“Carolina taught me how to see our role as a local community in the global sphere,” says Willis. “I really want to be able to emphasize that to my classroom.”
Willis, an Austin, Texas, native, will graduate in May with a double degree in global studies and political science and a minor in history. The co-mingling of these academic areas developed during Willis’ time at UNC, both on and off campus, as she participated in three major international and domestic study abroad options. She noted that the availability of these opportunities helped solidify her decision to attend Chapel Hill in the first place.
“I liked the Carolina community, the people, the atmosphere,” she says. “The study abroad opportunities have been exceptional.”
In the spring of 2009, Willis attended the Burch Field Research Seminar on Foreign and Domestic Policy in Washington D.C. and interned with Refugees International. The subsequent spring, she was selected to attend the UNC Semester in Havana Program in Cuba. But the most significant of her experiences, she says, was her summer work as a research assistant in the Galapagos Islands as part of the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies.
“Until I was in the Galapagos, I didn’t realize the extent of how education factored into environmental protection and policy,” says Willis. “That’s what got me interested in teaching and Teach for America, and it’s now my future.”
Her involvement in the Galapagos evolved over the last two years into an eventual passion for environment and education, a subject on which she is writing an honors thesis. Willis has an appreciation for student-faculty connections, she says, but she especially respects her thesis advisor, professor Steve Walsh, director of the Center for Galapagos Studies, as a mentor and friend.
“He showed me how to think critically about the bigger picture of how different aspects of society in the Galapagos affect everything else as a whole,” she said. “It’s forced me to determine my own ideas and opinions and really fostered the concept of constantly learning.”
Willis’ work with Walsh did not go unnoticed. She was chosen by Walsh to serve as a research assistant in the Galapagos and was a teaching assistant for the same course that introduced her to Walsh.
“She’s creative, inquisitive, and has continually asked all the right questions about the contentious issues of the Galapagos,” Walsh said. “But more than that, she’s intellectual—she is truly engaged and curious, looking to solve the problems that face the Galapagos in an interesting way.”
From Around the World to the Classroom
Willis’ intellectual curiosity has led her across the world, and the next chapter of her life as a teacher excites her.
“What excites me most is that I might be teaching world history and have an opportunity to help my students understand the importance of being a global citizen and knowing the world,” Willis said. “I want them to know that regardless of where they are from, they are still part of a bigger world.”
Willis hopes to stay involved with education beyond her time with Teach for America. She is considering further study in policy-making because, noting that as a student at a public university, she’s learned more how education policy impacts students.
“The importance of continually learning and being open to new ideas is not something I really understood until coming to Carolina,” she said. “We’re one another’s best resources at times, and I want to emphasize that in my classroom as well.”
Wherever she goes, though, Willis says it will be hardest to leave the friends who are like family to her now. She says that they have challenged her to think about things in new ways, are doing amazing work themselves—and have opened her eyes to new ideas and opportunities.
– Story by Anna Claire Eddington ’11