November 8, 2002
Hill: Master of Solutions
Photo: Fred LeBlanc
whiz Vanessa Hill enjoys juggling many roles.
Marine Corps reservist, Vanessa Hill is the model of military
self-discipline. The Frances Perkins Scholar cares for her two
busy children, ages eleven and eight, while carrying a full course
load at Mount Holyoke. At the same time, she directs Longmeadow's
A Better Chance (ABC) Program, serving as surrogate mother, mentor,
counselor, disciplinarian, cook, tutor, and chauffeur for underprivileged,
academically motivated teens from New York City and Newark, New
Jersey, who live with her while attending Longmeadow High School.
"If I were the type of person who could do only one thing
at a time, I'd be in big trouble," says Hill with a
What Hill doesn't
say is how superbly she gets it all done. "She is a terrific
student," says Kay Althoff, director of the Frances Perkins
Program. Althoff points to Hill's 3.95 grade point average,
her Class of '37 Prize in Mathematics, and her invitation
to attend the Institute for Advanced Studies Park City Mathematics
Institute (PCMI) in Park City, Utah, last summer. On top of scholastic
excellence, says Althoff, "Vanessa always has a big smile,
is always willing to help another, and always eager to promote
the beauty of mathematics."
Although always good
at math, Hill started from scratch with the subject eight years
after leaving the University of Pittsburgh to get married, relocate
for husband Troy's job as basketball coach and instructor
at Hampshire College, and raise her sons, Danté and DeVaughn.
It would have been easy for Hill to complete the social work degree
she'd started at Pittsburgh, but she had had a rude awakening
in a job as an assistant to a social worker. "It was too
awful to see the things that people do to their children,"
said Hill. "I couldn't take it. And I couldn't
dissociate at all because I put my heart into everything I do."
Hill put her heart
into mathematics, taking classes at Springfield Technical Community
College (STCC) when her youngest son reached preschool, then transferring
to Mount Holyoke last fall. "I love the satisfaction of working
through problems and coming out with solutions. I love the objectivity
of math," says Hill. "I also love helping other students
get' math by presenting things in different ways. Let's
face it; not everybody thinks in the same way."
At home, Hill gets
lots of practice thinking about and teaching math in different
ways. She not only supervises homework for her own children and
for the ABC students living with her, she also tutors four other
students in math courses ranging from prealgebra to calculus.
One of those students, who is learning disabled, had an educational
plan that said she'd never progress in math and science,
says Hill, who is now guiding her through both physics and precalculus
with great success. "There are definite solutions in math,
yes, but there are also different ways of getting to them,"
Having completed numerous
applications-based math courses at STCC, Hill is now enjoying
MHC electives ranging from Middle Eastern Politics to Spirituals
and the Blues. She is also tackling theory-based math courses
with advanced topics ranging from compactedness, connectedness,
and continuity to abstract treatment of differential calculus,
metric spaces, conformal mapping, and point-set topology. Her
enthusiasm for even the most difficult concepts is what caught
the eye of professor of mathematics Giuliana Davidoff last spring.
"She has wonderful instincts for mathematics, but she couples
those with a tremendous work ethic and a fearlessness in taking
on difficult ideas. She seemed like a perfect candidate for the
intense and mathematically sophisticated atmosphere of PCMI, and
I was sure that she would reap large benefits from it," said
Davidoff, who taught one of the courses last summer at PCMI.
Hill thrived at the
three-week conference, challenging herself with Number Theory,
Ramsey Theory, and Combinatorics, three theory-based courses related
to symmetric functions called "automorphic forms" that
Davidoff says play powerful roles in pure mathematics and show
up in interesting applications like network design and coding
theory. Exhausting but exciting, the conference gave Hill opportunities
to tackle unsolved, or "open," problems in math. It
also confirmed Davidoff's first impressions of her student.
"Vanessa impressed everyone she came in contact with,"
said Davidoff. "Many, many people passed compliments along
to me on her work, and I suspect that she opened up many possibilities
for her future in mathematics."
After completing an
MHC degree next winter, Hill plans to pursue a master's degree
in mathematics and a position teaching high school or college-level
mathematics. She is confident that she will accomplish her goals,
thanks to hard work, skill at "multitasking," an ability
not to "rattle" easily, and the strong support of her
family. "When I'm really freaking out, my husband will
take everyone, including the ABC kids, to the park, then handle
dinner and supervise all the homework, too," said Hill. "My
education is a huge commitment for everyone in the family, and
without their support, I couldn't do it. Of course I'm
busy all the time and lose it sometimes just like everyone else,
but I want my sons to know that a woman's place isn't
only in the home, that women are smart and have something valuable
to contribute in the world. I thank God that I'm able to
do exactly what I want to do."