If you had been at Durham's fine new railroad station at 6 a.m. on October 13, 2009, you would have found Rachel Willis and ten of her students waiting for the train to Charlotte. They were going there to learn about Charlotte's new Lynx light rail system and the proposed high-speed rail corridor from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. On other occasions, you would have found a similar group going to the Co-Generation facility on Cameron Avenue to learn how the University gets its heating and air-conditioning, or studying gravestones in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on the campus for what they reveal about the University's history. All these activities are field research projects designed to add practical experience to her American Studies courses.
Dr. Rachel A. Willis is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Associate Professor of American Studies and an Adjunct Professor of Economics. In addition, she is a 2009 Glaxo Smith Kline Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Emerging Issues in association with North Carolina State University. Since arriving at UNC in 1982, Willis has demonstrated an acute interest in her students and local community, contributing to academic projects and conferences that focus on public service. Some examples of her various contributions include leading a research project on access programs for disabled students on college campuses and the development of a curriculum on local transit alternatives. She has participated in diverse conferences such as "The Economic Mobility of Workers," "Globalizing the American South," and "The Welfare of Hmong refugees in North Carolina."
Willis is keen to stimulate students' interest in the world. As the first faculty advisor to the APPLES (Assisting People in Planning Learning Experiences in Service) program on campus, she was an early user of the service learning pedagogy in her classes and was honored for her work at the program's 10th anniversary. Her mentorship and enthusiasm for her students is well known. As one student evaluation said, "Willis inspires her students by challenging their minds in the classroom and outside, by forcing them to think about the bigger picture, by showing them that being a student means more than learning what's in textbooks, and most of all by serving as a role model. What she teaches is life."
Writing about a course that Willis teaches which includes a component on the North Carolina hosiery mills (which the students colloquially call "Socks 101"), a third student reported that when Willis was asked if she could arrange a visit to the mills, she obtained a grant and chartered a bus that took them to Hildebran, North Carolina for a 16-hour visit to three mills. Another student observed that her presentations were easy to follow, noting that "Willis really explained the economic aspects of the past and present-day textile industries well." As the student wittily observed, "Where there's a Willis, there's a way." The student concluded that along with enlightening her students on how race and gender figured into economics, she gave them another way of viewing globalization and engaged scholarship.
Among her many distinctions, Willis received the first Robert E. Bryan Public Service Award in 2000 and the North Carolina Campus Compact 2007 Robert L. Sigmon Service-Learning Award. She was a Chapman Fellow at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies and a Kauffman Faculty Fellow. She has served as a faculty mentor for the Minority Undergraduate Research Program and as an Honors Adviser for the College of Arts and Sciences. She is currently advising the Hmong Students Association of Carolina.
She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Order of the Golden Fleece, The Order of the Grail-Valkyries, The Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars, and Honorary Senator of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. She was the first woman to give the Kemp-Plummer Battle University Day Lecture and was integral in developing the Women's Center and Center for Public Service on campus. Willis also served as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Triangle Transit Authority and Chapel Hill Transit.