By Carrie Cook
Communications Student Assistant
The sandwich board outside Career and Employment Services proclaims “Walk-in Wednesday”—a familiar sight to any K-State student. For Quantrell Willis, the Career and Employment Services liaison to the College of Arts & Sciences, helping hands aren’t limited to Wednesdays. Every day, he offers students help with job and internship searches, mock interviews, cover letters and graduate school applications. But the most important thing he does is simply assist students.
Coming to CES “is not a transactional experience,” he says. “I want it to be a transformational experience—getting to know people, encouraging them, really valuing people.”
His education in valuing people of all different backgrounds began with his rural Arkansas childhood. His family lived in a quaint country house on a dirt road, where he contributed by picking peas in the summer for the farmer’s market or raising cute piglets that became not-so-cute hogs. His parents were high-school graduates that instilled Willis with a sense of resilience and an appreciation for hard work.
In the ninth grade, Willis read Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, and saw himself reflected in words: like Willis, Carson was an African-American man with an active childhood and a hard-working mother. Carson’s tale of education and career excellence inspired Willis. Carson’s stories of resilience, education and career excellence resonated with Willis, who finally recognized university education as an option. Willis handwrote letters to colleges asking for advice, and when his family went to the library, he researched how to ace the ACT and how to get into college.
All that effort paid off. He was accepted into several colleges, including Morehouse College, his school of choice. In deference to his mother’s concerns, he stayed close to home, choosing to attend the University of Arkansas on a scholarship. However, the experience was a shock: the public university was an easy place to get lost.
“I changed my major twenty times,” he says. “My friends were my advisors. We should’ve gone into the car salesman business, because we were really good at selling each other ideas that made no sense at all.”
Today, Willis offers students the advice he wishes he’d had—strategies to explore without wasting time and money. “It’s advantageous to test the waters. Go to info-sessions, volunteer, do internships, take elective classes. Take advantage of open option,” he reassures. “Be undecided. It’s okay.”
Though he had no roadmap to higher education, he did have a mentor to help him navigate. Willis claims Dr. Brazell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Arkansas, as his mentor and “second mom.” While he attended the University of Arkansas, they met once a month, where she challenged him to think more critically about his educational career. Though he wasn’t a stellar student, she spotted the potential within him and encouraged him to get involved with different student organizations.
As Willis entered his senior year, he found a new reason to apply himself: the arrival of his son, Jaalon. Willis knew he needed to attend graduate school to provide the life he wanted for his son, but his grades didn’t recommend him. Dr. Brazell bet on Willis, however, and helped him make the transition. He now holds a Master’s degree and a Graduate Certificate, and is on track to complete his Ph.D. in 2016.
For Willis, relationships are the most vital part of his life, including his work life. His philosophy has grown out of his own experiences, from his childhood memories of his close-knit family to his experiences with his own mentor, Dr. Brazell—her care and concern inspired him to do the same for the students he works with.
“People don’t really care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he says. He wants students to know that he cares about them, “I ask students: tell me about you. What are you passionate about? Where are you from? Where have you been?”
Forging those relationships always starts with listening, with going out and meeting students where they are. Students have offices, he says: in the library or the gym or the Union.
“It takes legwork, true legwork,” Willis says. “By that I mean: use your legs to stand up, walk around your desk and walk out the door, and visit people. Talk to people.”
He doesn’t hesitate to tell about his own educational and personal experiences, which includes the painful experiences of navigating his stepfather’s death or his son’s autism diagnosis. He wants all his students, including disabled, veteran, and family-oriented students, to know that he’s been where they are. He wants them to know that they can keep going, despite the obstacles that life sometimes throws in the way. People, he says, “start feeling like they’ll quit. I can relate. I do understand.”
Most of all, he wants his students to know that they’re not alone. He may not be able to guarantee them a job, but he does guarantee he will work tirelessly to put them in the best position to find the place where they—where we—fit.
“Don’t think you have to do this alone,” he says. “You don’t. If you work with me, I won’t let you. I know what it’s like.”