She thanks God that she and her family escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, where after the storm she slept with her mother and brothers on the ground outside their moldy, soggy house and caught military meals dropped from a hovering helicopter. She thanks God for the uncle who drove down from Chicago with food and for the phone call from their Texas cousins who invited them into their home.
But Patara Williams also gives thanks for her ability to turn her traumatic experience into an opportunity for growth and education. The truth is, Katrina changed her life and is responsible for the fact she left Gautier, Miss., for Arlington, Texas, where for the first time she was treated as an equal with her white peers. She excelled after her teachers recognized her academic ability and promoted her into AP classes.
It also gave her a new perspective of herself as a successful servant-leader, one she is fulfilling now at Xavier, where she’s studying for both a Master of Health Services Administration and a Master of Business Administration.
“The perspective I have now was shaped by my experiences and will be critical in the role that I ultimately play,” Williams says. “I have always viewed leadership as a servant-leadership position. To teach people something, I have to understand people at the bottom of the totem pole, so the servant leader is living out and doing it all and being able to lead by example.”
She’s come a long way from the life she lived as an African American girl in the southern town of Gautier and the things she saw that August of 2005 when she was only 13. Now 24, she’s grateful for her life, her future and the opportunity to attend Xavier, made possible by the Corris Boyd scholarship she was awarded that fully covers the tuition for her MHSA program.
The scholarship, valued at $40,000, is a highly competitive award to promote minority education in health services and social medicine. Williams was one of only two winners for the Class of 2019—another unintended consequence of her Katrina encounter.
“Corris Boyd championed community service and leadership and success of minorities and women and, because he was so dedicated to diversity, I thought this is also my heart,” she says. “So I applied for it and my essay was in line with what his heart was, and that may have been why I was a recipient. It made it possible for me to have my full program covered at Xavier.”
Originally a pre-med student at Baylor University, she switched her major to sociology with a pre-med track with plans to go into health care management. After graduating from Baylor, she chose Xavier for her graduate Health Services Administration program because of its emphasis on leadership and its residency requirement.
“I started looking and Xavier’s program popped out as leaders, thinkers, and inspirers, and the residency played a key role because it’s an opportunity to apply knowledge,” she says. “I thought you just don’t get any better than that.”
Xavier was her top choice. After she applied, she put her application on the wall and prayed over it every day. She interviewed with the director, Sr. Nancy Linenkugel. When she got admitted, luck struck again as a cousin who lives in Florence, Ky., offered her a place to live and a car while attending Xavier. She volunteers now part-time at St. Elizabeth Hospital and takes classes full time.
“It’s been an excellent experience,” she says. “I see all those values displayed through all my professors. As they teach us, they echo those values of respect, accountability, integrity, equity and open communication, and that’s very important to me. If they’re leading us, then we’re going to reflect what they’re teaching us. We are a reflection of our leaders.”
She plans to use her degrees to serve society by leading a health care organization with the kind of compassion she experienced after the hurricane when she and her family were vulnerable and needy.
“I see myself in a hospital executive position,” she says. “There’s this huge shift in medicine from quantity to quality, and as ethnicities are becoming more regarded and we’re seeing correlations between race and medical predispositions, you have to know your patients. So I’ve got premed but also my heart for minorities and for outliers.”