When Pamela Jane Hill was 18 and just out of high school, she decided to forgo college for a year to work as a Christian missionary in Haiti. She was saddened by the rampant poverty in the embattled island nation and struck by the culture--so exotic compared to life in her native Excelsior, Minn.
The Haitians, with their mixture of Roman Catholicism and African tribal rites, planted an idea in Hill's mind. A year after enrolling in Whittier College as a liberal arts major, Hill decided to specialize in religion and culture. She later spent a summer in Spain with students from 45 countries, then moved into a Hare Krishna temple as part of her senior research project.
Hill, now 22, envisioned graduating from Whittier College in May and following the usual scholarly path: earning master's and doctoral degrees with the goal of becoming a professor of religion. But earlier this month, Hill's career hit the fast track when she won a prestigious intellectual prize: a Rhodes Scholarship.
"It's been the most unbelievable week," said Hill, describing 2 intense days of scholarship interviews followed by a red-eye flight back to California to finish a term paper and take final exams. "I'm still trying to process it all."
Beginning in October, Hill will spend 2 to 3 years in the Oriental studies program at Oxford University in England. She plans to use the all-expense-paid scholarship to study Sanskrit and Pali, the sacred languages of the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
The competition began in October for the soft-spoken, unassuming Hill. She submitted a 1,000-word essay on her plans for the scholarship, along with her academic transcripts, a list of school activities, eight letters of recommendation and a list of athletic accomplishments.
(Unlike other prestigious awards, the Rhodes Scholarship requires applicants to have some sort of athletic background. The program's benefactor, British diamond baron Cecil Rhodes, believed that physical vigor was an indicator of intellectual vigor.)
Hill has participated in four varsity sports: soccer, softball, swimming and cross-country. She is also on the board of Associated Students of Whittier College.
She was notified the afternoon of her final interview in December that she had been selected as one of the nation's 32 Rhodes scholars for 1988. Hill, the first woman from Whittier College to be selected, is the school's fourth Rhodes scholar since the program began in 1902.
For Hill, the study of religion and culture has been a personal odyssey, as well as an academic one. Raised a Lutheran, Hill said her religious perspective began growing when she spent a year working for Youth With a Mission, a nondenominational Christian missionary group.
"I had always been interested in the question of religion," Hill said. "What happened in Haiti was that I became interested in international and intercultural skills as well."
But it was through the study of religion that she began redefining her own beliefs.
"I've been exposed to so many different ideas," she said. "Instead of thinking there's one true answer, I see there's many different ways to order your life and find meaning."
Two other experiences--the summer in Spain and her time with the Hare Krishnas--taught Hill the value of approaching religion with an open mind.
In Spain, Hill and 120 other students from 45 nations and 12 faiths helped build a retirement home, day-care center and dormitories in a Spanish village.
"A lot of things crystallized for me during that summer," said Hill, who still practices the Christian faith. "I was able to combine the academic with the practical side of public service. It was a really good experience."
A Desire to Teach
Earlier this year, Hill moved into the Hare Krishna temple in Culver City for 1 week to research her senior project, which compared how the Krishnas and members of her former missionary group structured their lives.
Hill said her desire to teach intensifies as she continues studying different cultures.
"I want to become a professor to promote the dialogue that helps fight intolerance," Hill said. "There's a lot of responsibility in teaching. To be able to have a part in building an attitude of respect" between cultures . . . "I see a lot of value in that."
Before leaving for Oxford, Hill has one more trip on her agenda. In January, she and eight other Whittier College students will spend a month in southern India studying the Hindu religion.
Hill plans to trade in her customary jeans for cotton skirts and a sari, the traditional Indian dress for women.
"Whenever you're an outsider studying a religion," Hill said, "it's important to be respectful and walk delicately."