As the youngest of eight children, Jessica Gudino Willis, a Benton native, thought it would be impossible for her to afford the University of Arkansas. Luckily, a visit to the campus on Scholars Day changed her mind.

“One of the people we met with that day said, ‘If you don’t think you can come to the University of Arkansas because of money, that’s not a reason,’” she said. As a first-generation college student, her family didn’t know what to expect and were afraid she would never come home and would party too much.

She did just the opposite, however. Majoring in journalism, Willis also held a work study position at the Arkansas Alumni Association and helped create the Student Alumni Board. She also was named a Boyer Scholar by the Arkansas Alumni Association during her junior year, an award endowed by Tommy and Sylvia Boyer and given to a University of Arkansas junior or senior whose academic career would be interrupted because of lack of funds.

What’s her advice for current students?

“Enjoy your time on campus. You get to meet so many diverse people,” she said. “Just learning is the thing I miss the most. Every three months starts a whole new world.”

Willis’ experience working at the Alumni Association led her to pursue her master’s degree in higher education. During graduate school, Willis worked in the university’s financial aid office and then returned to the Alumni Association as a part-time communications assistant. She then accepted a full-time job as an HEI program coordinator in the university’s financial aid office in 2009.

When she isn’t working, Willis loves to travel, a passion she picked up during her time as a University of Arkansas student. She had a friend who was studying abroad in Thailand and decided to visit. Willis has been traveling ever since, visiting 17 different countries, including returning to Thailand the next summer. Most of her travels have been through mission work and says Spain is definitely her favorite country. Her most proud moment, however, was when she realized she had grasped Spanish. “It was during my second year in Spain. A little girl asked her mom for ice cream, and I thought, ‘I get it! I understood what she said.’”

One memorable mission trip is where Willis met her husband, James, who graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2003. “We had the same friends on campus but met on a mission trip to Guatemala,” Willis said. “We joke that we had to go all the way there to meet.”

James is a category analyst for Dr. Pepper, which is appropriate since his new wife loves the soft drink. “My friends joke that’s the reason I married him,” Willis said with a big smile.

As members of the Arkansas Alumni Association, Willis said she is glad to have had the opportunity to work for the Association and learn more about the mission.

“I understand the reason (the Alumni Association) does what they do to connect alumni,” she said. “The alumni are so closely knit. They are always returning to campus or tailgating during football games. The Arkansas Alumni Association helps to bring that to the city.”