The Outlook Interview: Willa Mulhollan Talks to James A. Miller; Willa Mulhollan, 17, is driven, ambitious, sophisticated and worried. She is in the midst of the first major career crisis of her life. Now awaiting word from Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- the schools to which she has applied for this fall's admission -- the tall senior at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria finds herself with is little time for the kinds of carefree, youthful pursuits that most of her classmates enjoy. This year Willa is captain of the varsity swim team, co-captain of varsity crew, vice president of the National Honor Society, secretary and first chair second violin of the school orchestra, group leader at her church, committee chairwoman for Teen Democrats and secretary of the Keyette Club. She is not the only hyperactive person in the Mulhollan house. Her father, Daniel, is the assistant chief of the government division at the Congressional Research Service. He is also a lay Eucharistic minister, a group leader at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic church (where he attends 5:45 a.m. prayer group meetings three times a week), a volunteer at a senior citizens' home and the co-author of an upcoming book on informal groups in Congress. Willa's mother, Julie, is a part-time pediatric nurse, the co-coordinator for youth activities at George Washington Junior High and a member of the Gifted and Talented Students Advisory Board, the Alexandria Crew Boosters and the PTA board. Sister Erin, 14, is the vice president of the Junior National Honor Society, a member of the swim and crew teams, a youth commissioner at her church, and a member of the Teen Recreation Council. Sister Julianne, 4, will start kindergarten this September; James A. Miller is the author of "Running In Place: Inside the Senate," which will be published this spring.
Q. Would you consider yourself a busy person?
A: Busy? Yes, to say the least. I'm a senior and this year I'm captain of the swim team. I'm National Honor Society vice president, the secretary of the Keyette Club, a community organization, and also captain of the crew team. I play the violin, I've been in the orchestra for seven years.
In 1984 I was junior class vice president and I ran varsity indoor track before crew season. In my church I'm a small-group leader. Those are the main things. I was also the 1985 homecoming queen.
Q: What would be a typical week for you?
A: Right now it's swim season. Crew starts in February. In a typical week, I wake up every morning at 6 and go to school. After school I have swim team practice and I get home about five and I'll do homework, or try to get in some phone conversations. Then I'll go to a meeting or something. When crew starts, I don't get home until about 7 so I have to try to fit everything in.
Q: Is it fair to say that you don't have any free time?
A: I have a little. It's very very difficult to find, and whenever I do just sit down and don't do anything, I feel immense guilt because I feel like I should be doing something. There is a part of me that feels that I'm overextended, but I do like to be busy and, as my parents always remind me, it was my choice to do these things.
Q: Do you ever think about what your peers think of you when they look at you and think, "Oh, she's captain of this, captain of that, she's homecoming queen, she's junior princess . . . ." Do you often think about yourself as a symbol for other people?
A: No, I don't. It's kind of funny because one of my best friend's boyfriends, he's always calling me Miss Perfect. I just laugh about it, but until he said that I never really thought of anyone thinking about what I did. I don't think of myself as a symbol at all. I do what I do. I hope that people can look up to me. I know I looked up to people in the past. That's part of being the big senior and having the younger people look up to you.
Q: Do you find that other people are as busy as you are?
A: A lot of my friends are as busy as I am. That might be what forms our friendships; we can understand each other.
Q: What kinds of things do you think about your upbringing led you to become the type of person who is so involved?
A: I'm sure a lot of it is my parents. My parents have never pushed me, but they've always expected a lot. They expected grades to be good. They always congratulated me; I mean, they've always just been so proud of me whenever I do well.
Q: Have you ever gotten a C?
A: Not since eighth grade. In eighth grade I went through my so-called bad period. It was a very turbulent time. I was threatened with going to a private school, and I was grounded. It was awful. But after that I've never had a C.
Q: Are your parents busy?
A: My mom's very busy. She gets involved in everything. We always laugh at her, too, because she's "little miss community worker." My dad works really hard. I look up to my dad a lot because his parents didn't have very much money and he did everything himself. He earned a scholarship to college. He wrote this essay with everyone in the country and he was chosen out of five people and got a full scholarship to any college he wanted to go to.
Q: Do you think he's as intense as you are?
A: He can be intense. His level of intensity at work I know because I can see him when he comes home with his teeth clenched and his fist up. He seems to let some of it go when he walks through the door.
Q: You're a senior now. Are you in the middle of the application process?
A: Yes, I'm applying to the University of Virginia, Princeton, William and Mary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Q: Is there a certain amount of pressure now associated with it, or can you say to yourself, well, I've done well with my grades and I have all these activities, so I don't have to worry?
A: There is a lot of pressure because, as you're told, there are people like that all over the country.
Q: Who tells you this?
A: The admissions people, the teachers, the counselors. You just hear that there's people all over the country competing and if everyone's like you, they could just have that one thing better, they could have that grade point average a little higher. There's immense pressure, not only to get them done but thinking, "Am I going to be able to get in? Am I gonna be good enough?"
Q: You're in the top percentage of your class?
A: I'm in the top 3 percent, top 3 to 5 percent of my class.
Q: Are there other people at T.C. Williams that are applying to the same schools?
A: Oh, God, yes. That's constantly what I think about. For instance, the Princeton crew coach visited our school for the college night and it was great chance because talking to the coach could help me get in. He also talked to some other people. He called me and asked me to go down and visit them, but he sent her a letter and he called her twice and so he wanted her more and she had the higher grade point average. They're only gonna take so many people from my school and this area, so whenever I find out somebody else applied to the same place, I go, Oh No.
Q: Are your parents pushers or are they worried that you're overextended?
A: In general my parents are very very supportive. I'm the oldest in my family so this is the first time that they've gone through this. Hopefully by the time my 14-year-old sister goes through it, they'll be a little bit better. They tell me I'm overextended because they see me at home when I'm tired or down, but there's really nothing I can do about it. They don't push me at all. I do it on my own.
Q: Is your mother excited about this application process to colleges?
A: I don't know if excited is the word. Maybe frantic or hysterical is a better word. My mom makes definite attempts to keep calm about it and every time she says, "Willa, don't forget, you have your application," I'll start getting upset and saying, "I know, I know," and she'll go, "I'm not gonna say another word." She says, "I'm not going to say another word," all the time. It's kind of funny. The first thing my father says was "Willa, until these applications are done I think you should really cut down on the social activities." To me, that's easier said than done.
Q: Do you have any place in your weekly schedule where you just get a chance to take a deep breath and do nothing? Just relax and read a book that isn't for school or go to a museum or whatever?
A: Every night before I go to bed I always read. It helps me. It's like a habit. And I insist on reading something like good literature or something that's not for school or required. Sometimes at night when I know I should be doing something else like homework or my applications I just say, "Well, forget it" and I'll just go up in my room and lay on my bed and listen to the radio or kind of just sit there. Sanity must be kept.
Q: Do you consider yourself an intense person?
A: Intense, no. Lately my parents have been telling me, "Willa you're getting a little too intense and uptight all the time." I tell them I have to stay uptight because if I don't I'll get tired out. But I try to keep it all in perspective.
Q: Do you have a boyfriend?
A: Oh yes. His schedule's not as heavy as mine and it's really hard for us to find the time to spend with each other. He understands. I mean, he always says, "I understand and you have these things and that's you." I just feel badly and I'd like to spend time with him but it is rather difficult.
Q: Is there a part of you that is afraid that you're burning out?
A: I've felt like that but it's never for long periods. Sometimes I get really tired and I wish I could stop everything. Sometimes I wish I could just climb into a little cocoon and just hide there and not come out. I tell my mom that sometimes. Just lying there with her on her bed, talking with her. I say I wish I could stay here and hide and not do anything. Just lie there. But that doesn't happen too often. I don't feel like I'm burning out too much.
Q: What are you chasing after?
A: I don't really know. I don't know if I'm chasing anything. I don't do all these activities for the purpose of trying to get into schools. I'm just trying to get the most for myself. Every time you do something, you get something back. All my activities are rewarding. I'm not going to do something I don't enjoy. As much as I might complain about it at the time, I do like them.
Q: But doesn't it seem strange to you that after working as hard as you have and getting the grades and being involved in all these activities, there's still pressure on you to get into school?
A: I wish it wasn't like that. But the pressure is always there. It's just that feeling of wanting to go somewhere and having them reject you after you have done everything and given everything. You think, "I'm a good person and why don't they want me?" But you know it's very likely that they'll reject you. You feel that these people are God, deciding your life.
Q: Can you imagine a point where you say, "Look, this is ridiculous. I'm just too busy. It's not worth it and I'm just going to scale back my life to more manageable proportions?"
A: I can see a point. Different parts of me say different things and part of me is saying, "Stop, just breathe for once, sit down," but part of me is saying, "Go, go, go, go, go." I hope I can later make intelligent decisions about what is going just too far. Every year I'm learning something new about my capabilities and what is overextended for me.
Q: How often do you think about going to Princeton?
A: I always think about it. I visited and just fell in love with it. I always think about what will they think when see me? Oh, they're gonna like so-and-so better. I'm just not gonna be good enough for them. It's a hard thing to think of yourself as one among thousands. It makes yourself seem very belittled.
Q: Would you have been a better violin player if all you did was play violin instead of running off to swim team and the crew team, whatever?
A: I think so. I can remember back in junior high I used to take private lessons, very intense, and I practiced all the time, but then as other things came in, you can only set aside so much time for everything. I sometimes wonder what I'd sound like or what I'd be like if I had concentrated on that. I used to dance also when I was younger, take ballet, and I wonder about that too. What would I be like if I had done just that?
Q: Do you think you're just skimming the surface in a lot of different areas rather than really making a mark or getting immersed in one?
A: Yeah, but I want to do that because I don't know exactly what I want to do with my life. I like to get a taste of everything and see what everything's like. I've always wanted to be in journalism, and in drama and join the debate team and I just can't. There's not enough time.
Q: Has there ever been a time where you've had basically nothing that you really had to do and you're able to just experience yourself as someone on their own?
A: Yeah. Last summer I went away to France for six weeks. I did an exchange through school. We were supposed to go there for three weeks but I stayed for six weeks with this girl who had come over in April. That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life because I wasn't in charge of everything. I mean, not in charge, but having to make the decisions and get everything going and having to initiate everything. I could just be following my friend and let her take me and do what I wanted to do. It was just wonderful. I could just walk around and see what I wanted to see. There were no pressures and sometimes they would say things to me and I wouldn't really understand, so I really didn't know where I was going a lot of the time. It was great.