I have known Will Holcomb since he entered TTU in Fall 1996 as one of our most outstanding freshmen in the Honors Program. In the past six years he has taken three Honors classes with me, but I have worked with him more closely in a variety of co-curricular activities, especially activities dealing with the Honors Program Computer Committee, Honors Big Sib Program, Honors conferences, Honors Peer Mentor, the building of the Honors Program web site, and the writing of the crucial chapter on computer skills for the Honors Handbook (our primary text for our Honors 1010 classes). Because I was so impressed with his mind and character, I invited him to join my special (award-winning) Mentor Program. Thus, I feel I know him well and can recommend him most highly to the Peace Corps.
We have six or eight former Peace Corps volunteers come present a program on the Peace Corps every year for TTU, and Will has had long, thoughtful talks with them. Amy Haase, one of our recent Honors graduates, is serving in Russia now. She writes long, detailed e-mail letters to back to us. Will thinks deeply about the issues that involve our world community – poverty, disease, war – and he wants to help make a difference. He has had long talks with me, his girlfriend, and others about his decision, and all of us support his decision.
Will is not running away from problems and issues but running toward them. He feels, and we concur, that this is the right time for him to volunteer. His girlfriend is still in school; with his outstanding computer skills he could easily get a job anywhere, but he wants to have a chance to volunteer before he gets married and has to support a family. He is not running away from marriage, either; he just wants to serve the world more directly before he gets married.
Will was chosen to be a Peer Mentor for one of the Honors 1010 classes. Peer Mentors write to the individual students in the class, troubleshoot, lead and teach some sections of the material, and do whatever else the instructor needs them to do. Will was a conscientious and dependable Peer Mentor, with skill and humor at dealing with freshman fears.
More important for us, Will served as an outstanding Big Sib – big brother to several of the incoming freshmen in Honors. Incoming students in Honors have so many rules, policies, and programs to assimilate that we assign each student to an older student who will look after them, phone them before they arrive, help them get settled, talk them through the rules, take them out to eat, and in general help them adjust to college life.
We have training retreats for Honors Peer Mentors and Big Sibs. They get in-depth work in leadership skills, “reading” people and empathizing with them, group dynamics, troubleshooting scenarios, etc. Will demonstrated a healthy sensitivity to others, a lively sense of humor, and a profound respect for others. He balances common sense with humor and a well-balanced way of seeing things.
I introduced our Honors Program to the personal development workshops of the Kairos Foundation. Will took their Self Esteem Enhancement (SEE) training workshop, went on to take the more challenging Life Training Weekend, and then was asked, because of his people skills, to be on team both for another SEE weekend and for the next Life Training Weekend. Kairos workshops emphasize both cognitive and emotional work, and demand radical honesty and openness. Will brings the skills he learned through Kairos work back into our Honors Program, to help with troubled students who need support.
Will also volunteered to be on the Kitchen Crew for several interfaith retreats (called Search), where his sense of humor and his organizational skills were very valuable.
I don’t usually invite freshmen to join my Mentor Program, which is really separate from the Honors Program, but I made an exception in Will’s case. For nearly 40 years I have been inviting special students to work with me outside of class, for no academic credit. They work one-on-one with me and in small groups, reading books, asking questions and writing journals of self-analysis as well as of the books that they have read. They send their journals to me and the others in their group. In Mentor and on his own time, Will has read widely – Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace, Kornfield’s Path With Heart, Rumi’s incomparable poetry, Berne’s Games People Play, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. He has delved into Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Alice Walker, Camus, Conrad and other famous literary figures, as well as reams of science fiction and fantasy.
Will has also been a loyal supporter of our Mindful Movie series. We ask a faculty member to come (on a Saturday night!) to the Honors Center to show and discuss with us a movie he or she thinks all Honors students should know. Thus Will has thought about such movies as Gandhi, Kundun, Razor’s Edge, Schindler’s List, etc. He is particularly interested in movies about other cultures and diverse ideas.
What attracted me to Will at first was the way he threw his whole self into what he was thinking about. In his first two years here he rarely chose to play the academic game and do what his teachers expected. Instead, he would grapple with difficult philosophical questions with great focus, as if his life depended on getting the right answers. He rarely made time for his teachers or homework that to him was meaningless make-work. He excelled in the three courses he took with me, courses that most students find excessively demanding and difficult, because my classes gave him the space and validation for independent thinking and questioning the universe. All three of my classes deal with coming to terms with a wide variety of cultures, ideas, and values, and learning how to think out mature responses over immature ones. They learn to work with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and other personality models; Perry, Fowler and Kohlberg models of development; and various sets of critical thinking and values strategies. They learn to apply this to themselves and one another. The object is not to label people but to come to terms with individual and cultural differences. Will excels at this work. He loves it.
When Will entered this Honors program he was already an independent thinker with a great deal of self-reliance, but he had to learn to play the academic game. If Will has a real weakness it is in over-committing to too many responsible jobs and activities, a common failing among Honors folk. But what to many Honors folk would be difficult and demanding work, is play for Will. He loves intellectual and computer challenges. And I have seen remarkable maturity and ability to prioritize and say no, after he returned from his co-op year in Huntsville. He has his act together now, and is focused and determined. He knows what he wants to do next in his life.
Will has demonstrated his self-reliance and independence repeatedly in many areas of his work with computers. As chair of the Honors Computer Committee he had to recruit, train, and organize other VAX gurus among the Honors students so he and they could teach our computer unit to the 150 or so Honors freshmen. Our Computer Center personnel said they were too understaffed to teach our students, so Will gathered volunteers from among our students, trained them, and taught the unit.
A brilliant idea he and another student evolved was to cannibalize discarded computers in the surplus warehouse, create working systems, and give them to Honors students who were too poor to buy computers. The project required a great deal of initiative, organization and expertise. In addition, Will rewrote the computer chapter in the Honors Handbook, one of our textbooks for Honors 1010, giving students clear, step-by-step instructions.
In general, Will is good at taking initiative and finding creative solutions to problems. This semester he coordinated with the Computer Center and set up a special web address for Honors and a mail server that was used by the Tennessee State Honors Council, several student organizations and Honors classes. Honors did not have a computer available that was up to the task of doing this work, so Will donated one to the program. This server has also been useful in his work this semester getting the Computer Committee to design pages for nearly a dozen different teachers and campus organizations.
We emphasize training students in professionalism by learning how to present papers and panels at state, regional, and national Honors conferences. Students attend workshops where they practice presenting and criticizing one another’s work. Will has gained a poise and self-confidence at this; he can receive criticism gracefully and is tactful in how he criticizes others. He has been honored by having nine presentations accepted at Honors conferences, four of those at the national level. Thus he has had a great deal of practice dealing with different professional situations.
In addition to the computer chapter in the Honors Handbook, Will has authored several pieces of technical documentation including WinCVS over SSH, Website Maintenance Via CVS and XML and XSLT Overview. He also authored and made available a library of code to work with 3D graphics which has been adopted by several other programmers for use in their projects. Will is the highest ranked and highest paid worker for the student helpdesk. In his time he has rewritten 90% of the student written programs that run on the schools mainframe, including all of those from both the Computer Center and the Honors program. Currently, Will is designing an online portfolio system for the Education Department; an extensive project that he has been involved with for the last year and upon which the department’s accreditation hangs.
In addition to his many contributions to the Honors Program and Computer Science Department, Will finds time to sing in the TTU Chorale, to be an officer in the Association for Computing Machinery, and to be active in Omicron Delta Kappa (Leadership Honors Society). He is the webmaster for the Student Environmental Action Coalition and has volunteered time to work for Habitat for Humanity, among other volunteer efforts.
To sum up Will’s personality: he is stable, optimistic, open, conscientious, dependable, creative. He can easily take the initiative in problem-solving. He is self-motivated and a self-starter. He can lead a group or follow; he works well on a team. He has a good sense of humor, lots of common sense and life experience. He is also flexible, able to see things from many different perspectives. He does not mess with illegal drugs and only rarely drinks alcohol. He enjoys fixing things, helping people, and learning about new places and things. He is modest and humble about his accomplishments, but very competent and self-reliant. He has high moral values. He loves learning about computers and staying abreast of the latest developments.
I think the Peace Corps is an ideal next step for Will, and I would be proud to have him represent the U.S. and TTU to other parts of the world. I recommend him most highly.