As a sixth-generation student at the University of Virginia, second-year law student Phoebe Willis was on a mission: become the voice of the student body on the UVA Board of Visitors before leaving Grounds again.
The board selected Willis on Feb. 19 to be its student member for the 2016-17 academic term. Her one-year appointment to the board begins June 1.
Willis, who applied unsuccessfully for the position as an undergraduate, left UVA in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in history and went on to teach at a charter school in Philadelphia as a member of Teach for America. But when she returned to UVA for law school, she was determined to try again.
“When I came back for law school, it was certainly on my mind if I should apply again because at the end of the day, it wasn’t just about being the student member,” she said. “I feel like UVA has given me so much and to have this responsibility and to give back to the school in such a unique way, I really did want to do that.”
In achieving the appointment, Willis adds to family history as well. Her father, Gordon Willis, was the first-ever to serve as the student member, during the 1983-84 term.
When she graduates, Willis will be the fifth in a line of lawyers from her immediate family educated at UVA Law. She will work at the law firm Skadden Arps in Washington, D.C., beginning this summer.
As the student board member, Willis will engage with students and administration on trends and issues affecting UVA, and suggest how things can be improved. The student member does not have a vote, but her voice will be a channel between the student body and the board.
“I’m representing 22,000 voices, so I have to try and bring the best representation of what the students really want,” Willis said.
As an undergraduate, the Fredericksburg native won the UVA Alumni Association’s Ernest H. Ern Distinguished Student Award and was a member of the varsity field hockey team, earning the ACC Top VI award. She was also involved within the UVA community through class council, Honor Committee, Women’s Leadership Development Program, Athletes Committed to Community and Education, and as a volunteer for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
“I’m representing 22,000 voices, so I have to try and bring the best representation of what the students really want” - Phoebe Willis
After first attending the University of Richmond School of Law, Willis transferred to UVA Law to study corporate law, and because of her interest in UVA’s emphasis on student self-governance and leadership opportunities. Now a member of the Student Bar Association, Post-Graduate Trustees and Lambda Law Alliance, Willis continues to serve UVA.
She said she hopes to facilitate collaboration in her new role.
“I not only believe in creating more cross-listed course options, but also encouraging collaboration in organizational and academic event planning and social functions,” she said. “I feel that diverse academic offerings and diverse perspectives across all disciplines within our student body make us stronger as a whole.”
She also hopes to continue to expand on the work of her predecessor, Daniel Judge, by extending the student appointee’s weekly office hours and exploring the idea of creating a monthly meeting of all the student leaders to discuss upcoming events and current issues.
Her family may have the desire to serve, but Willis wasn’t motivated by her father’s claim to University fame.
“It wouldn’t be correct to say he inspired me to do it, because I already had an interest and then found out he had done it,” Willis said. “But I think hearing his stories and talking to him really solidified both of our feelings that this institution is so unique and special, and to serve it in this way is really such an honor. It is a really nice thing to share with him.”
Dedication to UVA is also something Willis shares with her younger siblings: her sister Larkin graduated from the University in 2014; her brother, Gordon Jr., is a member of the Class of 2017; and her sister Catesby will be a first-year in the fall.