Giving Names to the Fallen: Presidential Scholar William Anderson
According to the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, there are more than 83,000 soldiers still missing from past conflicts from World War II on up to Korea, Vietnam and isolated Cold War-era incidents. That leaves thousands of families still not knowing what became of their loved ones who served overseas.
Through his interest in forensic anthropology, Presidential Scholar William Anderson hopes to one day provide some of them closure.
“My goal is to work for JPAC, which is a government agency in the business of recovering soldiers’ remains,” William says. “They employ researchers first to identify possible burial sites anywhere from Auschwitz to Japan or Vietnam and investigate, excavate, bring the remains back, notify the family, and provide a state burial.”
Giving Back to Those Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice
William acknowledges that he’s chosen an unusual career path, one that he says he arrived at in a “roundabout” way. “When I was very little, I wanted to be a policeman,” he says. “That’s how I got interested in forensic science — ‘CSI’ kind of stuff. Once I got interested in that, I thought, ‘Well, I should go learn more about it.’ So I took a summer course at the University of Southern Mississippi, and one of the modules was on forensic anthropology.”
William describes forensic anthropology as using archaeology and lab work to examine skeletal remains and identify who a person was and how long ago they died. Through these techniques, for example, an anthropologist can differentiate the remains of a soldier who died in the Vietnam War from a native Vietnamese person who died from other causes.
“Everything I studied in that summer course interested me, but it hit me then — ‘Hey, I can do this,’” William says. “It combines a lot of things I’m good at and a lot of things I’m passionate about.”
Anything dealing with forensics or fallen soldiers is bound to be emotionally taxing, but William is confident the rewards of his chosen field will more than outweigh the potential burdens. “I see it as being able to finally bring those families a sense of closure,” he explains. “It’s being able to tell them their loved ones are no longer lost, we know where they are — resting in the soil of the country they died defending. It would almost be an honor to be able to go to a family and tell them that.”
Many Interests Finding a Home
William’s interests aren’t limited strictly to science, however. He plans to graduate as one of the few people in Georgia State history to major in chemistry and minor in music. “I play viola, and I also sing,” he says. “I started playing violin when I was 2 years old, and I switched to viola when I was seven. And I’ve been singing since I could talk.”
William comes from a fairly musical family: His parents both sing, and his father also plays the piano, while his mother plays handbells. “They didn’t decide to make careers out of music, but they have a great appreciation for it and made sure it was part of our lives,” he says. “My twin sisters are out of college, and they have dual degrees in French and violin performance. My brother was accepted to Juilliard, Curtis and Oberlin, and he is now at the Curtis Institute of Music. He’s one of the top pipe organists of his age in the country.”
William chose Georgia State because it would support his widely varied interests, but also because he sensed it was a university on the rise. “It’s growing super-fast, and I can already tell the level of teaching and the level of professionalism are going through the roof. And it seems like they really put the students first in everything, which is refreshing — it was different from the other colleges I visited.”
The personal touch started early, when he got the call from Professor Nancy Mansfield informing him he’d been awarded the Presidential Scholarship. “She made my year,” he says with a laugh.
So far, William says, the Georgia State experience has lived up to the high expectations set by his early interactions with the university. “It’s been even better than I expected,” he says. “Everything is convenient, my professors are wonderful, especially the honors courses. Everything involved with the Honors College has been beyond my expectations.”