Like any ordinary immigrants would do, my parents and I followed my new school counselor’s advice: begin school as a freshman instead of a sophomore so that I could have enough time to improve my English. I was 16 but couldn’t speak, write, or understand English. The advice seemed promising. I tried to learn as much as possible, but there was no quick remedy for the language barrier. I would stay up each night until 4 am to translate the material covered in class with a giant English-Korean paper dictionary. Yet even knowing the material, I would still get lost in all of my classes. My Korean class, which was taught in English, sounded like a half mystery story. I was often marked as absent in my PE class because I couldn’t hear my name when my PE teacher took attendance. In my early math classes, I was able to follow lessons using my previous knowledge from Korea, but this didn’t last long. As I moved up, new concepts and new terminologies got tougher to understand. But I had a belief that I could learn if I continued to work hard.
After two years of struggle, my family decided to move to a different county in California, hoping that I could have a better education there. Despite all the hard work I had done, I was rejected from high school. The decision was made in less than 10 minutes. The school official said, “You are too old to be admitted, and your English isn’t good enough. I don’t think you will be able to graduate on time.” After this unexpected change to the plan, there weren’t many options left for a student like myself who was off track for completing high school on a standard timeline. Two options were given: either move to a different district or attend a continuing education school. We couldn’t afford to move again and didn’t have any relatives or family other than ourselves. So, I decided to attend the Centennial Continuing Education Center, an adult school where I earned my high school diploma through self-paced study.
The self-paced study setting works via an exit/entry system, which is not the same as the GED test. If you are ready to take an exam for a lesson that you signed up for, you schedule the exam and take it. To prepare for each of the exams, I would enter a study room, sign in, and study alone. I continued my study routine as before. Although learning was exciting, studying different subjects written in English alone was challenging. I used the same giant dictionary and gradually transitioned to an English only dictionary. I was getting better at reading, yet I struggled to articulate my thoughts in spoken words. Being an introvert and a language learner made it even harder to make friends or open a simple conversation, especially in my mostly independent self-teaching learning environment.
As soon as I earned my diploma, I entered a community college and was faced with a new challenge: I didn’t know what to do with my life. I knew one thing for sure, which was that I didn’t want to be judged and rejected again. So, I couldn’t allow myself to make mistakes. As a result, I decided to do everything on my own instead of asking for help. It took a very long time for me to figure out what I wanted to do. Starting from Intermediate Algebra, my desire to learn mathematics steadily grew as I continued to take more math classes. What attracted me to mathematics, at that time, was that it helped me challenge myself when I needed it. To this day, I believe that mathematics is the subject that most rewards hard work, and it invites anyone who is willing to learn. I eventually discovered what I wanted to do: I was determined to become a math major. However, my lack of confidence in myself and fear of being wrong still held me back.
My educational path brought me to a four-year institution, where I enjoyed being surrounded by various math topics and problems. Spending hours studying alone and learning to teach myself in my previous schools helped me learn what I wished to learn. The bigger issue was that I didn’t know how to interact with classmates or professors. Even when I had an idea or a question in class, my fear of making a mistake made it hard to try it out. I detached myself from others as much as possible. But isolating myself required a lot of energy—I got sick almost every semester. The only reason I survived was that I didn’t mind spending hours studying, even if it was to find the solution to a single problem. And most of the time, I was eventually successful in understanding the concepts I was being taught. Although a painful process at times, I enjoyed learning mathematics.
But the pain gradually became greater than the gain. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I took Real Analysis II. As usual, I worked alone. Of course, I was constantly sick. I didn’t worry too much about my ability to succeed since I loved the prerequisite course, Real Analysis I. But I struggled and struggled. At times, I desperately wanted to ask for help, but I didn’t know how to start. I barely managed to pass. The excitement of learning dissipated rapidly in only one semester. Finally, I realized that I needed to change. I had to overcome my fear so that I could enjoy math again.
Two years ago, I became a math graduate student. When I started the master’s program, I promised myself that I would not repeat the same mistakes that I made during my undergraduate program. Adapting to change takes time, and I may be uncomfortable with change. However, I have never stopped trying, since I’ve learned that trying is the only way I can improve. I now know that it is okay to ask for help, to be wrong, and to say “I don’t know” because these things are just part of learning. By going to office hours, I have listened to what others asked, learned how to use new terms, and attempted to ask a few questions. I have made countless mistakes, but surprisingly, my professors were very kind and patient enough to work with me. By working with classmates, I learned to express my ideas and articulate my thoughts in words more effectively. In 2019, I attended my first math conference, the Pacific Math Alliance Conference. By attending, I learned that there are people who love to talk about and share their passion for mathematics. I can’t say that I’ve completely overcome my weaknesses at this point. I know that trying new things isn’t always pleasant, and learning math still requires hard individual work. However, what I have learned in the past two years is that this math learning process can be more fruitful and powerful if I’m ready to adjust the way I approach it.
Life does not bind itself to a carefully constructed plan, and sometimes life brings complications, which, in my case, includes political, economic, and cultural complexities. These things have had an immense impact on my life. Indeed, my perspectives have changed over the years. However, I know that these social issues will not diminish my desire to exercise my passion for mathematics fully. Most importantly, I have learned to stay healthy and flexible to unforeseen changes. Now, my story has become a substantial asset that I can share with others to help those in similar situations feel less alone.
Minhye Lee obtained her master’s degree in 2020 and her bachelor’s degree in 2018 both from California State University, Fullerton. She strongly believes that anyone can learn mathematics, regardless of one’s economic, academic, or social background if provided with adequate support and resources. Minhye enjoys studying patterns and proofs as well as solving problems. She is considering a Ph.D. program in math education. Minhye desires to expand her knowledge and understanding in mathematics and to serve and encourage students to expand their own interests in mathematics.