Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Serena Bowen Wille ’93
Rogue states’ financial transactions. Cyber financial crimes. Terrorist financing. It’s the rare resume that lists expertise in these areas, and the rare young alumna who uses such expertise like that to help trace the roots of the terrorist attacks on the United States. But long before Serena Wille ’93 was tapped to serve on the 9/11 Commission, she showed herself to be a rare young professional.
Accepted early at Harvard, she chose to come to Carolina as a Morehead Scholar instead. She arrived in Chapel Hill from Connecticut with interests ranging from classical music to ice hockey—she played defense for PhillipsExeterAcademy—to skiing, figure skating, lacrosse and Russian. At UNC Serena was one of a small group of undergraduates who dreamed up the APPLES program and got it off the ground, pretty much on conviction alone.
Against a lot of obstacles, this handful of idealists started the first student-run service-learning program in the country. APPLES provides a way for students to use what they learn in class to help the community, and to use what they learn in the community to strengthen and solidify what they learn in class. Serena, recalls fellow APPLES founder and Morehead Scholar Michael Ulku-Steiner ’92, was passionate about the idea and “stubborn in an energetic way—like a churning engine pressing the idea forward.”
APPLES today is fully integrated into the curriculum. In those early days, it was short on funds and short on people to keep it going. The turning point was the night of the annual student election—a 90-cent student fee increase was on the ballot. The outcome appeared tenuous, and Serena’s colleagues remember the force of her personality and stamina in rounding up support. When it was over, the group had a real chance to build something that would outlast them.
“To start an organization and have it live is kind of amazing,” Serena says. In 2005-06, 76 APPLES courses generated more than 37,000 hours of community service. The program became part of the backbone of the campus culture of public service.
Service clearly remained in Serena’s blood. After graduating in political science with highest honors and with a minor in Russian, she followed a number of interests—working at a Utah ski resort for a winter, studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, and, oh yes, picking up a law degree from Harvard—before going to work on international financial transactions at corporate law firms in Manhattan and London. She was in New York when the planes hit the WorldTradeCenter, close enough to see the smoke from her office. Her immediate response was action—she led a group who helped out at a Red Cross station at Ground Zero—and when the 9/11 Commission asked her to help trace terrorist financing, she stepped away from corporate law and answered the call.
With two others, she tracked how al-Qaeda moved money. And she helped provide an accounting of the attacks, assess the U.S. government response and make recommendations on how future attacks can be prevented. She brought her considerable expertise to bear on a complex and unprecedented problem—and she put heart and soul into the work.
The experience brought the power of public service home to her yet again, and she went on to work for the CIA on illicit finance issues. These days, she’s back in corporate law and makes time for pro bono work, setting up credit agreements for international micro-lending projects.
The Morehead program not only convinced Serena to come to Carolina, she says—it was a tremendous part of her experience here. “To be able to travel and to explore in the way the program lets you explore, to meet the people who are Moreheads who are doing such interesting things,” was, she says, “an exciting entry into campus life.” It’s where she met the fellow students who started APPLES.
Ten years after graduation, while working for the 9/11 Commission, she was introduced to another Morehead Scholar at a New Year’s Eve party. Though they overlapped by one year at Carolina, they’d never met. “Next thing we knew,” she says, “We were flying across the country to see each other.” She and John Sides ’96 married in 2005.
Carolina, she says, turned out to be absolutely the right move—“a tremendous growh experience for me.” She found leadership opportunities she might not have had at Harvard. In light of all Serena has done with those opportunities, the beneficiaries are the University, its dedication to public service, and the larger world around it.
More about this: