What first drew Eileen Cardillo to the fight against HIV wasn't so much the barrage of news stories chronicling the epidemic's rise. It was, rather, learning that a family friend had contracted the virus that causes AIDS.

"Hearing about HIV in your classrooms or on the news doesn't bring it home in suburban Fairfax. It's easy to feel far removed from it. . . . This was the wake-up call that [says] this isn't far removed," said Cardillo, 22, who graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County and was named one of 32 Rhodes Scholarship recipients yesterday.

Cardillo, who graduated last spring from the College of William and Mary, is one of two area residents given the prestigious scholarships. The other is Tom Gray, 22, of College Park, a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The Rhodes Scholarship, which affords up to three years of graduate study at Oxford University, was established in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes, the British-born philanthropist and African colonialist. Past recipients include President Clinton and Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley.

Gray's mother, Carol, said she thought her son "seemed balanced" as a student at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac--the usual overachieving wonderkid who loved to read, did well in school and, somehow, managed to cram in a few varsity sports.

But the way her son dove right into college--the activism and sports, with an admittedly limited social life--concerned her. He was elected president of his freshman class, and by sophomore year was elected to lead student government.

"He certainly didn't pay much attention when we said, 'Balance, balance, balance!' Carol Gray recalled yesterday.

"I think I believed her," Tom Gray said, "but I went right on doing everything anyway."

Cardillo, who was raised in a Foreign Service family that lived in Greece and Liberia, became interested in HIV issues in high school when she heard the bad news about her family friend, and while in college she began trying to educate young people on how to avoid contracting HIV.

She spent part of her junior year studying in Scotland. Since her college graduation, she has worked with a nonprofit public health advocacy group in the District, the Academy for Educational Development's Center for Community-Based Health Strategies. She is to leave in a few weeks for AIDS-related public health research in Ghana.

Even with so stunning a resume, Cardillo said she almost didn't apply for the Rhodes Scholarship because "it has . . . that mystique about it. It seemed out of my reach."

Talbot Taylor, a linguistics professor at William and Mary, said yesterday that administrators recognized Cardillo in her sophomore year as a strong candidate for the scholarship and began grooming her in an intensive honors program.

"She was kind of an intellectual . . . like a grad student," said Taylor, himself an Oxford graduate. "We said, 'Oh, yeah, she's definitely a potential for the Rhodes.' "

At Oxford, Gray, who said he hopes someday to run for the U.S. Senate, is considering pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. Cardillo will study the brain's ability to understand language.

CAPTION: Eileen Cardillo said the Rhodes Scholarship "seemed out of my reach." She will study neurobiology.