There’s an old saying that if you want something done right, you haveto do it yourself. Pittsburg native Pittsburg State University ROTCcadet Kristina Willis has taken that advice to heart and is on her way to a successful career in college and as an officer in the United States Army. And she’s doing it the right way.
Willis isn’t your average college student. Sure, there’s ROTC. But Willis, who is majoring in international business, also plays forward on the Gorillas women’s basketball team and finds time to maintain a 3.8 grade point average.
Willis gets her toughness and competitive nature from her parents.
Both of them played sports when they were younger, and transplanted their love of competition to her.
“My parents started me in basketball when I was four or five, and my dad would rebound for me for hours,” said Willis, who also played volleyball but decided to focus on basketball. “I’ll still race my dad home from the gym. Whatever sport it is, I love it.”
That drive to always improve keeps her going on days that start with physical conditioning drills before dawn and sometimes go late into the night.
“I’m a sore loser,” Willis said with a grin. “I’m not a bad sport, but I’d much rather be on the winning side. There’s a drive to be better. If I care a lot about something I put a lot of time into it. I’m not going to waste any effort.”
Willis developed the discipline it takes be successful at an early age, her father, Larry, said.
“It was her seventh grade year and she wasn’t very good at sports yet,” he said. “She came home one day complaining about playing time. We said ‘We’re not going to talk to your coaches’ and told her ‘You have to take it upon yourself to get noticed and get better.’ She figured out that she could work as hard as she could to achieve whatever she wanted. She pulled herself up to a different level.”
Willis said her family has always been outdoorsy, and that she and her sisters, Lizzy and Ashley, often would camp in the backyard for days at a time. On the rare days when she doesn’t have other obligations, she said she enjoys spending time with her friends and taking her kayak to the lake to relax.
“It’s my time,” Willis said — two weekends ago she went skydiving. “It’s nice sometimes to not have anyone around and be alone with my thoughts.”
Willis’ love of competition and of the outdoors, then, seems to translate well to a career in the Army, and she said it didn’t take long after she told her parents for them to come around to the idea.
Page 2 of 3 - “I knew when I was in middle school that that’s what I wanted to do,” Willis said. “My mom thought I’d grow out of it, but that obviously never happened.”
Her mom was instrumental, though, in Willis’ decision to attend college as an ROTC cadet. Willis’ original plan was simply to join the Army out of high school and start her career.
“My mom pushed me to go to college, and I’m glad she did,” said Willis, who shipped off to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri just days after she graduated high school. “I didn’t know much, but I wanted to improve my leadership and be able to speak to influence people, tell them what I need them to do and how to get it accomplished. I think I learned more in three years than I did in the 18 years before that.”
Willis’ parents weren’t the only ones who realized her potential. Capt. Drew Polen, of the Gorilla Battalion’s cadre, or leadership command, recruited Willis to Pitt State’s program. He said thedecision was a no-brainer.
“She had and continues to have all the right qualities we’re looking for in Army officers,” Polen said. “She’s athletic, highly intelligent and competitive. And she’s a Pittsburg girl.”
Polen said he thinks her potential is unlimited.
“Her boundaries are going to be determined by how far she wants to go in the Army,” he said. “She’s physically and mentally tough. It’s going to be exciting to see where she goes.”
Willis said she wouldn’t mind winding up in Africa. She spent a month teaching English to school children in Tanzania this summer as part of the Army’s Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program (CULP), and said it was an eye-opening experience.
“I was impressed by how little they have, but how happy they were,” Willis said. “Here, we’re always looking for the next best thing. They have nothing and seemed totally fine with it. And how many people do you know who can say ‘I’ve been to Africa?’”
Her degree in international business also will help her become a better officer. Her classes, she said, have helped her improve as a reader of people. And her CULP experience helped put that all into perspective.
“I’ve learned to not just rely on words, but also on body language,” said Willis, who hopes to work in Army intelligence and achieve the rank of full bird colonel. “A smile will go further than 10 words ever will.”
Willis put all of that experience and improvement on display last weekend during the Task Force Ranger Challenge, an Army skills competition host by Iowa State University’s Cyclone Battalion at Camp Dodge, just north of Des Moines. The Ranger Challenge pits ROTC squads from universities all over the Midwest against each other in a grueling, overnight event. Since the beginning of the fall semester, Willis has been up before dawn on weekdays, training with the five-member squad she captains, and then back again after classes and basketball practice. Their hard work paid off, and Willis led her squad to a second place finish, topping other, much larger programs.
Page 3 of 3 - “We worked our butts off for eight to 10 weeks of training,” said Willis, who put in so much time and energy that she contracted bronchitis and pneumonia afterward. “It’s definitely a great feeling, especially being the only Division II school (at the challenge). It feels good to prove that our program is just as strong or stronger than the bigger ones.”
“There aren’t very many times where I’ve see her physically gassed,” he said. “But Kristina was the one keeping the motivation high.”
None of it was a surprise to Willis’ father, either.
“She’s a pretty special person,” Larry said. “We need people like that, especially in our country. When she decided she wanted to join the Army I was all for it. “We’re extremely proud. She never ceases to amaze us. We’re extremely proud of her and our other daughters, too.”