From a very early age, McIlwain got interested in politics. “It started around fourth grade,” he says. Then, during high school in Fairfield, Ohio, he took French and was in the Youth Commission as a representative for his school on both the school board and city council. The summer before college, McIlwain and other students went to Italy and France for two weeks.
This started him down a path to learn about how business, economics and politics work outside of the United States. McIlwain chose UC’s international program over others because of the flexibility it offered.
“UC allowed me to get the most out of my study abroad experiences,” he says. “And campus is beautiful.”
After only his first year at UC, McIlwain won a 2010 Taft Undergraduate Research scholarship to Morocco. There he studied the Arabic language and Islamic politics. He also got involved with the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and the pre-law fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta (now the UC Pre-Law Club). “My involvement with Delta Tau Delta has been great,” McIlwain says proudly.
In 2011, as a Gilman International scholar, he journeyed to Tunisia where he witnessed the first Arab Spring revolution and the nation’s first free election.
The Tunisian revolution turned into an educational opportunity for McIlwain as it gave him the chance to study how illegal immigration patterns would be affected by the changes within the country.
In the summer of 2012, he again went to the Middle East, this time to Dubai as a William J. Clinton scholar. McIlwain hoped to take a look at Dubai’s economic successes and see if those methods were applicable across other Middle Eastern countries.
Of all the places McIlwain has been, he experienced a very strange kind of culture shock when in Dubai. In a few locations, he had experienced the lack of running water, electricity or air conditioning, which was tough. But it was Dubai’s minute nuances and slight cultural differences that really threw him.
“It was a new culture in Dubai,” he explains. “Dubai was trying to imitate American culture in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t all the way American. In a way, the imitation of our culture was their own culture.”
He says around 90 percent of the people in Dubai speak English all the time even though Arabic is their first — and the country’s official — language.
“I got into a cab once and started speaking Arabic,” he recalls. “The driver didn’t know any, so I switched back to English.”
McIlwain is minoring in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic. He is also a peer ambassador for the UC International program, and his main endeavor has been to find ways to get more minorities involved in studying abroad. He has done presentations at UC's African American Cultural and Resource Center and gotten involved with UC's Diversity Conference to expose more people to what study abroad really entails.
“Different communities have different questions,” McIlwain says.
He has even made a YouTube video about how African-Americans studying abroad will find products for their hair. The video is titled “Around the World with Will: Black Hair Edition.” The video highlights McIlwain’s fun side as he and a friend exchange banter while still providing useful information. He plans to make “Around the World with Will” a series.
Through this, more people have started coming to him with How-To questions. He says there is a need for all races, genders and orientations as to what to do when outside the United States and, according to McIlwain, there has been a slow and steady increase in the diversity of people going abroad.
McIlwain says he has always been keen to leave the Cincinnati area, but even after all the traveling he has done, he expects Cincinnati to always be home.
“I think, eventually, I’ll come back to Cincinnati,” McIlwain says. “I don’t know when, and I don’t know how. I might be 80 years old, retired and come back to Cincinnati, but I know for a fact that I will come back.”
Marisa Whitaker is a writing intern at UC Magazine.