By SCOTT THOMAS, UK Athletics
LEXINGTON – When Dr. Angelica Whaley graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2015, she did so as an All-American in track and field after her and her 4×400-meter relay team finished 10th at the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Though she was a strong competitor and successful on the track, Whaley has now found herself working hard and excelling away from athletics.
Whaley, who graduated in 2015 from Kentucky with a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology and health promotion and a minor in Spanish, earned her doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University in April of this year.
The Newnan, Georgia, native left Lexington after graduation, but she said UK played an integral role in making her who she is today.
“What really has stood out for me coming from Kentucky is my heart for service,” Whaley said. “But also, being efficient, having a very strong work ethic and handling myself with integrity. Serving others is the most important thing in my life.”
Whaley said that a combination of being a student-athlete in a track and field program (led by former UK head coach Edrick Floréal) which expected excellence across the board and a trip to Ethiopia with UK Athletics are cornerstone moments in her life.
“We wanted things to be perfect, to be able to show up and compete every time,” Whaley said, adding that she learned better time-management and about the expectation of excellence that comes along with being a student-athlete at Kentucky.
That expectation of excellence has driven her life ever since.
In the summer of 2013, Whaley and other members of UK Athletics took an annual service trip to Ethiopia. There, the spark to serve others was instilled in her and has guided her ever since.
Whaley was a member of several organizations and was an avid volunteer before college, but the trip to Ethiopia gave her a different perspective on service and what it means. She said watching the Ethiopians serve with joy was eye-opening for her.
“(The trip to Ethiopia) showed me people who live differently yet are so joyful,” Whaley said. “They aren’t caught up with materialistic things. They have what many people here in the United States would consider nothing, yet they are so joyful and so generous. That trip changed my life.”
After her final race and graduation at Kentucky, Whaley decided to put off her plans to pursue her doctorate in physical therapy and decided to get away for a while for some much-needed rest.
“I was mentally tired (after her senior year),” Whaley said. “I just wanted to go away for three months and do something for other people and not think about track or physical therapy. I know I want to do that (earn her doctorate), but I can’t right now.”
She decided to go to Ecuador for three months to serve.
“It started when I went to Ethiopia,” Whaley said. “I wanted to do something like that again, but for a longer time.”
While in Ecuador, Whaley taught physical education and nutrition to students in the community she traveled to. She also continued to use her minor in Spanish to continue to improve on a second language.
“It was an amazing experience,” Whaley said.
After Ecuador and a little time working small jobs in Atlanta, Whaley then decided to pack up and travel to Spain. The plan was to be a nanny and learn Spanish while living in the country for seven months. Those plans, however, derailed and she came back home after only one month.
After her early return, Whaley decided it was time to apply to PT school and she already had her sights set on one school in Northwestern.
The dream to become a physical therapist began in high school for Whaley. She wanted to remain working in sports and with athletes even after her competing days were over. With that goal in mind, she would regularly spend time researching the top schools for physical therapy and Northwestern was always in sight.
A visit to Chicago to tour Northwestern’s medical campus and its physical therapy school was all Whaley needed to make her decision on where she wanted to be.
“I really enjoyed the faculty that I met with,” Whaley said. “The program cares about the person holistically. It’s not just, ‘You need a 4.0, your GRE needs to be this;’ it’s very much about what you are passionate about. They cared about what you cared about.”
Whaley said learning about physical therapy in high school and college only increased her interest in the career. She said the hands-on practices of the job and having a hand in helping heal someone was important to her.
“They’re not able to move the way they are normally able to move,” Whaley said. “So, to see that change (to recovery) over time and know that you had a hand in that is super rewarding. It’s very rewarding to be a part of someone’s journey.”
Northwestern was the only school that Whaley applied to. She got in.
So, in 2017, Whaley began her journey to becoming a doctor. Three years later, she earned the reward of a lifetime, her doctorate.
Whaley plans to work with people that have pelvic floor dysfunction, which is an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that occur when pelvic floor muscles and ligaments are impaired. The driving force behind this plan is that this dysfunction is common in women who have been sexually assaulted.
Whaley said she personally knows women that have been sexually assaulted, and she wants to be able to help women get through it through holistic practices. She said that teaching women about the interconnected issues with sexual assault and pelvic floor dysfunction important to her.
“I want to work on educating women,” Whaley said. “but also healing women.”
With that, Whaley plans to attend Columbia University in New York City in the fall of 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in public health as she wants to expand her studies in the field.
“Attending Columbia gives me a chance to learn and research about health disparities specifically related to minority women and their experience with sexual violence to implement programs and policies that facilitate healing women of color locally and abroad,” Whaley said.
Whaley had planned to attend Columbia beginning this fall, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to defer her enrollment for a year. In the meantime, she is studying for boards to become an officially-licensed physical therapist while also working back home in Newnan.
Looking back on her time at Kentucky, Whaley navigated the student-athlete gauntlet by focusing on what was important to her.
“Define yourself by who you are and keep that separate from what you do,” Whaley said.
She said that it is easy to identify your worth with how you are doing on the track or on the field, but it is important to your success and mindset to avoid that.
“What you do does not define you as a person,” Whaley said.
Whaley said she learned that and so many other important qualities and traits at Kentucky.
“Kentucky is great because they expose you to so many things and I really had a great time,” Whaley said. “I can only say good things about it. (Kentucky) really holds itself to a different standard. They really expect a lot from their athletes. There is pressure, but it’s good pressure.”
While she continues to succeed in life on her way to becoming officially-licensed in physical therapy and on her way to Columbia in 2021, Whaley won’t forget about the times she had at UK.
“I had a great time at Kentucky,” Whaley said. “It was one of the best times of my life.”