What are your strengths and passions? Student Affairs puts these questions at the forefront to help students maximize potential and become world changers. When Emily Wills considered her answers, she tailored all 4.5 years of her college career — in and out of the classroom — around them. In the process, she changed minds and maybe even saved a few lives along the way.

From academics to service activities, Emily Wills engineered her Virginia Tech experience to learn about mental health and save lives.

As president of Active Minds, an organization she helped bring to campus to raise awareness about mental health issues and fight stigma, Wills became the catalyst for bringing Send Silence Packing to campus in October. The event displays more than 1,000 backpacks to represent the number of college students who die by suicide each year. Many contain stories from victims’ loved ones.

“I want students to know that it’s OK to ask for help,” said Wills, who will graduate in December with honors and dual degrees in psychology and cognitive and behavioral neuroscience from the College of Science and a minor in medicine and society from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. She was one of the first students to declare a neuroscience major in 2015 after its creation.

High-impact educational practices perfectly complemented her academic work and provided platforms to change minds. She conducted research, embraced leadership opportunities, and participated in a living-learning community.

“Emily approached me over a year ago with the idea of inviting Send Silence Packing to campus,” said David Andrews, assistant director for Hokie Wellness and Active Minds’ advisor. “She believed Virginia Tech would greatly benefit from the exhibit and began the long process of making it happen.”

First, she had to convince campus partners and leaders. Fortunately, Wills had plenty of practice talking about mental health and moving others to action.

As a peer educator in the Honors College and part of the Hillcrest honors living-learning community, she designed and led a reading seminar on mental health in America. She gained additional insight working as an undergraduate lead researcher in Virginia Tech’s Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory, research assistant at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and from a practicum at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

Wills’ additional leadership experiences included serving as piccolo rank captain for the Marching Virginians and as team captain for Relay For Life and The Big Event, a student-run day of service where nearly 1,200 projects are completed in the New River Valley. She also served as a conversation partner with the Language and Culture Institute.

She is most proud of her work with Active Minds.

“Just the presence of the chapter makes students more likely to speak up and helps destigmatize mental illness,” she said. “If you appear to be doing well on the outside, you must be fine. But this isn’t always the case.”

Active Minds has hosted speakers, a mental wellness week, and benefit concerts.

Even though Virginia Tech offers resources to support students, such as Cook Counseling Center and access to emergency services, Wills saw a need for a student-led organization. “Her leadership reminds us that sometimes to make change we have to get a little uncomfortable, we have to challenge the status quo, and we have to take chances,” said Andrews.

A quote Wills saw on a whiteboard in her living-learning community about leadership being an action and not a position informed her approach. Those around her noticed. She now holds an Aspire! Award for Courageous Leadership. Student Affairs presents the awards to those who exemplify the Aspirations for Student Learning.

“Over the years, I have become more accepting of viewing myself as a leader,” said Wills, who is from Bedford, Virginia. “But it didn’t come easy. I struggled with defining myself as a leader because my style didn’t match the outspoken personality types I was used to seeing in leadership positions.”

She believes her strengths — Deliberative, Restorative, Strategic, Individualization, and Empathy — help explain why she can see how different people and groups can work together productively.

Wills was a recipient of the Berry Clark Moseley Scholarship, Leonard and Melva Harris Scholarship Award, College of Science Dean’s Roundtable Endowed Scholarship, and Friends of Psychology Endowed Scholarship for Rising Seniors. She plans to apply to graduate school for clinical neuropsychology.

Although she is graduating a semester later than planned, she is glad she was able to expand the work of Active Minds.

“I found my passion for mental health by noticing there was a stigma,” she said. “I’ve had my own struggles with anxiety, and I think being open about mental health issues is the first step to creating change.”

Photo by Christina Franusich

Written by Tammy Tripp

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