Vanessa Wills, '02

Vanessa Wills
When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

I thought that I would major either in English or in Molecular Biology. I was always a voracious reader. My mother loves to recount the times she found me up way past my bedtime with a flashlight and a book. Writing always felt natural to me and I wrote poetry and short stories, and had done a journalism internship with a local daily newspaper. So the idea of continuing my study of literature and the English language made a lot of sense. As for Molecular Biology, I had thoughts of becoming a virologist. In my biology classes at high school, I became fascinated by virii and their bizarre, almost science-fiction-like modes of being and of straddling the line between living and non-living. I started to read a lot about them in my free time, so I thought maybe that would become my career.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

I'd read some Wittgenstein during the summer before my Senior year of high school, as part of a summer program organized by the Telluride Association. I think that was my first encounter with academic philosophy. I was probably mostly struck by the almost poetic manner in which Wittgenstein expressed his philosophical views. But I didn't completely realize then that I could select "academic philosopher" as a career path.

In the Spring of my Freshman year at college, I took a class called "Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein." I loved it! So I decided to take some more classes about philosophy, enrolling in offerings from both the Philosophy and the Religion Departments. I majored in Philosophy for a number of reasons, beyond the fact that I liked it and seemed to have a talent for it:

a) My interest in the study of religion was primarily philosophical, so I thought I'd be able to pursue that interest with a philosophy degree while also having the flexibility to explore other philosophical questions that interested me. I found it very appealing that there was "Philosophy of" so many different things. I still do.

b) The faculty/student ratio in Philosophy was much more favorable than in some of the larger departments, and I thought I would get more "bang for my buck" in not having to compete with so many other students for my professors' attention.

c) I found philosophy difficult and challenging, in a way that gave me increasing confidence in my abilities whenever I made progress on a hard philosophical problem.

d) It suited well my existing interests in language and in scientific analysis and problem-solving.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?

When I think back to my time studying Philosophy at Princeton, I remember that it was a lot of fun! My professors were friendly and encouraging. I felt absurdly fortunate to learn from such top-notch faculty and to have such brilliant peers, including one who over all these years has remained among my closest and dearest friends. I remember a lot of hours spent in the Philosophy library together, working on our Senior theses. I remember the administrative staff in Philosophy being extraordinarily helpful and kind, even going above the call of duty to help me organize my campus visits to graduate schools. Majoring in Philosophy was rigorous and challenging, but always felt collegial, supportive, and exciting, as well. I really felt at home in the department.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

The summer after I graduated, I was able to expand my part-time work in Princeton's Office of Communications into a full-time role, saving up money to move to Pittsburgh in the fall and enroll at the University of Pittsburgh, where I earned my PhD in Philosophy.

What do you do now?

I am Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Joseph's University, a Jesuit, liberal-arts institution in Philadelphia, PA. I specialize in moral, social, and political philosophy, and 19th century German philosophy (especially Karl Marx). [This interview was conducted in March 2014]

Final words?

One of the things I think is wonderful about studying philosophy in college is that you can apply philosophical thinking to any other field. My students tell me how much the skills they learn in my classes have improved them as students of physics, biology, sociology, history, and a whole range of other disciplines. It also prepares you for a range of careers in law, the public interest/non-profit field, you name it. And of course, it's excellent preparation for my own chosen career path as an academic philosopher! But even more to the point, there is too much injustice in the world. Philosophy helps you to understand the world we live in and change it for the better, which is probably what I love about it most.