Interdisciplinary studies major turns passion for natural world, sustainability into practical things of beauty

by | Oct 10, 2016

An active volunteer and teacher in the St. Louis community, Tom Hill plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail after finishing his long-awaited bachelor’s degree at UMSL this fall.
Tom Hill portrait

After finishing his bachelor’s degree at UMSL this fall, Tom Hill plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for several months, capping off a long-awaited academic milestone. An artist, teacher and active volunteer in the St. Louis community, Hill recently fashioned and installed the small bench pictured here in one of the alcoves in front of Clark Hall. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Bicycles are just one of Tom Hill’s great loves. But as the University of Missouri–St. Louis graduating senior talks about what fuels his life and work, the useful contraptions come up more than once – a metaphor for what he’s really after.

“I like single things that serve multiple benefits,” explains Hill, a St. Louis native and interdisciplinary studies major at UMSL. “Riding a bike gets you where you want to go, it does so while providing exercise and it has a much, much smaller impact on our environment. It’s this object that’s relatively simple but allows you to go 10 times as far as you would go if you were walking, and it’s still you that’s making it go.”

Hill has spent his last few semesters on campus rounding out a degree that is similarly multifaceted. Originally majoring in art education when he first transferred to UMSL from St. Louis Community College–Meramec in 2010, he ended up putting his education on hold a couple years later.

“A combination of things that I had going on in my life made me decide that I didn’t want to continue that track,” says Hill, who was already teaching Earn-A-Bike classes at the time as a staff member at St. Louis BWorks, which offers free programs to kids.

Perennial internship

Tom Hill built four workbenches out of reclaimed and found materials this summer during a UMSL internship with local nonprofit Perennial. A regular volunteer with the south-city cooperative, Hill was on hand last week installing a large vice. (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

Realizing he wanted to pursue “some kind of work outside of the school environment,” he opted to focus on the part-time and volunteer efforts he was already involved in. He knew he wanted to do something working directly with people in their communities, but he had no idea what.

Before long, Hill began to sense that he was spinning his wheels. It wasn’t that he didn’t find fulfillment in his work locally – he just really wanted to finish that degree.

“In 2015, I had freed myself up from some volunteer obligations, so I looked into what program I could do here with the mix of coursework I’d taken before,” he says. “And having no clear objective of exactly what I wanted to do, but knowing some different things I was passionate about, the interdisciplinary program stood out.

“I thought it was a perfect fit, because it would allow me to take classes in what I’m specifically interested in as well as classes in what I’m not as interested in or not as good at or don’t have as much experience in. That way I could gain more well-rounded knowledge and skills to find ways to support myself.”

Of course, Hill already had a lot of studio art classes under his belt, and art remains a focus of his pursuits. But with the BIS program, he could add coursework in digital marketing, proposal writing, psychology and more.

“One of my goals with the BIS is to do things that I’ve never done before, that I’m not good at,” he says. “I’m not good at writing, but I’m taking writing for the sciences. And natural resource economics, which is a 4000-level class with a term paper [laughter]. I’ll also be able to work on things that kind of help me understand people better.”

Riverfront Trail fun

A handful of Earn-A-Bike graduates, many of whom have benefited from the instruction of Tom Hill (at right) in recent years, were the very first people to ride their bikes on the new Mississippi Greenway when it opened underneath the Gateway Arch earlier this year. (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

In addition, the UMSL program included a for-credit internship opportunity this past summer. By that point, Hill had grown particularly interested in making things out of discarded material, and so he proposed the idea of working with Perennial, a community workshop and store that offers educational programming in creative reuse.

Perennial’s small staff was already well acquainted with Hill through his volunteer efforts, but his involvement grew deeper through the internship. Hill and the staff decided on an ambitious project for the summer: the creation of four workbenches for the organization’s new shop.

“These benches were going to see a lot of use – and abuse,” Hill recalls of the project’s development. “They had to be very sturdy, very versatile, because there’s a wide variety of activities that would be happening on them as well. I came up with a design that was agreed upon, and we went to Refab – a nonprofit that has everything from salvaged lumber to windows and sinks and desks and stuff like that. Some of the materials for the benches we found, some of it we bought, and I got to work building and putting them together.”

Much like his decision to finish his UMSL degree, Hill’s reason for investing time and energy with organizations such as BWorks and Perennial has been about “re-learning a lot of things about what’s important” to him.

“With Perennial, their activity is inspiring people to make things for themselves and providing them with the tools and the knowledge and the materials and the space to do so,” he says. “That’s exactly a part of what I want to do with my life.”

In December, Hill’s family will be on campus to help him celebrate another key step on that journey. He’s looking forward to commencement and crossing that stage.

Tom Hill portrait B

(Photo by August Jennewein)

“There’s a lot of people who have been waiting a long time to see that happen. Among my generation on my mom’s side – her and her four siblings’ kids – I’ll be the only male to have a college degree. This has also just been sort of a long time coming for me.”

Marking that milestone will continue for Hill next spring as he heads to California to hike most of the Pacific Crest Trail – the same one traveled by Cheryl Strayed of “Wild” fame.

Hill envisions the solo trip as a much-needed break from the cacophony of a consumerist-oriented world – and a chance to further refine his thinking about the future.

“We’re so geared to buy things and throw stuff away, and I want to get away from that influence – get away from the billboards, the radio advertisements, the social media marketing,” Hill says. “I want to live for a time in what will always exist – nature – and sort of be alone with my thoughts, and see after a period of time what is most important to me after that detachment from everything I’ve ever known.”

Nature – and a desire to appreciate and protect it – already drives Hill’s efforts in his everyday life and work. He says it’s just how he was raised. An emphasis on reuse, recycling and repurposing motivates everything from letting his hands air dry rather than reaching for a paper towel to getting around by bike and public transit as much as he can.

“What I think would make the world a better place would be if people thought more about the consequences of every little action that they take and how that affects the other people around them,” Hill says.

It’s an ethos that informs not just his own actions but his work passing along such habits to others. Watching him teach students at BWorks about dealing with a flat tire on their bikes, the lesson comes through loud and clear.

“Alright, we’ve got this inner tube and we have two options,” Hill begins during a recent session as the youth gather around him for a better view of what went wrong with the tire. “We can either patch it or we can replace it.

“We’ve got this patch kit with all these little pieces in it. After we use all the patches, we’re left with this little box and this piece of sandpaper. And this old inner tube: Is it going to just disappear, or is it going to end up in a landfill?”

A chorus of “Landfill!” rings out.

“Now which one’s going to take up less space in a landfill?”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill

Eye on UMSL: Walk about

Oluchi Onyegbula, a psychology major and co-president of the Able-Disable Partnership, leads an accessibility walk Thursday on the UMSL campus.