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K-State Today

September 2, 2015



Alumnus Ray Willis creates scholarship fund to aid minority graduate students in planning

By Courtney Bowman

A new scholarship fund endowed by a Kansas State University alumnus will provide financial assistance to minority graduate students in regional and community planning, a program of the landscape architecture and regional & community planning department in the College of Architecture, Planning & Design, or APDesign.

The Ray Willis Regional and Community Planning Scholarship Fund, endowed by Ray Willis, is the regional and community planning program's RCP first endowed scholarship fund in its 50-year history. It will support African-American, Native American and Hispanic graduate students.

Willis is a 1968 and 1971 graduate of Kansas State University, having earned his bachelor's degree in sociology and his master's degree in regional and community planning. As an undergraduate, Willis was a basketball standout on Fred "Tex" Winter's 1968 Big Eight Conference Championship team.

Currently the director of community planning and development for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago, Willis has made significant contributions as planner, innovator and manager for HUD. He oversees one of the department's largest portfolios of community development programs, administering an annual budget in excess of $1 billion.

Willis leads the department's Illinois efforts in key program areas, including community and economic development, supportive housing for the homeless, housing opportunities for individuals with HIV/AIDS, affordable housing and disaster relief. In 1996, Willis was selected as a Chicago Delegate to the United Nations' Human Settlement Conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

Before joining HUD, Willis worked for the state government in Ohio, the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Kansas, and as an assistant professor of regional and community planning at K-State. He also has served as a director on several nonprofit boards in Chicago.

Willis was inspired to create the scholarship fund during his return to campus in April 2014 as APDesign's Alumni Fellow.

"I was disappointed to learn how few African-American and Hispanic students were enrolled in the planning program," Willis said. "When I left the regional and community planning program in 1973, there were as many as 10 to 12 minority graduate students enrolled in the program, albeit the vast majority were supported by the HUD-funded minority work-study program."

Willis was instrumental in developing the HUD-funded minority work-study program at K-State in 1971 as part of his master's project, and subsequently became is first director.

Willis hopes his scholarship fund will act as a catalyst for APDesign to resume outreach and recruitment efforts to African-American, Hispanic and Native American graduate students. His ultimate goal is to increase the number of minority individuals in the urban planning profession.

"Issues facing our cities today must be addressed with inclusiveness in mind," Willis said. "To make a difference, minority students must be equipped with an understanding of how cities function, as well as the needs of low and moderate income communities. There is no better discipline than 'city planning' to prepare students to address the challenges of today's cities."

Willis has fond memories of his time as a student in the regional and community planning program and hopes that more students will come away with the same knowledge and passion as he did.

"One of the most important lessons learned was from my instructor Leland Edmonds," Willis said. "Professor Edmonds was a realist and knew that, all too often, plans produced by planners remained on the shelf and seldom were implemented, which was very discouraging. However, Professor Edmonds response to this experience was the ability to justify your existence. Amid my many career challenges and adversities, I have consistently focused on justifying my existence; that has been my mantra."

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