Hannah Willes

Philosophy, political science graduate finds passion in local politics

By

Rachel Bunning

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

When Arizona State University student Hannah Willes graduated from high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about 10 years ago, she swore to never go back. She didn’t think she was cut out for school and wanted to dive into a career instead. 

She started working in the medical administration field and was able to run a local practice within a year of graduating high school.

“That was when I realized I was capable enough, smart enough and determined enough to do whatever I set my mind to,” said Willes. “Within a couple years of working in that field I realized I wanted to go back to school but it didn't happen as quickly as I would have liked.”

After four years of working at the practice, she realized balancing a full-time school and work schedule wouldn’t fit for her. She began working as a server to free up time to go back to school and after a year of doing that, she enrolled full-time at Paradise Valley Community College.

“I got really involved in that community and utilized my newly minted passion for politics and civic engagement to create a voting drive that registered over 100 young people to vote and won me a full ride scholarship to any in-state university,” said Willes.

She enrolled at ASU and also joined Barrett, The Honors College to pursue a double major in philosophy with a concentration in morality, politics and law from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and political science from the School of Politics and Global Studies.

During her final semester, she has been interning full time for the Arizona State Legislature and says it is one of the best experiences of her academic career. She elected to work with the Democratic team and found this legislative session to have unique challenges. 

The internship was partly remote due to COVID-19 and in early January, protests broke out in front of the state capitol.

“During our first week at the capitol there was a protest of hundreds of Trump supporters surrounding the capitol plaza with personal weapons including assault rifles and one group even brought a guillotine,” said Willes. “This was right after the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., so even though there was extra security in the building and walking us to our cars, it was still a scary sight to see.”

Willes has enjoyed the internship despite its obstacles. She says it is mostly research under a time crunch and reporting findings on a bill in a written summary as well as a formal presentation to members of the State Senate.

“Many of the senators are on multiple committees and rely on our staff to dig into the bills for them and report back what we find,” said Willes. “Each senator also has a different knowledge base on a given topic, which leads to having to juggle briefing members who may be subject experts at the same time as members who are hearing about the issue for the first time.”

One of the most satisfying parts of the job, Willes mentioned, is writing talking points for the senators to use in committee or on the floor.

“I don't think there is anything more satisfying than hearing your elected representative stand up and go on the record with words you wrote and ideas you want to convey,” said Willes. “I never understood how speechwriters could be fulfilled when their work was being used by someone else but after getting a taste during this internship, I completely understand.”

The internship has been a challenge with it having long hours and a lot of work that doesn’t get used, but Willes still recommends the internship to everyone.

“I think that especially my peers in the (School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies) would be valuable assets to the legislature even if they aren't political science majors,” said Willes. “If it's something that sounds interesting, I say go for it. The experience is worthwhile and exposes you to the reality of Arizona politics.”

If you can’t participate in the internship, Willes still recommends for everyone to watch a broadcast of a committee hearing on a topic that interests them to see how their elected officials act in the position. 

“I have learned that the legislature goes unseen as they handle the issues near and dear to us as Arizonans as national politics captivate most people's attention,” said Willes. “I think that if more Arizonans paid attention to issues that are handled in the legislature, we would see a change in how our elected officials act in their elected positions.”

Willes is the recipient of multiple scholarships including the All-Arizona Academic Team Scholarship, Barrett All-Arizona, Coca-Cola Scholar, the Experiential Learning Program, the SPGS Director's Scholarship and the Transfer Achievement Award. She will be graduating summa cum laude this semester.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My second semester at Paradise Valley Community College I accidently signed up for a philosophy course thinking it was a sociology course. I almost dropped that first day when I realized my mistake, but something made me stay. I realized I needed to declare philosophy as my major halfway through that semester. I loved the fact that logic and reasoning could help me find answers about the world that most people don't bother asking. I loved reading philosophy and stretching my mind to try and understand these intricate concepts I had always been curious about.

I realized I needed to study political science when I got to ASU and my adviser let me know that all those political science classes I had taken for fun had me halfway to the degree anyways. I realized that I didn't have to give up philosophy to study political science. I'm so thankful I did because I see my future career aligned more with my political science degree than my philosophy degree. I had originally thought I would use my philosophy degree to get me to law school, but I have learned that the goal I wanted to accomplish with a law degree I can actually attain without law school, for now anyways.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned that fostering relationships with faculty is one of the most rewarding experiences that college has to offer. As a first-generation college grad, I didn't know how to go about the "college experience."

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU at first because it was in town and on-ground learning was important to me. I also liked that there was such a diverse student body and lots of class options. After completing all of the philosophy and political science classes that my community college had to offer it was refreshing to have such a large course catalog to choose from. It also didn't hurt that I got a full-ride scholarship and the honors program also offered me scholarships to cover the cost of their fees.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Tara Lennon taught me the importance of communication with my professors. During my first semester at ASU, I was struggling in her class that I didn't think I should have had much trouble in. I was intimidated because, unlike my classes at community college, she felt more distant as it was hard to get her attention with hundreds of other students doing the same. I got over my hesitations and started working with her in her office hours to fill in what I wasn't understanding in class. Now she is the first chair on my honors thesis, and I couldn't be more thankful for all she's done for me.

Also, Dr. Cynthia Bolton taught me how to write, and better analyze, a philosophy paper and for that I will be eternally grateful. I am a better writer and researcher because of her.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Foster relationships with your professors. I couldn't have gotten the internship if I hadn't gotten two glowing letters of recommendation from professors who I took the time to create a working relationship with. I also had multiple situations where a difficult class was made more workable and even enjoyable by investing time into going to office hours. This is especially true for any philosophy students out there who have to take PHI 333: Symbolic Logic. I couldn't have survived that class without all the extra hours Dr. Brad Armendt and his TA spent with me outside of class.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: It feels like it's been forever since I've been on campus now because of COVID-19 but I'd have to say I really enjoyed the new Hayden Library digs while I got the chance to use them. Those single person study rooms saved my life as someone who was commuting to ASU and sometimes had large gaps in my class schedule.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am ready to get back to work. I always tell people it's not the schoolwork part of going back to school that is the hardest, it's the student income that I struggled with. I am excited to get back into the workforce and to be passionate about my career goals. There is so much I have learned that I am excited to put to good use. I have my sights set on a master's degree eventually, but I need some time back in the workforce before I can commit to that. Taking time off after graduating high school was hard but it worked out well for me. I think taking time off before going to grad school will serve a similar purpose.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: If I had $40 million dollars I would have to try and tackle climate change. It is the single most existential problem of my generation and those after me because if we do not address it, we won't have a planet to call home. I think that Bill Gate's method of creating positive change is by far the best if you have the money to do it; invest in the inventors. $40 million would go really fast if you tried to use it lobbying for change in our government, much less the whole world. Investing in science and engineering professionals whose inventions could do away with plastic, make renewable energy more accessible and reliable, and come up with new ways to recycle or safely break down the plastic we have already made would all solve massive issues regarding climate change.