One in 2000: Keelia Willison ’14

Never have I met someone whose life lends itself so beautifully to the backdrop of an original Disney movie as Keelia Willison ’14. I can picture it already – a narrative about the adventures of an animal-loving, tango-dancing, bungee-jumping teenage girl living in Africa. And of course, Justin Bieber would provide the soundtrack.  

What have you been up to today?

I was just ordering baking supplies online. I love to bake! I’ve been doing it since high school, but since coming here, it’s been my de-stressor.

What’s your specialty?

I have been getting really into muffins and breads recently, but in high school I had a cupcake obsession. My friend’s birthday was last week, so I made her these cupcakes with marshmallows as flower petals.

What’s up with America’s cupcake fixation? Are they still in vogue or sort of passé?

I think people are getting overly creative with them or moving on.

But there are still an astonishing number of cake and cupcake-related shows. Do you watch any of them?

I don’t really watch that much TV. Growing up, we were only allowed to watch after 3 p.m. on weekends, so I guess I never got into it.

Who’s we?

Me and my four siblings. My brother’s 14, my sister’s 17, my other brother is 18 and my other brother is 21. He goes to Swarthmore, and the rest are back in Africa.

Oh, let’s dive right into that. Tell me about growing up abroad. How was your childhood?

By Emily Calkins, photo editor.

Fantastic! My dad used to be in construction, and he had this garage full of planks and tools and pieces of wood. He taught us how to use the stuff, and we built our own jungle gym. Especially after moving to Africa, I feel like we had a different sort of childhood.

How old were you when you moved?

I was 12. My dad wanted us to live in a developing country for a year. So we lived in Kenya in Mombasa, which is right on the coast, in this house overlooking the ocean.

Then where did you go?

We moved to Uganda after that. That wasn’t part of the plan – we were supposed to leave and come back to Chicago. And then my dad got a job offer in Kampala, and we fell in love with the place! We have a house there with four dogs.

What is your neighborhood like?

Kampala is kind of a city, but we’re on the outskirts. Our neighbors are Canadian, Australian and British. Except one of our neighbors is a Ugandan witch doctor! Her drums keep us up at night [laughs]. But I went to an international high school, where there were as many if not more countries represented as at Williams.

I heard you had some fun experiences with the local wildlife.

Yeah, I actually ride lions to school every day. We have to close our windows because giraffes stick their heads through. No, but we do see monkeys a lot. They steal food off our porch. At my school, we used to see monkeys on the roof eating people’s Fritos. They’re sort of cute devils, like squirrels. But they steal everything! One of my friends actually got in a physical fight with a baboon.

Who won?

The baboon did! They’re really strong!

I also heard you had quite the first kiss. Care to share?

Ok, this was when we first moved to Kenya, so I was 12. I was with a bunch of friends on a school field trip. We went to Nairobi National Park, and there was this area where if you stand up on this tower you can see giraffes. So you hold out your hand with food, and it leans over and slobbers all over your hand and eats the food. Well, the guide was like, “Hey, if you put the food in your mouth, it will kiss you!” I was like, “No way!” So you just hold it between your lips. And this big giraffe just leaned down and kissed me and took the food. Her name was Daisy – so I guess you could also say that my first kiss was with a female!

Can’t beat that first kiss story! So where you want to live after Williams?

All I really want to do for sure is travel. It’s something my parents engrained in my siblings and me. All five of us don’t want to live in the States. Next year, my older brother is moving to China.

Your family is half Chinese, right? 

There’s been so much speculation over this since I’ve come here! I’ve had six people separately ask me which of my parents is black. I’ve had people compare me to Pocahontas. Last week, someone told me I was the most ethnically ambiguous person he’s ever met! But my mom is Chinese and was raised American. And my dad is white American.

So speaking of family, I wanted to talk to you about your entry. 

Speaking of family! That’s exactly the connection we go for!

How did Mills 3 become so tight?

Everybody came willing to be a family. I know that sounds cheesy! But a lot of it was that our JAs, Mustafa [Saadi ’12] and Amy [Nguyen ’12], facilitated so many entry activities. We stayed overnight in a cabin fall and spring semesters. We had entry dinner every night. We still have dinner every night! And we still have entry snacks every week.

That’s adorable!

We just got really lucky in that all of us got along really well. And it’s not even just that. It’s that everybody genuinely loves everyone else. If one person’s not there, it’s really visible.  Missing snacks is a huge deal! You have to give fair warning, be like, “You guys, I’m sorry, but next week I can’t come!” Part of that’s because the food was so good. Adam Falk even came and visited!

Where do you host snacks this year?

Gladden basement. We’ve kind of taken over our common room and made it the entry common room. We’ve got our Mills 3 banner and our Justin Bieber poster … no judgments…

Don’t tell me you’re a Bieber fan!

I mean, who isn’t? We also watch Cheetah Girls.

I never knew that about you! What other secrets are you keeping? 

Well, I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie. I’ve been bungee jumping twice.

Flippin’ sweet! Where did you go?

It was my 16th birthday. I went at this place that juts out over the Nile in Uganda. And then I went another time with my friend. You hug each other on the way down. It’s actually so much scarier than going alone! I squeezed her to pieces. It was so much fun!

Any other extreme stuff? 

Roller coasters, rafting, I love that stuff! Skydiving’s definitely on my bucket list.

So you’re a Bieber-loving, cupcake-baking adrenaline junkie. Is there anything else the Williams community doesn’t know about you?

Well they know my first kiss! That’s like, everything.