Saya Hillman '00, was an Evanston, Ill. high school freshman when she volunteered to work with children at Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project.
Her experience at one of the most crime-ridden public housing complexes in the nation changed her life, said the aspiring journalist, whose record of community service as an undergraduate earned her the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship.
"It was hard going down there, especially giving hugs to everybody when you were leaving," Hillman said of her four years as a volunteer in an after-school program for young children at Cabrini-Green.
"You knew you were able to go to your safe suburban home without being shot on your way back," she said. "These 4-year-olds needed escorts home."
Hillman was honored at the Feb. 9 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee Awards Banquet. The scholarship, which covers three-quarters of the student's tuition for senior year, is given annually to a Boston College junior of African descent whose achievements echo the spirit of the slain civil rights leader.
Hillman, raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet by working as a gardener, said the children she took swimming or flying kites in the park may have taught her more than she taught them.
"I learned from them I'm very privileged," she said.
So when she graduates from Boston College next year with a double major in English and sociology, Hillman said she hopes to write for newspapers or magazines to "alert the world" to injustice in society. She also hopes to return to the Chicago housing project where she said "the unconditional love" given to her by the neediest of children kindled her desire to make a difference.
Community service has been a constant during Hillman's three years at Boston College. She has participated in City Year Serv-A-Thons and Allston-Brighton Service Days. Through the PULSE Program, she also has served as a mentor to teenage girls.
As a resident assistant at Fenwick Hall this year, she has begun a pen-pal exchange between the freshmen residents on her floor and children in low-income housing. Later this month she will travel with the Ignacio Volunteers to Kingston, Jamaica, where she will spend spring break working among lepers, children and the aged.
Growing up, Hillman said she enjoyed reading the late columnist Mike Royko and other journalists who made the Windy City a bustling newspaper town.
"I love writers who can report on everyday things that are small and make them fascinating to readers," said Hillman, who has written and shot photos for The Heights and says her dream is to be a newspaper columnist.
She says her desire to be a writer has been inspired, in part, by the example of King.
"The ability he had to captivate people with his words is something I admire greatly [and] one day hope to emulate," Hillman wrote in her winning essay for the King Scholarship.
"When people pin their faith and dreams on the sounds that flow from your mouth as they did with King, you know that you have the power to obtain greatness through the unity that believing in a common goal generates."
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