Finding Balance Between Classes and Photoshoots as...

Finding Balance Between Classes and Photoshoots as a Student Model

Dara Williams gives a sneak peek into her schedule as both a full-time college student and a working model during the pandemic. 


Since middle school Dara Williams wanted to be a model — and at 17 that dream came true.

During spring break her junior year of high school in 2017, Williams went with her mom to a fashion show for the Garfield Park Conservatory. While models were strutting the runway wearing designs made out of floral arrangements from local designers, a braceface and self-proclaimed “nerd” was discovered as a model.

“Some agent came up and was like, ‘Hey, how tall are you? You’re really pretty,'” Williams said.

The agent told Williams to contact her once her braces were off. Six months later at home in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams not only was braceless, but she finally had the courage to contact that agent.

After a brief phone call and an in-person meeting, Williams signed with that very agency that spotted her in Chicago. Three years later, Williams is now a full-time model signed with Select Model Management, which operates in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. She has modeled for Target, Kohls, Express and, in one of her biggest accomplishments thus far, was booked with Windsor, a women’s fashion retailer.

Williams also is a full-time college student. She’s in her third year at DePaul University studying journalism with a focus in broadcasting.

“I’m extremely passionate about both things I do — modeling and school,” Williams said.

However, balancing these two things sounds exhausting. “I don’t even know how she does it,” said Celeste Ruan, a fellow classmate at DePaul University and friend of Williams. Ruan and Williams met their freshman year at a winter recruitment event for their former sorority, and plan on rooming together in the fall.

In order to do it all in a day, she wakes up between 5 and 7 a.m., to meet an 8 a.m. call time depending on her schedule and whether or not her client is local or in a different state. Once she’s on set, Williams is rushed to hair and makeup, which takes about two hours.

To balance her work-school life, Williams attempts to squeeze in schoolwork while on the job.  She typically shoots from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with a break for lunch around noon during which she will pop into a virtual class or get some homework done.

“Sometimes if it’s on a day that I have class I’ll throw on some headphones and turn off my camera, turn off my mic and just go to class for a little bit,” Williams said.

For out of state clients like Express, Williams commutes five hours to shoot in Ohio. These out of state shoots include these full back-to-back work days. To help mitigate the stress of traveling, William says her clients will set her up at a hotel for the week.

“Dara’s work ethic I think is something to admire,” Ruan said. “She’s very driven and she has a lot of ambitions and a lot of goals. She proposes a goal to herself and makes sure to follow through with it and always manages to just push through.”

Williams’ work ethic allows her to persevere through these long commutes and early hours to work full time as a college student and model. She notes how helpful DePaul has been in accommodating her work schedule, and says she makes sure to meet with her professors at the start of each quarter to discuss conflicts and set expectations. Williams says her professors have been understanding of the fact that her job helps pay for her tuition, and thus are usually willing to discuss her options for the class.

“This stuff pays for my school, this stuff pays for everything right now, so I need to take every opportunity I can,” said Williams about the relationship between work and school.

When she’s not modeling or doing schoolwork, Williams also works part-time as a sales associate at a trendy women’s clothing boutique on Armitage Avenue. During the winter quarter, Williams spent Monday through Friday working in Ohio for Express, and then worked four to six hour shifts at the clothing boutique on Saturday and Sunday.

Like many people during this time, Williams’ career initially took a hit at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says from March to August of 2020 she couldn’t book any jobs because of the pandemic. However, since August she says she has gained more clients than before the pandemic, primarily due to restrictions companies have to employ locally due to difficulties traveling at the time. Further, with DePaul’s campus closures and classes being taught online, Williams has been able to accept more opportunities.

“I’m extremely fortunate for the situation I’m in,” Williams said. “I know a lot of models can’t say the same.”

Life on set looks different during the pandemic. Now when she gets booked for a job, her clients will send her a waiver that must be signed regarding wearing a mask and being socially distant and before she goes on set they take Williams’ temperature.

“You social distance from everyone you can social distance from,” Williams explained, though even social distancing has restrictions in such a person-focused work environment. Express is now doing unrecognizable shots of models, only photographing them from the neck down for their online retailers. This allows Williams to wear a mask the entirety of the shoot, and means there’s no need for unnecessary contact with hair stylists and makeup artists.

“It’s very weird and definitely different,” Williams said. “But a lot of the clients are just looking out for everyone’s safety and I appreciate that.”

With a degree in journalism and experience in modeling, after graduation Williams aspires to have a career in broadcast journalism at a media company like Complex or VICE or work for a major news station. But in terms of her modeling career, Williams says she doesn’t have specific goals.

“I think my thing is just working for super cool companies that I align with,” Williams said.  “The biggest thing for me is being happy at the end of it.” Williams plans to work in Los Angeles and network this summer, and is excited to further her career in a new setting.

Header image by Phoebe Nerem