June 2022 News Perspective Online

Alumnus Profile: Preston Williams

A desire to teach in a seminary initially brought Preston Williams (M.T.S. ’12) to Perkins. He didn’t end up using his degree professionally, but he’s still thankful for his Perkins education.

After graduating in 2012, Williams took a job in the healthcare benefits space, joining a startup, Compass Professional Health Services. Today he is Director of Product Management at Alight Solutions.

Transitioning from an M.T.S. to a career in healthcare benefits systems may seem like a disconnect, but Williams sees a clear connection.  While at SMU, he took classes in postcolonialism with Dr. Joerg Rieger, then Professor of Constructive Theology.

“The big thing that I gathered is that inequity exists, both from a monetary standpoint as well as an access standpoint, especially among marginalized people,” he said. “That sparked a significant interest on my part, basically asking, ‘Why is that the case?  How do we improve our systems overall?’ That led to a lot of interesting questions that I thought needed to be poked and prodded at. The status quo in healthcare was pretty abysmal, and I wanted to do my part to fix that.”

Today, his work focuses on helping connect patients with the best doctors, to lower the cost of care without sacrificing quality. And he sees his work as a kind of ministry.

“My talents were never in professional ministry,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have the patience for that. But, looking into a problem, thinking through solutions to problems, is really important to me. At Perkins, I learned that you have to take things to their logical end. Something on its face could seem like a good idea, but if you don’t trace that idea downstream, and see what it would or would not effect in people, you might make problems worse.”

His Perkins education enabled that.

“I don’t know that I got to the answers, but Perkins taught me to ask better questions, and by asking better questions, I can do more,” he said. 

A nonlinear path 

Williams grew up in Arlington, Texas, attending a Church of Christ in early childhood and later a nondenominational church. As an undergraduate, he attended Abilene Christian University (ACU), where he discovered a love for the bible, majoring in biblical text, languages and exegesis.

“Growing up, I was taught an approach where you read the Bible, and ask, ‘What does this mean to you?’” he said. “At ACU, the approach was more like, ‘The Bible is already written. Figure out what it says.’ I took that to heart.”

Williams continues to participate in Bible studies, something he’s done “perpetually” since graduating from SMU. But while at Perkins his interests also veered into theological ethics, and that led to an interest in healthcare in the U.S.

“This was right along the time of Obamacare coming out,” he said. “There were problems and gaps that it wasn’t covering. I was interested in trying to figure out how to think through this stuff a little bit better. I considered get PhD in healthcare reform, but then thought maybe I should first learn how healthcare works.”

That led to the job at Compass, which was later acquired by Alight. He continued to progress, and never looked back.

“I still enjoy reading, learning and theology, but professionally I found a better fit for me in the business world,” he said.

Williams’ work centers on a couple of problems in the U.S. healthcare system.

Unlike most other areas where consumers’ decisions affect pricing, in healthcare, cost doesn’t correlate to quality. And pricing is not transparent.

“When you go in for medical care, you have no idea how much you will get charged,” he said. “Costs are rampant, and people are not getting well. Our client companies’ employees are missing work. And it’s all related to the complexities of the American healthcare system.”

His first employer, Compass, devoted seven years developing applications to help people might find better care; Williams holds a patent on the system’s design. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the company’s websites annually; SMU is one of the company’s clients.

A diverse community

Looking back, Williams said he’s most grateful for the wide-ranging exposure he received at Perkins.

“You have everybody, from really conservative people to really liberal people at Perkins,” he said. “You need to be able to talk to both sides, to have conversations, and to think independently. That’s especially important in today’s world, where we are so partisan. You’re not going to agree with everybody, and that’s not the point. The point is to have a constructive conversation and not just win an argument.”

He remembers advice he received from Dr. Robin Lovin, then Dean of Perkins: “Always be gracious when you enter into a conversation. Don’t imagine the other person is wrong or stupid. Try to understand that they have tried their hardest to think through something. Explore what they are saying through that lens.”

Said Williams: “That goes really far in life, in any kind of conversation.”

Another gift of his Perkins education: discovering his passion, for solving problems in healthcare.

“The opposite of faith isn’t lack of faith,” he said. “It’s apathy — where you get complacent, where you take problems as a given.  It’s ok to ask hard questions, to say something is right, or wrong. To do that in life, you have to think critically. The education I received at Perkins truly enhanced how I think through a problem. There’s a lot of good that can come from that.”

Today, Williams lives in Dallas with his wife, Jennifer, and their goldendoodle, Mabel. Both are active in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas. He’s still in touch with many of his Perkins friends.

“I’m so deeply grateful for my Perkins education,” he said. “Even though I’m not using my degree specifically, I can’t say enough about how I was formed there. If you go in full hearted and let it form you, not just validate what you already believe, you’ll get something really special out of it.”