Challenging the status quo

Emily Wills

Some people shy away from talking about mental health. Emily Wills engineers public conversations and creates safe spaces for those who need help.

Her nominator wrote, “Emily approached me over a year ago with the idea of inviting the traveling exhibit Send Silence Packing® to Virginia Tech. The event is a visual experience that brings the conversation about student suicides out into the open by displaying more than one thousand backpacks to represent the number of college students who die by suicide each year. Many of the backpacks include stories of loved ones who have been lost. Emily believed Virginia Tech would greatly benefit from this exhibit and began the long process of making it happen.”

First, she had to convince campus partners and leaders. Fortunately, Emily had plenty of practice moving others to action, thanks to diverse leadership roles on campus and a passion for changing the conversation around mental health. She is the president of Active Minds, an organization she helped bring to campus that works to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. She embraced the role to help students find community and spread the word that it is okay to ask for help. Send Silence Packing® took place on the Drillfield in October.

Emily has a lot to be proud of from her college career. Piccolo rank captain for the Marching Virginians. Undergraduate lead researcher for Virginia Tech’s Behavioral Neuroscience Lab. Peer educator in the Honors College. Research assistant at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. A clinical neurosurgery practicum at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Relay for Life team captain. Team captain for The Big Event, a student-run day of service where the campus community completes nearly 1,200 service projects in the New River Valley. Conversation partner with the Language and Culture Institute. Regularly making the dean’s list and a high GPA in her majors of psychology and neuroscience. But she is most proud of her work with Active Minds.

“I’m proud of the impact Active Minds has had on campus,” she said. “While it is small and still growing, just the presence of the chapter makes students more likely to speak up and destigmatize mental illness. Over the last few years, we have hosted countless events, speakers, a mental wellness week, benefit concerts, and now Send Silence Packing. I am proud of the foundation we have created.”

Her nominator wrote, “Under Emily’s leadership, the organization has had countless accomplishments. 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.

Emily’s key advice for students? “Allow yourself the opportunity to change” and “give yourself a break.” She admits she is still learning to see herself as a leader.