Willa Butler was running before she could walk. Alright, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the New Paltz High School senior, a member of the track and Nordic ski teams and a two-time cross country captain, found her passion for the sport at only seven years old. “My parents would bring my sisters to 5Ks, and they brought me with them,” she explains. Since then, working alongside older siblings Cora and Honour has been a highlight of Butler’s athletic career. “I did varsity track in eighth grade to be with my sisters on the team.”
However, Butler’s favorite high school sport has been cross country — only improved by the many “amazing” people she’s met at various meets and camps. In particular, she calls coach Ann Gregory, “a second mom to me, almost.” By training with her, Butler has gotten more in touch with her abilities without ever going too far. “I’ve learned a lot… knowing when you need to stop doing something and when you can push harder.”
Sports have not been the only object of Butler’s attention over the past four years, though — her rigorous academic schedule has kept her quite busy. “You kind of get a feel for your work ethic,” she says, reflecting on the rude awakening that was freshman year. Juggling her after-school commitments along with hours of homework each night has made it a long road, but she admits that, “then again, I wouldn’t go back and change any of the things that I did.”
Butler’s dedication to her jam-packed schedule has paid off in full — she is now a member of Cornell University’s Class of 2021, where she will be pursuing a four-year degree in food science. “I wanted to go to Cornell for a long time, because my mom went there,” she says. She feels that having that type of vision throughout the day-to-day struggles made high school easier. “I liked planning out and knowing what I wanted to do, and that helped me stay on track.”
Funny enough, she came across the rather avant garde field of food science during an eighth grade careers survey in her home and careers class. “It definitely seemed like something I wanted to do and it just kind of stuck with me,” she says. She recalls her mom e-mailing her links to articles and information about food scientists and the work they do, and knew she’d made the right choice when she entered the high school’s Science research class in her sophomore year. Since then, she has been planning a senior project that will study the effect of parental food choice on the food choice of their children, and will soon be conducting some of her research at a pre-school. She has been mentored throughout the process by David Cullinan, a food scientist at EFCO Products who makes fillings for Dunkin Donuts. “I want to work in, preferably, a desserts lab,” Butler says, adding that she is interested in the psychology that influences people’s food preferences as opposed to engineering certain types of long-lasting foods (of course, she also hopes to be around chocolate every day).
Ultimately, Butler is excited for the immediate future and thrilled that her college plans worked out so beautifully. “I’m not really as worried going into college because I know that I’m prepared,” she says with a smile. “I guess I’m just excited to be in a new environment.”