By Cabell Willis
Cabell Willis is a 2014 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History with minors in writing, French, and philosophy. He received the Second Jackson-Hope Medal for second highest attainment in scholarship accompanied by the Colonel Sterling Murray Heflin 1916 Academic Proficiency Award upon his graduation from VMI. He is currently a second-year graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Democracy and Governance.
“Possessing a high sense of public service…”
These words, like many others, became etched in my mind as I repeated them day-in and day-out during my freshman year as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). They are part of the VMI Mission: one among many of the attributes that the Institute claims to instill in its “citizen-solider” graduates.
Cabell (VMI,2014) is studying democracy and governance, pursuing a Master of Arts degree at Georgetown University.
I spent much of the first three years of my cadetship wrestling internally with what this “citizen-soldier” ideal meant for me: how can I serve my community and my country as a citizen and a soldier in a twenty-first century world? What is the service that I am most fit to provide? What is the service that the world needs most?
My experience as a student and an intern through the Shepherd Consortium helped me answer these questions.
In the spring of 2013, I took a course entitled “Human Poverty and Capability” in preparation for the SHECP summer internship program. In my coursework, I encountered new conceptions of poverty that transcend monetary wealth, including obstacles to human capability and the potential to lead a full human life. Most importantly, I began to wrestle with the concept of poverty as a significant challenge with broad social and economic implications, both domestically and globally.
The summer following, I wrestled with poverty as a problem with a face: not one face, but many human faces. My work as an intern with Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington County, Inc. (OAR) showed me one particular form that poverty could take as the result of systemic, institutionalized injustice. Injustices such as mass-incarceration and racial criminal profiling need not be calculated or intentional to be devastating to society at large in their impact. For those individuals with whom I worked as an intern at OAR, however, such injustices had a direct impact as obstacles to employment, to income, and to a healthy and stable life as productive participants in society.
At OAR, I worked with former offenders to help them find employment and stability in their lives, to reintegrate into society, and to avoid the dangerous trap of recidivism. I also worked to educate OAR’s clients about the issues surrounding their struggles, and the potential power of political advocacy to shape policy change for their benefit and the benefit of society as a whole. This, ultimately, was the greatest takeaway from my experience at OAR: the potential for policy action to impact institutional, social, and economic change that will fight poverty at its sources.
Perhaps policy change seems a lofty goal. Certainly, it seems out of reach in our apparently dysfunctional American democracy. Yet a solution to the institutional and social ails at the root of poverty rests in the ideal of a properly functioning democracy that effectively represents the social, economic, and political interests of its people as a whole. This ideal depends not only upon institutional reform, but also education and the cultivation of civic engagement and social empathy that cuts across the racial, cultural, and socio-economic divides of a post-modern pluralistic society.
My realization of these facts has led me to the study of democracy and governance from a global perspective at Georgetown University, where I am pursuing a Master of Arts degree. Upon completion of my degree, I hope to work abroad in the field of international political development, building robust governance and rule of law frameworks that provide the institutional foundation for just and equitable democratic societies. Eventually, I hope to return to the United States to apply my knowledge from the classroom and the field to combat poverty at its roots in American society through policy change. Thanks to my educational experience with SHECP, I have found in this trajectory the service for which I am fit, the service that the world needs, and my calling as a twenty-first century citizen soldier.