Alyssa willis with distilled water machine

For Alyssa Willis, her dad embodies everything she aspires to be.

He encouraged her to pursue a deep passion for science and fostered her curiosity about the oil and gas industry. In addition, he showed Alyssa how certain jobs can change lives for the better, and in doing so inspired her to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry. Her dad previously worked as a mechanic at BP’s Cherry Point Refinery and has also served in a variety of roles on Alaska’s North Slope oil fields.

“My dad is the hardest working person I know,” said Wills. “He doesn’t have a degree yet worked his way up in the industry and ensured my brother and I had every opportunity to succeed.”

Willis was fascinated by science and technical processes (organic chemistry was her favorite) as a child. When she began to consider career paths, she chose to pursue a career in oil and gas and follow in her father’s footsteps.

After graduating from Bellingham Technical College’s (BTC) process technology (PTEC) program in 2017 with an associate’s degree, she landed a job as an operator at Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery (PSR) in Anacortes, WA. She started working at the site this past July.

She hit the ground running from day one and said her love of organic chemistry serves her well since it’s a key aspect of process operations.

Willis, who grew up in Ferndale, WA, graduated from BTC with a 4.0 and served as the president of the ‘Students for Local Industry Club,’ where she and her peers advocated locally about the benefits that local industries provide.

She and a few classmates also formed a team known as the Vortex Breakers and represented BTC in Texas for the 2017 North America Process Technology Alliance (NAPTA) National Troubleshooting Competition. During her second year at BTC, she worked part-time as a peer mentor and tutor to develop professional experience.

Washington's community and technical colleges

Running Start program accelerates learning

Willis, now 19 years old, enrolled in Running Start at BTC during her junior year at Ferndale High School and immediately joined the PTEC program. Running Start is a program that allows 11th and 12th grade students to take college courses at Washington's community and technical colleges. Students receive both high school and college credit for these classes, which accelerates their progress.

Running Start students and their families receive 15 paid credits every quarter, but students still must cover the costs for books, materials and fees. To help cover those extra costs, Willis applied for scholarships through the BTC Foundation and received several of them. Her largest scholarship was the National Shell Associate Degree Scholarship.

“Those scholarships helped me tremendously,” said Willis. “I completed the PTEC program virtually for free because of them.”

PSR provides an annual $5,000 Shell Puget Sound Refinery Scholarship for students in BTC’s PTEC, instrumentation and electronics programs. These programs typically have close to 150 students registered each year. PSR also established a $5,000 Shell Puget Sound Refinery Tribal Scholarship, which goes to a student who’s a registered member of a local tribe and studying PTEC, instrumentation or electronics.

Alyssa willis standing near board

Partnership between Shell and BTC is mutually beneficial

Shell has partnered with BTC for a long time and regularly hires numerous graduates. BTC Foundation’s Executive Director Dean Fulton said Shell’s scholarships make an incredible difference for students who simply wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. Many of BTC’s students have children and are forced to cut back on their work hours to attend school full-time. This poses significant financial challenges.

“Shell was one of the instrumental partners in starting our PTEC program from the ground up,” said Fulton. “Shell helped cover the cost of the equipment that we purchased, and its employees helped us write the curriculum. To top it off, the site regularly hosts student tours.”

PSR’s HR Manager Robin Yates serves on BTC’s board, and he said the school provides the site with a diverse group of top-tier candidates. “We know we’re getting all-stars when we hire BTC grads,” said Yates. “These manufacturing jobs change people’s lives, and we’re proud to work with a school whose mission is to help students pursue their dreams and achieve meaningful careers.”

Fulton went on to say that Shell “doesn’t just send a check in the mail – it provides all-around support on an ongoing basis. Not only does Shell have a member on our board, but they’re also active on our PTEC advisory committee that’s comprised of professionals in the industry. This committee advises faculty on the relevance of the instruction and career readiness, which plays a critical role in our students’ success post-graduation.” 

First few months on the job present challenges – and opportunities

While Willis has enjoyed her first few months at Shell, she also found it overwhelming due to the extensive amount of training, rigorous tests and on-the-job coaching she received. But, it was all worth it.

“I’m definitely in a groove now,” she said, “I love the technical nature of what I do along with the challenge of constantly learning new processes alongside my teammates. That’s what makes it fun!”

Willis, now an Anacortes resident, is very proud to work for Shell. “It’s the best refinery I could have ended up at – period,” she said. “I attended numerous Shell career events and was always impressed by the leadership and genuine care for people. When I received a job offer, it was a no-brainer since I knew it was a life-changing opportunity.”

Willis said Shell’s safety record made it stand out from the pack, and this played an important role in her career decision. “Safety isn’t a nice to have – it’s a must-have, and Shell takes it seriously. I see it firsthand every day when I’m working, and everyone wants to send people home the way they arrived…maybe even better than they arrived!”

Alyssa chemistry laboratory

Operator looks to the future

Willis is laser-focused on her development as she moves forward with her career, and she couldn’t be more excited about the variety of paths she could take at Shell.

“The company gives you the chance to be whoever and whatever you want to be. I feel empowered to create my own unique journey.”

Outside of work, Willis loves singing and drawing. She’s classically trained in voice and participated in numerous plays and musicals during her youth. She also has experience with improv theater, which now helps her think quickly on her feet.

As Willis reflected on why she decided to enter the energy industry, she said she aspires to “become a better person and make a positive societal impact on a daily basis. We’d be in the dark ages without oil and gas…I get to be part of an industry where we literally light up people’s lives around the globe.”

Fulton shared that graduates like Willis represent the best of BTC’s partnership with Shell.

“Together, we can make a tangible difference in the lives of our students. Every time a student accepts a scholarship, the gratitude, relief and excitement he/she expresses is inspiring and humbling. They want to create a better life for themselves and their families, and we’re giving them the toolset to go make it happen.”

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