Profile with Hila Levy

Hila Levy (Colorado & Exeter, 2008) is currently pursuing a DPhil in Zoology at Oxford, focusing on population genetics and adaptive gene diversity among penguins in Antarctica. Born in Puerto Rico, she attended the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force in Korea and Japan. She has completed an MSt in Historical Research, an MSc in Biology at the University of Oxford and an MS in Environmental Planning and Management from Johns Hopkins University. In her free time, Hila enjoys cycling, competing in triathlons and working as a freelance translator.

Rhodes Project: What does it mean for you to be elected as the first Puerto Rican Rhodes Scholar?

Hila Levy: I’m very proud of my heritage and my culture, and where I grew up. Unfortunately I’ve just seen a lot of social problems that have arisen there that don’t always make people proud of our island and what’s become of it.

In 2011 I was invited to be a speaker at a national Puerto Rican conference to address community leadership, especially among women. I used an example from my military experience: Puerto Ricans have the highest level of representation per capita of almost any state in military service but despite that, we have a lot of people who still choose to go into the enlisted ranks and not become officers. Although service of any duration at any rank is of course honorable, I felt that there was an inherent automatic disadvantage in terms of future leadership potential being leveraged against Puerto Ricans, both men and women. In my research, I found that there were only two Puerto Rican women in the military that had ever made a senior rank and at the time there were only 37 Puerto Rican female officers across all services. To me this is just a minor indicator of the small percentage of leaders that are able to emerge from a society that clearly has large numbers and a large desire to better themselves.

Many of these women had degrees but were somehow either culturally or socially dissuaded from becoming an officer. I think confidence is one of the root causes – I don’t know if we somehow differentiate ourselves or put ourselves in a second-class position sometimes because of our political status in the country and the kinds of stereotypes that are propagated about Hispanics. To me, the issue is highlights the kind of leadership the island needs in order to tackle corruption, improve education, and bring the pride of true success in economic and social spheres to our future generations.

I think it would take a lot of courage for me to go back to Puerto Rico long-term, but whether I do or not, I think it’s important to be a role model in some kind of way.

Rhodes Project: Your academic background is really interesting and diverse – you’ve studied aviation, biology, history, translation and now zoology. What does it mean for you to have an interdisciplinary approach to the issues that matter to you?

Hila Levy:  I think it’s almost like this brave effort to try to break down labels. When I arrived in Oxford, I arrived in the history department and had a really hard time being accepted. I decided to study central African militaries but felt like I was being considered as a scientist the entire time, just because of my undergraduate degree in biology. That was the first time I’d really been told “This is what you are”. Nobody’s ever said to me “You are a woman” or “You are Puerto Rican”.

It frustrated me, and I decided to go back to biology. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a zoologist, an astronaut, a pilot and an engineer – I even planned on going to medical school. There are interesting parallels between my time in the military and my current DPhil research on penguins – it’s a lot of synthesis work (reading, writing and presenting) and I’m reflecting a lot on the importance of science communication. I think what you study doesn’t have to define who you are.

Rhodes Project: You’ve done some work and advocacy around veteran’s issues. What do you think the American military or Air Force could do to better support their veterans?

Hila Levy: There have been lots of draw-downs lately and a massive shed of personnel off of active duty. I’m part of that. The numbers are huge, and it’s not always voluntary. There are a lot of mid-career personnel who were generals or colonels and now need to transition out of the military for the first time in their lives. Then there are people who have been in the military for three or four years and expected to receive their education and benefits through the military, and suddenly they get cut too. I think many of them were hoping to contribute in a meaningful way. 

You also have people that have been deployed and have had their families broken up or medical or mental health issues arise as a result of their service and they suddenly feel very unappreciated. Some vets experience homelessness or problems accessing benefits and job support through Veterans Affairs, and many of them have been saved by Team Red White and Blue – which I’ve been very active in. My husband and I work with their veteran triathlon camps, which equip veterans with everything they need to complete a triathlon – everything from their bikes to their wetsuits. It’s really powerful to help veterans set new goals, find a sense of community and believe in themselves again.

Rhodes Project: What would you improve or change in military culture in terms of gender and diversity issues?

Hila Levy: I’m part of a women Air Force officers’ forum, which is just a subset of a subset of women in the military. It’s a very frank discussion board of about 900 women, where we pose all kinds of questions – everything from breast pumping at work to meeting fitness standards post-pregnancy. It’s also a great support for unmarried women who feel socially isolated, or women who find it difficult to maintain their relationships while deployed. My husband got out of the military just before I did, and now that I’m a reservist he is considered my dependent, which  shocks a lot of people since it reverses the expected role.

There’s other issues too – women who changed their last name when they married and it changes their entire identity, and everything they’ve accomplished in the military is now difficult to recognize. The same thing happens in academia, when women change their name and the name on their degrees and publications doesn’t follow. I find issues affecting women in the military and women in science to be very similar – lots of issues with childcare, social expectations and a lack of inclusivity for partners who may not be on the same career path. Both institutions have endemic problems for women with families.

Rhodes Project: Last year you competed in your first Ironman. What was that experience like, and the process of training for it?

Hila Levy: Yes – in 2013 I did two Ironmans. When I first saw a poster in my math teacher’s office in college I though they were crazy. Endurance sports were never my thing, and Puerto Rico isn’t very well known for individual sports (much more team sport-focused). I could swim and I powerlifted in college, but I never enjoyed endurance sports.

My friend Roz Schulte died in Afghanistan in 2009 during my first year here at Oxford. I wanted to do something – something crazy. The craziest thing I could think of was to buy a bike and cycle 956 miles across the UK – from northern Scotland to Land’s End. I gave myself 30 days to learn how to ride a bike again, and to build up my training to be able to do about 100 miles a day. I did it, without support – it was lonely and such a crazy experience, but it became such a part of me. I learned to love England and fell in love with the countryside and people and pubs I would stop at along the way. I raised money for veterans in the UK and US, and when I was finished I wanted a new challenge.

I decided to join the cycling club and triathlon team. I raced while in my second year at Oxford, and then my now husband helped me reach new goals at new distances when we met through the sport in Korea. I love the sense of community.

Finishing my first Ironman – which was in Japan – felt awful. Six miles into the cycling leg a typhoon hit, and it was a really mountainous course. It was so wet and windy, and I didn’t realize my brakes were worn down. I was so exhausted by the end that I didn’t even realize I finished third in my category. I had already qualified for the world championship, just a few weeks away, and the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii was just the race of a lifetime.

Rhodes Project: In college you also competed nationally in powerlifting. What would you tell women interested in the sport?

Hila Levy: Powerlifting takes a lot of confidence in your decision-making and ideas about public perception. There are a lot of binary expectations about women athletes – that they have to balance being both strong and very feminine. I think women should be able to do what’s fun for them and embrace a healthy lifestyle regardless of their preferred modality. There’s a lot of negative perceptions of women in more “masculinized” sports like powerlifting and rugby, but those sports can absolutely build women’s confidence and make them stronger.

Rhodes Project: What inspires and motivates you?

Hila Levy: I’m inspired by people who overcome huge challenges – people who have come from nothing or had something terrible happen to them. It really drives me to succeed. It’s also the power of story – being around people who are better than me and hearing their stories challenges me to work harder.

Rhodes Project: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Hila Levy: My dad says to “enjoy life”. We only have one, right?

Rhodes Project: What do you think the next 10 years of your life will look like, professionally or personally?

Hila Levy: If I can motivate myself to really apply myself to my research, I hope to complete my DPhil. I think I’d like to go back into the federal service at some point. I’d also consider some post-doctoral work or a government fellowship to combine all of my education and training to work on issues like science education policy, conservation or environmental management. I want to make sure American policymakers appreciate that science, education and the environment are important.

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