Charles Hill photo

The odds were stacked against Charles Hill ever receiving a computer science degree from Oregon State University.

Hill spent 17 years in foster care, from which only a small fraction of people obtain college degrees. He experienced abuse, neglect and hunger during his childhood; had no family support to attend college; and copes with ADHD and depression.

But with the help of an OSU professor and others who believed in him, Hill will participate in commencement ceremonies in June and graduate this summer with a degree in computer science. He will also go on to pursue a doctoral degree, as one of only 13 Google Lime Scholars in the nation – $10,000 awards made to students with mental or physical disadvantages to encourage them to stay in the field of engineering.

“One of my major goals in becoming a professor is to rectify some of the inequalities in our education system for those who are less fortunate,” Hill said.

For his graduate work, Hill plans to investigate differences in the problem-solving strategies of people in lower socioeconomic groups, and how to improve software tools to better match their problem-solving needs.

From the age of 10 months to 18 years, Hill remained in foster care. Of the 27,000 children each year who reach the age of 18 in foster care, only 6 percent successfully complete a two-year or four-year degree.

At OSU, Hill met Margaret Burnett, a professor of computer science who does research in how to improve human and computer interaction. She selected Hill as an undergraduate research assistant in her lab – and, further impressed with his capabilities, accepted him as a graduate student, and encouraged him to apply for the Google Lime scholarship.

“I've never met anyone more intellectually curious than he is,” Burnett said. “He just drinks in knowledge.”

Hill’s interest in computer science sparked when, as a middle-schooler, he picked up a computer at a thrift store for $25 and on his own figured out how to fix it. Although his initial goal was to get it to play video games, he soon became the go-to guy for computer problems among his friends and family.

Hill’s dual interests in psychology and computer science matched well with Burnett’s work, the study of how software design can better support the humans who use it. For example, she has studied gender differences in problem solving, to help design tools that serve female and male users equally.

Due to his disabilities, Hill’s first two years of college were a struggle and he lost access to financial aid because of low grades. Rather than give up, Hill sought therapy for ADHD, turned around his grades, and worked as many as three jobs while going to school.

Hill is committed not just to his research and a desire to teach, but also in his personal life. He and his wife became foster care providers while they were both working and going to school. His wife’s grandmother had been caring for an elderly man with intellectual disabilities when she passed away. Rather than see him moved into a group home or with people he didn’t know, they stepped up to take over his care.

Hill credits key people throughout his life to help him stay on a path to success — from a good friend in middle school, to a teacher who motivated him to graduate from high school, his wife who kept after him to not give up on college, and finally Burnett who encouraged him to continue on to graduate school.

 “Having someone so accomplished as Professor Burnett believe in my abilities has helped me embrace my potential,” Hill said.

— Rachel Robertson

Published Date: 
Thursday, July 17, 2014