Profile: Marie Willis

MarieWillisMarie Willis likes to shake things up sometimes. “I like change; routine is fine where it’s needed but when it gets too comfortable, it’s time to try something different. I like to see things evolve,” says the Administrative Secretary Senior for Outreach and Continuing Studies.

And her own life can serve as an example. Years ago when she came to Huntington from her home just northwest of Boston with her then-husband and baby daughter, the River Cities area felt like home right from the start. “After my daughter started school and my son was in preschool, I decided to take a part-time job and take some classes at a local business college,” she says. “Then later I pursed an undergraduate degree from Ohio University’s Ironton campus before transferring to Marshall.” But after two semesters at Marshall, because of family priorities, college was put on hold. Willis, however, continued an interest in the field of business and spent several years working with a nonprofit group.

Then one day, just by chance, she caught a radio ad about Marshall’s Regents B.A. degree program, which she was delighted to learn had an emphasis in business. “I heard that the program was geared more toward adults and there were various ways to get credits,” she recalls. And particularly appealing to her, students could get credit for their business experiences. Before long she was enrolled in Saturday classes in a program she found to be very rigorous. “I had four hours of homework a day,” she remembers. But with perseverance and additional evening classes, she received her RBA degree and went on to earn a M.S. from Marshall in adult and technical education with an emphasis in training and development in business and industry.

Willis didn’t know it at the time, but her personal RBA experience would eventually play an important role in the job that she eventually took at Marshall for Outreach and Continuing Studies. The RBA Program is a component of OCS and part of her job today, she explains, is administering the CLEP and DSST exams, both college equivalent exams that are offered by the RBA program. She proctors the exams and makes sure the administrative work is complete. “We encourage our students to take them and we make them available.” She also works with the RBA in a support role because she’s often the original contact with students interested in the program, and as an alumna, she’s an enthusiastic ambassador for the program. “I’m the first person students see when they come in and, depending on what their needs are, I direct them to an advisor, prepare transfers to the RBA program or just arrange for whatever other things that may be required. I also help them navigate the website. Having been through the program myself, I can understand their needs and answer questions,” she says.  And of course these duties are combined with her other administrative support responsibilities for the Outreach and Continuing Education program.

While working toward her undergraduate degree she took a course in International Studies, which included an unforgettable trip. The Adult and Technical Education program sponsored a 10-day trip to Western Europe, where the group toured London, visited the White Cliffs of Dover, then went on to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Paris and, Willis’ particular favorites, Milan, Verona and Venice, Italy. “The trip was wonderful, just indescribable,” she says. “I really want to go back to Italy.  I’m of Italian heritage … my grandparents were born and raised in Tuscany. I definitely want to go back; I’m hoping next year.”

Because she loved going to school and now working with students, Willis signed on to be a UNI 100 facilitator last fall beginning with the Week of Welcome (WOW) activities for incoming freshmen. “I take every opportunity to learn new things and the UNI class helped me learn more about the university. A lot has changed since I was a student here, so it was an enriching experience for me. We had a lot of students from out of state. They came from Louisiana, Chicago, Florida, many from the Midwest, and even from Canada. I had such a good experience I’m planning to facilitate another class this fall.”

The athletic Willis laments that there was no rec center when she was a student. If there had been she certainly would have used it, because fitness has been a lifelong priority for her and she works diligently to stay fit and trim. Living near the YMCA is convenient, so she can be found there working out four times a week and she’s a determined walker as well. And she and some of her colleagues participate in Marshall’s fitness challenge, competing with other groups to see which team can compile the most time in minutes spent working out. “I’ve been involved with keeping fit all my life,” she says. “I played tennis and I skied. I belonged to a ski club and we skied in West Virginia and Ohio, but I haven’t done that for a while—family and school curtailed that.”

And always eager to change things up, as she says, and looking for something she hadn’t tried before, about a year ago Willis joined the choir at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church even though she had never sung in a choir before. The experience actually has provided some unexpected benefits. “I wanted to do something as a volunteer but I didn’t know what to do, so this seemed like a good opportunity. Being in the choir has turned out to be a good way to get to know people in the parish.”

In addition, she’s made good friends on campus with a camaraderie that sometimes extends to weekend social activities. Part of a close-knit family, she relishes visits to her daughter Lianne and the four grandchildren, who live in Indiana, and son Donald in Columbus, Ohio. “This summer I took one of my grandsons to Myrtle Beach with me—it turned out to be a real treat for both of us.”

Her life today is balanced in a good way, she believes. “One of my goals was to get my bachelor’s degree. I never dreamed I would go on to get a master’s, but I did. Sometimes I’ve had to change paths, but I want to move forward, that’s my goal. As long as you’re moving forward, that’s what you have to focus on.”