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 “When you receive an IAH fellowship, you’re very aware of the incredible gift of time to be there.”

A poem taped to Rachel Willis’ office door reminds her of one of the most important lessons she has learned from the IAH – the value of interdisciplinary scholarship.

The poem was given to her in 2000 by IAH Fellow Watson Bowes, M.D., retired former obstetrics physician and faculty member at the School of Medicine, after she had presented her research project to her Fellows class.

Willis, a labor economist and American studies and economics associate professor who studies access to work issues, was examining the impact of globalization on hosiery manufacturing workers in North Carolina. Bowes was investigating the impact of language on modern reproductive health care.

“I was giving a seminar to my Fellows class on the hosiery manufacturing industry and brought in an antique hand machine to help my colleagues understand the complexity of knitting socks,” Willis recalls.

“They all took a turn on the crank. Watson Bowes didn’t say anything that day, but that night went home and found a Robert Frost poem a patient had introduced to him, scanned it and sent it me. The poem was an obscure one, The Lone Striker, about a worker who desperately wants to be outside fishing but will come to the mill if they need him,” says Willis.

“The point of the poem was precisely the point I had been trying to make in the seminar,” she says. “Here I am, a social scientist, and he’s in medicine but it was a turning point for me seeing that my scholarship about how globalization was going to affect manufacturing jobs could be fully articulated in the language of the humanities.”

It was one of many touch points during Willis’ long association with the IAH that have changed and shaped the trajectory of her academic career.

“IAH seminars, whether they are short one-offs or fellowships with a group for a semester, create cohorts of diverse disciplines that are really important,” Willis says. “They take you out of your department physically and intellectually to participate in the life of the University and to understand your scholarship in the light of other disciplines.”

Bicentennial Seminar Provides First Contact

Willis first connected with the IAH in 1992. Her economics colleague, Sandy Darity, had been a summer 1992 IAH Fellow with the late Darryl Gless, English and comparative literature professor and first senior dean for the fine arts and humanities. Gless was chairing a seminar at the IAH on the “Future of the University” as part of the University’s bicentennial celebration.

“It was extraordinary because they brought in nationally known thinkers on higher education and had amazing discussions about our path forward,” Willis says. “I had done my Ph.D. thesis on academic labor markets. So I brought something to the table, but I learned far more from the seminar.”

In part because of her participation in that IAH seminar, then-Chancellor Paul Hardin sponsored Willis to participate in the inaugural class of BRIDGES, UNC’s intensive leadership development program for women in higher education.

Two key outcomes resulted from both the seminar and the BRIDGES program: a heightened awareness of and interest in the broader aspects of higher education and critical connections with a diverse community of scholars across the University. Both results changed her thinking about and approach to her research, teaching and engaged scholarship, and ultimately led her scholarship to transition from economics to American studies.

The following year, 1993, Darity suggested she apply for a Chapman Teaching Award Fellowship, a gift from Max Chapman Jr. (‘66) on behalf of the Chapman family for UNC’s Bicentennial Campaign. The award honors distinguished teaching of undergraduate students with an IAH Faculty Fellowship and a research stipend. With encouragement from IAH founding director Ruel Tyson, Willis applied for and won a Chapman fellowship in the fall of 1994 to study “The Economics of University Economic Development.”

It was the first of many. Willis won Chapman fellowships again in 2000 (Circular Knitting in the Carolinas: Access to Work) and 2013 (“The Panama Canal Expansion: Developing a Sustainable Global Transportation Strategy). In 2007, she received a Kauffman Faculty Fellowship (Harvest from the APPLES Orchard:  UNC’s Service-Learning Program) through a three-year program offered by the IAH as part of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation-funded Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative.

“That period in the early ‘90s led me to understand the value of learning how other disciplines operated,” Willis says. “I was studying higher education and the mechanisms for training and mentoring, prospects for employment, what mattered in academic labor markets. So it really strengthened my research agenda just to be in that environment. But it was also super important in extending my network of faculty and administrators across campus to later contribute to pan-University curriculums and scholarship.”

Gaining Time, Insight and Accountability

Willis’ most recent Chapman fellowship project in fall 1994 focused on research about sustainable global freight transportation in the face of climate change and its impact on port city infrastructure and access to work around the world.

The time and conversations provided by her fellowship semester propelled an exploration of a topic that resulted in a two-year Global Research Institute fellowship as well as connections with colleagues across campus who study issues of water.

“Ironically, working with scholars in the arts and humanities has led to further scholarship with scientists working on climate change,” Willis say. “The IAH links faculty across the campus – from medicine to music – in extraordinary ways.”

Willis plans a book, Water Over the Bridge, based on her newest research project and a new interdisciplinary seminar, Global Impacts on American Waters, made possible by the time and perspectives she gained through her fellowship.

“When you receive an IAH fellowship, you’re very aware of the incredible gift of time to be there,” Willis says. “It holds you accountable with a supportive group of faculty who are eager to make good use of the opportunity. And the make-up of each seminar cohort increased by ten the number of disciplines weighing in on my work. All of that is extraordinarily valuable.”

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