'I'm Not Looking for an Average Life...'
What top student and future disaster manager Alexia Bililies can teach us all about Aiming High
July 3, 2009
Ask Alexia Bililies, and she’ll tell you the world is a pretty small place with some big, but manageable, problems – and she can’t wait for her chance to get out there and fix them.
She should know: She’s spent much of her college years traveling the globe – working and volunteering in far-off countries like Namibia, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica to gain invaluable internship experience for a future career in public health.
“Helping people is my passion. That’s what drives me,” says Alexia, a Phi Sigma Sigma sister and student at Massachusetts-based Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where she is a member of our Gamma Iota Chapter. “I’m not looking for the ‘average’ life. I’m not here to party, and I don’t want to make millions. I just want to live and work in some way that makes people’s lives better. That’s my true calling.”
No wonder she recently earned one of the world’s most coveted academic honors: a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship worth $24,000. (She’s in good company: Past Rotary alumni have included journalist Bill Moyers, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and even noted film critic Roger Ebert.)
The scholarship permits her to travel to Denmark this August to become one of the world’s first students earning her master’s degree in disaster management at the prestigious University of Copenhagen. This is the only program of its kind, launched in response to the devastating tsunami that killed 225,000 people in late 2004.
“People are beginning to realize we need even better coordination to help prevent and respond to catastrophes like the tsunami, or even Hurricane Katrina,” Alexia explains. “This master’s program is designed to educate and train me on exactly how to respond to prevent suffering, get people the help they need and, most importantly, address the problems that may have led to the disaster with the goal of avoiding similar situations.”
While in Europe, she’ll act as a U.S. goodwill ambassador for Rotary International – giving presentations about America that can impact international relations. She’ll also have the chance to participate in a high-impact internship with world-class organizations like the Red Cross or the United Nations.
Up to the challengeFor someone who just graduated a month ago (with high honors, no less), this is really heady stuff – and she readily admits it.
“I’m nervous, sure!” Alexia says with a laugh. “This is a natural progression from what I’ve been doing, but it’s a really big step for me. I’m staying focused on the ultimate goal: to learn what’s needed so I could bring some good out of a truly bad situation (like a disaster). If I can do that, all the work will definitely be worth it.”
Alexia’s no stranger to hard work, of course. Her list of accomplishments already reads like the resume of a seasoned professional:
- Key team member of a Namibia-based interdisciplinary project in 2008 focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention (one of her more successful projects, resulting in a mobile clinic that helps people get tested anonymously and learn how to prevent the spread of the disease in that South African republic).
- Public health volunteer in the Dominican Republic – working with a community-based doctor to provide much-needed medical care and educating people on an initiative called the “People’s Pharmacy Project,” distributing life-saving pharmaceuticals where they’re needed most.
- Orphanage volunteer in Costa Rica.
- Conversationally fluent in Spanish, having studied the language and culture in Granada, Spain.
- Internships with the Massachusetts Public Health Association and Bureau of Prisons Federal Medical Center.
As if that’s not enough, she’s also skilled at the art of getting others to join her in service.
This comes, in part, from being raised in a family that has always been focused on philanthropy, she explains. Her father, Drew Bililies, has dedicated much of his life to providing travel and recreation to special-needs adults – something the whole family helps with and finds incredibly rewarding.
As Gamma Iota’s community service chair and co-fundraising chair, Alexia worked hard to rally her sisters to participate in projects that had real impact on the surrounding community, such as a challenging painting job at a domestic abuse shelter that wouldn’t have been able to open in time without the chapter’s help.
“I’d come back from my (international) travels, and use my enthusiasm for service to try to convince people to help out here at home,” she explains. “I’d call them – sometimes even beg! – and remind them how great they’d feel about the work, and about themselves, if they participated in our projects. That’s what you need to do – remind people we have a higher calling."
She proudly notes her sisters never let her down – and that Gamma Iota has a strong tradition of service in the greater Worcester community. That’s influenced her, too, she says.
“Everything I planned, my sisters were there. Everything I’m doing in my life, they’re there for me,” Alexia adds. “You know, that isn’t always the case out there in the real world. People don’t always support you.
“Having sisters standing alongside you through life makes the journey even more meaningful,” she says – and then laughs: “And definitely more fun.”
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