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November 8, 2002

Vanessa Hill: Master of Solutions


Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Math whiz Vanessa Hill enjoys juggling many roles.

A former 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 laugh.

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," Hill said.

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."
 

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