an avionics gripe on this aircraft that had previously made it unsafe for flight for two months. (Credit: Courtesy of ENS Shaun Williams, USU)

By Vivian Mason

[Editor’s Note:  This article is the second of a four-part series profiling USU medical students and their medical school journeys to commemorate Black History Month.]

“Motivation gets you going, but discipline keeps you growing.” ― John C. Maxwell   

The path to finding what you’re meant to do isn’t always clear cut―just ask Navy Ensign Shaun Williams, a fourth-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University’s (USU) F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine. Williams’ path has taken many twists and turns over the years, but with steadfast determination and discipline, he is getting closer to his destination:  becoming an orthopedic surgeon.  

For the first two years of his life, Williams lived in Chicago, but when his grandfather fell ill, Williams moved to Guam with his mom, a “Chamorro” (Guam native) to care for him. Williams lived on the small Pacific island for the next nine years, but then returned to the mainland to live with his African-American father, an Air Force veteran, in Michigan. During his sophomore year of high school, Williams once again crossed the Pacific and returned to Guam. 

“It was an interesting experience growing up in Guam, but it was very tough. The cost of living is high, and wages are low. The biggest challenge living there is the lack of professional opportunity. So, unless you're interested in a career in education, marine biology, or the tourism industry, there isn’t much else,” Williams recounts.

ENS Shaun Williams (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
ENS Shaun Williams (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
“That's why people from Guam tend to join the military at a higher rate than most states or U.S. territories,” he adds. “The military affords many of us a better quality of life and is a potential bridge into our desired professions.”

His parents valued and encouraged education, and Williams found himself excelling at subjects with, as he puts it, “concrete answers,” such as math, science, and history. Williams also took up plenty of extracurriculars; basketball, football, and mixed martial arts all found their way into his life, and, at 17, he was able to graduate from high school ahead of his classmates. At the time, he didn’t know that he could compete for scholarships and financial aid to help him attend college, nor did he have guidance from his high school or from his family to navigate this time of major transition. Instead, Williams found himself working at a hotel until, at 19, he decided to join the Navy as an aviation electrician.

“I learned from my parents that there will always be struggles in life, but to never give up,” Williams adds.

Around that same time, Williams notes that he and his mom would often watch the television series ER, which sparked his interest in becoming a doctor. “The show featured a black surgeon, Dr. Peter Benton, and he became my idol. Once that goal was in my head, I knew that I had to go to college.” He then discovered that the Navy offered a way for him to do that.

Williams, strengthened in his resolve, took night classes to finish his undergraduate degree in workforce education and development. It wasn’t easy, though. He was stationed in Japan, and later in San Diego while trying to continue his studies. 

“It was a very tough struggle at that time to get my degree with a wife and two kids. It was difficult juggling the roles of family man, student, and sailor. Thankfully, my mother-in-law helped us out tremendously and was just amazing. Somehow, it all worked out.”

Williams became the first in his family to ever attend and graduate from college. 

“I believe that our service members are our nation’s most valuable resource. I feel honored and grateful for the opportunity to care for them." - ENS Shaun Williams

Now armed with a degree and his goal of becoming a physician still in his sights, Williams took advantage of every opportunity to get garner medical experience.  He volunteered at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, Calif., as a patient safety rounder, work that he says strongly validated his interest in becoming a doctor. It was during this time that Williams, like USU classmate Ensign Alexius Russell, learned about the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, or EMDP2, at USU. EMDP2, a two-year program offered by USU, allows promising enlisted service members interested in a career as a military physician a pathway to medical school while remaining on active duty. However, unlike Russell, Williams decided―after much discussion with his family―that the timing for EMDP2, while a great opportunity, simply wasn’t right for him. 

“It was about self-discipline more than motivation,” Williams adds. “Even though the Navy had afforded me so many opportunities up until then, [entering the medical field] was just one challenge that I had to take on. I had to go in this specific direction to complete this specific goal.”

In 2015, Williams left active duty to pursue a certificate program in the premedical sciences at Columbia University. While at Columbia, he continued his service in the Navy Reserves as the Leading Chief Petty Officer to 130 sailors in the New York City Naval Reserve Operational Support Command. Once a week, he also volunteered in the ER at the Lower Manhattan VA Medical Center.

“I didn’t like the fact that I had to leave active duty to set myself up for the next step in my career plans,” Williams explains. “The options that were before me were filled with uncertainty. In fact, if those options didn’t manifest, re-enlisting would have caused a three- to four-year setback goal-wise. I knew that I wouldn’t be happy with myself unless I pursued the best route for me. It would have just eaten away at me until I accomplished this goal, and my wife also knew this to be true.”

Williams continued his education after the certificate program at Columbia by obtaining a master’s
degree in public health. It was at this point that he submitted an application to USU’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine and got accepted, putting his goal of becoming a doctor now within arm’s reach.

Williams initially gravitated towards a career in otolaryngology, or ENT surgery (Ear, Nose, and Throat). But, during an anesthesiology rotation his mentor, Dr. Marvin Dingle, a black orthopedic surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at USU, approached him to consider his  field because of the shortage of black male surgeons. 

Williams remembered not being particularly interested in orthopedic surgery during his clerkships, but, with Dingle’s help getting started, he did an orthopedic rotation in San Diego and immediately clicked with the specialty. 

“[Orthopedic surgery] fits my personality,” Williams says. “I liked the challenging surgeries and the fact that you can restore someone’s functionality. It’s a very exciting field.”

ENS Williams standing at a podium. ENS Williams took a trip to the Pentagon as part of the USU Global Health Engagement Course. (Photo credit: ENS Shaun Williams, USU)
ENS Williams took a trip to the Pentagon as part of the USU Global
Health Engagement Course. (Photo credit: ENS Shaun Williams, USU)

While his discipline accounted for much of his success, Williams also adds that having great mentors has immensely helped him continue his journey. “If you find someone living the life or walking the path that you want to undertake, ask them to help you,” he advises.

Williams admits that it’s been quite a journey for himself and his family. “There’s been so much uncertainty along the way. My wife, Liliana, has been a champion. We know that not everything is going to fall into place right away and that eventually things will be okay. There’s been a lot of bumping and grinding and dealing with academia. Even now, it’s still pretty tough. However, it’s been very reassuring that my family believed in me so much that they were willing to jump on this train.”

Recently, Williams was selected for a one-year transitional internship in San Diego following graduation. “I will be a medical intern rotating through different departments in order to gain a more comprehensive experience in medicine.” He anticipates potential obstacles in his path to his coveted orthopedic surgery residency program, since the number of available training spots for orthopedics was reduced, but he is undeterred and remains excited about his future as a military physician in orthopedic surgery. 

“I believe that our service members are our nation’s most valuable resource,” he concludes. “I feel honored and grateful for the opportunity to care for them. Despite the stress and the long hours away from home and family, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job!”