Cara Williams has found a perfect fit as a veterinary medical officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but she faced numerous hurdles on the way to her dream career. Feelings of burnout, absence of worker protections, and a lack of diversity within the field burdened Williams. But she persevered.
Now, Williams, an alumna of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2013 and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, continues to nurture and build a more inclusive community for future generations of doctors. In fall 2021, she spoke with current SVM students in an alumni spotlight series, offering advice and inspiration to those about to follow in her footsteps.
Early on, Williams was unsure about what career to pursue. She knew that she loved animals and learning about the natural world; while other kids watched cartoons, she often turned on Animal Planet or Discovery Channel. With that in mind, she decided on an animal science undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“I remember sitting in one of my animal science class requirements, chemistry, and thinking, ‘Wow, this chemistry class is so hard, somebody should call me doctor by the end of it,’” Williams says with a laugh. “So why not become an animal doctor?”
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she took a year off to shadow and work with numerous veterinary and human health professionals. She learned how to draw blood and complete other related tasks as an assistant and receptionist at a small animal clinic. At the hospital where her mother worked, she got a job as a lab animal research technician. Finally, she landed a position at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, helping the lead veterinarian with research.
“I love the diversity of experiences, skill sets, and opportunities that veterinarians have, and all the different types of jobs that you can do,” Williams says. “So I decided… this is for me. I applied to 10 different schools, got into six of them, and decided to go to Wisconsin.”
Immediately, Williams was surprised by the lack of diversity within the school. She was one of only two Black students.
“I’m sticking out like a sore thumb. At least, that’s how it felt to me. So that was difficult,” Williams says. “That’s not to say I didn’t like my classmates. I love them… But it’s just kind of hard when you’re the lonely only.”
“I love the diversity of experiences, skill sets, and opportunities that veterinarians have, and all the different types of jobs that you can do. So I decided… this is for me.”
She wanted to change that narrative. She began by becoming the local chapter president of Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment (VOICE) and later took on the role of national president of the organization. Williams and her peers within VOICE focused on respecting differences in culture and ethnicity, increasing diversity in veterinary medicine and supporting one another.
Through these experiences, she learned lessons she would carry into her professional life, especially when she landed a job working at a practice with challenging conditions. The rural clinic was severely understaffed, demanding long work hours with limited resources, and did not represent a diverse population.
“I would get snide remarks about my hair, and then the clinic staff and boss would just laugh along with them, rather than backing me up,” Williams recalls. “It wasn’t easy. I felt really isolated. And I felt like I needed the support that I had in vet school through VOICE.”
So, Williams made a change. She resigned from her position, determined to find work that would allow for more family time. “When you make time to care for yourself and be with friends and family, that’s the only way to prevent burnout and be able to nurture both a career and a lifestyle that you can cherish for a lifetime,” she says.
Amidst the turmoil of searching for that balance, Williams created a Facebook group that, after expanding to accommodate numerous veterinarians seeking a supportive community, became the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association (MCVMA).
“Look at my resume, and it looks like I’ve done amazing things, but when you hear my story, you can see a lot of the challenges that don’t show up on a piece of paper. In spite of imposter syndrome, value yourself and create the career you deserve.”
The organization, of which Williams serves as founder and past president, provides anti-discrimination training to allies in the veterinary profession through webinars and conferences. The group held its inaugural conference in 2021, featuring sessions presented by more than 60 Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) veterinary professionals. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, they also coordinated and partnered with numerous organizations to address systemic changes to be made within the veterinary medical field.
Throughout all of this, Williams continued to advance her career. Eventually, she found her calling at the CDC, regulating the importation of animals that pose a zoonotic threat to the nation’s public health. It took time, but she encourages young veterinary medicine students to persist.
“Look at my resume, and it looks like I’ve done amazing things, but when you hear my story, you can see a lot of the challenges that don’t show up on a piece of paper,” Williams says. “In spite of imposter syndrome, value yourself and create the career you deserve.”