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First generation college student is destined for success

Jess Willis took eight classes during a seven-period day by staying after school at Calvert High. She had a habit of completing projects a month before the deadline. She is now a first-generation college student.

“Growing up, it was always assumed that I was going to college,” said Willis, a senior linguistics major. “My dad had saved up his whole life. That was him dream: that his kids would get a degree.”

Willis began looking at colleges in eighth grade. After searching online, she made UMBC her top pick due to its size, location and impressive national rankings. Thanks to her college-bound peers, she found resources and advice about the application process that her family was unable to provide. She has various positions on campus, including Resident Assistant and Tour Guide Team Lead. These jobs, combined with her scholarships, help keep her cost of education manageable.

As Team Lead, Willis serves as an ambassador of the school for prospective students, and supervises her fellow Tour Guides in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Willis applied to be a Tour Guide at the end of her first year. Once she started giving tours, she came to realize her love for UMBC and for interacting with prospective students and their families.

“[There are] definitely days where I leave the office or leave giving a tour and feel really fulfilled,” she said. “I think you could ask anybody and they would feel the same way.”

Her dedication does not go unnoticed. “Jess is an exceptional leader, student, and employee,” said Lisa Romeo, Campus Visit and Experience Coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. “We feel very lucky to have her working in this office and we are continuously impressed by the work that she does.”

Despite the guidance she provides to other students, Willis wasn’t always sure of her path. When she first arrived at UMBC, she wanted to be a music major. After realizing she was not interested in spending “the rest of her life” in a practice room, she switched to a French major with an education certificate. As is required for all MLLI majors, she enrolled in MLL 190, an introductory linguistics course. All it took was one course to find her passion. Willis has been a happy linguistics major ever since.

Since the switch, she’s gotten heavily involved with her academic discipline. She assisted Linguistics and French Professor Thomas Field, Ph.D with his research last year by verb tagging a body of text in Gaskin, an ancient French language.

“The combination that she demonstrates of high intellectual ability, conscientiousness and meticulousness suggest to me that she has an extremely bright future ahead of her,” said Field.

Outside of UMBC, she has an internship in Natural Language Processing at redShred, located in bwTech. The company is owned by Jim Kukla, a professor of computer science at UMBC, and his wife, Jeehye Yun. In her position, Willis trains a federal grant search engine to provide relevant and helpful answers to queries. She heard about the position through Caroline Davis, a UMBC alumnae and redShred Project Manager.

“Jess works independently and is eager to apply her class knowledge to our work,” said Davis.

However, now the research is in her own hands. Willis is writing her departmental honors thesis about the pragmatics of verbal and emotional abuse. She gathers samples through informants and analyzes them in various ways. She hopes that, beyond the thesis itself, the research will convey that an outside observer cannot determine if someone is being verbally abused because it is very much determined by the context of a situation. As she cares deeply about this topic, she hopes that her work may help to validate others who feel they may be a survivor of abuse.

Outside of academics, Willis is an avid outdoorswoman. She enjoys hiking and kayaking in nearby Patapsco State Park and elsewhere. Her outdoor adventures provide a release when schoolwork becomes overwhelming. She also enjoys painting, and has received pointers from her mother, an artist.