Dr. Shari Willis encourages growth through overcoming challenges—and rock climbing


As college students, something that is liable to happen is getting into a routine where we don’t step outside of our comfort zones.

Some of us may not challenge ourselves more than our selected major requires. And that can continue until we get a job in our selected field, and that can become a hum-drum type of life of its own.

This stagnant lifestyle inhibits personal growth, and change is the only way to keep growing as a person.

If one had to narrow down Dr. Shari Willis’ life and career to just two words, they would be those powerful ideas: “change” and “growth.” But there is so much more to her than that.

Willis grew up in central Missouri, where she lived for 18 years, the longest she’s ever lived anywhere. At 14 years old she decided she needed to get away and explore the world. She began work doing laundry so she could pay to go to Spain for a summer as part of a foreign exchange program. The summer she went was three years later when she turned 17.

This was only the beginning of her travels.

“I don’t know what it is, I don’t even know how to explain it,” Willis said. “I feel like I should see things and do things, it just happened to be different places.”

As she approached the end of high school, Willis applied to several colleges far from her home state, but didn’t stray too far from home – this time – and received her bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Northeast Missouri State University.

Following her time as an undergraduate, Willis took a gap year before starting her master’s in School and College Health and Safety Education at Indiana University. During that year, she spent time working at a fish factory in Alaska and traveled the west coast.

“I knew that I wasn’t staying in Missouri, although a lot of my friends are still there, they did not leave…but I had that drive to leave,” she said.

Willis climbs a steep rock face at Ralph Stover State Park in Pennsylvania. This was part of a school trip for the Pursuit of Happiness honors class, which she taught alongside Dr. DJ Angelone. – Photo / Dr. Shari Willis

After receiving her master’s, Willis taught middle school for four years in Connecticut, which was a job she loved. She then decided she wanted to further her education and went on to receive her Ph.D. in Health Promotion and Education from the University of Utah.

With three degrees under her belt, Willis began her career at Rowan. She is currently the program coordinator of the Adventure Education Leadership Certificate of Undergraduate Study and the new Community Health major.

The Adventure Education Leadership CUGS consists of four classes: Adventure and Experiential Learning, Adventure Processing and Facilitating, Wilderness First Responder and Adventure Programming. These classes help students develop the skills to become leaders in their community, especially in the types of situations presented in class.

The first two classes, which Willis refers to endearingly as Adventures I and II, focus on building trust and a community within the class. This trust and community are used as foundations of the classes’ next phase, which challenges students to grow and change and face their fears, of rock climbing.

“When I look at students, I really see them growing in class, differently than they grow in many classes,” Willis said. “It becomes a domain where we kind of have the full person involved. It’s physical, but it’s mental, it’s emotional, social, so we’re really looking at that person growing in all those ways.”

Wilderness First Responder takes a different spin on Adventure Education Leadership than the first two classes.

It emphasizes how to administer first aid if you find yourself days from the nearest hospital with a broken bone or something of the like. In situations like this, you must make sure injuries don’t get infected and the patient doesn’t get more injured because they could lose a body part if they’re improperly cared for.

The final class of the CUGS, Adventure Programming, encourages students to develop their leadership skills.

Though Adventure Learning is her “total passion,” Willis is also the program coordinator for the new Community Health major, which started only three years ago at Rowan. She emphasized the major’s importance in our global and local community because of the current climate of diseases and infections arising.

Though she’s settled into the Rowan community, which is the second-longest place she’s ever lived, Willis hasn’t lost her taste for travel.

She has been to every state but one (Hawaii) and has been to 28 different countries, though two of those no longer exist (West Germany for an internship when she was 14 and Czechoslovakia).

Willis jumps off a cliff into the New River. She was on a trip to West Virginia. – Photo / Dr. Shari Willis

She’s even given her family the travel bug: her oldest daughter lives in Barcelona, Spain, and she has taken vacations with her two younger daughters to places like Finland and Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Willis even takes trips with Rowan students, one of her favorites being a spring break trip this past semester to Natural Bridge, Virginia.

During the trip, she saw the things she emphasized in her Adventure I and II classes: community-building, growth, and taking on challenges the students never thought they’d overcome.

Willis stands with students in front of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The team had just finished creating trails for the day at Natural Bridge State Park. – Photo / Dr. Shari Willis

And those are the things that she cherishes the most about her job: seeing students growing and challenging themselves.

“I love watching students challenge themselves and go for things, even if they have failures,” she said. “I love that they really challenge themselves because they grow so much within themselves and they almost in a sense broaden their horizons about what they are now capable of.”

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