Another Peace Corps Rhodes Scholar — Jackson Willis (Guinea)
Yale Undergrad Drops Out of School For Peace Corps Response Assignment
By Divya Kumar
Tampa Bay Times
When Jackson Willis was a junior at Yale University, he regularly scouted postings for Peace Corps positions. Many required a college degree and professional experience.
One night, on a whim, he applied for an opening that excited him — to work on youth unemployment in Guinea. He didn’t expect to hear back, but the Peace Corps called to say a position had opened. Yale granted Jackson a one-year leave between his junior and senior year to serve with the Peace Corps Response working in the politically destabilizing youth unemployment crisis in Guinea, West Africa. There, his team operated the country’s leading employment incubator and small business accelerator, testing the limits of social franchising for both emergency and long-term employment gain.
Willis, 24, had already signed up for his senior year classes and moved into his dorm, but he jumped at the opportunity.
It felt like a movie plot, booking a flight, calling his parents with the news, telling his friends he’d delayed his graduation plans. But to those who know the fifth-generation Floridian and St. Petersburg native, it was not a huge surprise.
Neither was it when last month he was named a Rhodes Scholar, one of 32 Americans who will start work on postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in 2021.
Jackson Willis said he was humbled by the honor. At Oxford, he hopes to study economic and community development.
Willis was born and raised in the St. Petersburg home his great-great grandfather built. He attended Shorecrest Preparatory School, where he graduated as valedictorian and was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar by then-President Barack Obama.
At Yale, Willis served in various student government roles and advisory boards to administration. Among other fellowships and scholarly activities, he wrote for a politics and culture magazine, worked as a curator at the Yale Center for British Art, served as student board director for Yale’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice and spent many hours volunteering and ultimately becoming director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project.
His year in Guinea, a country with high poverty rates, was transformative, he said.
“I could have never predicted before I got to Yale that I’d get to work so much on hunger and homelessness issues or that it would have been in New Haven. I could have never predicted if I joined the Peace Corps it would have been in Guinea.”
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It’s an inspiring story with many messages, including the impact of Peace Corps and Peace Corps Response, especially at a formative period. In Guinea, Jackson not only engaged in reducing youth unemployment but confronted the lingering effects of an international health emergency (Ebola). His Response experience strengthened his credentials as a Rhodes Scholar with a focus economic and community development. And looking ahead, his education and experience might come “full circle” as a community or youth development APCD.