In 1987, I was married with two children and was teaching math at a U.S. military high school in Germany. Two years later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and with all the political changes, I expected that the U.S. might cut back on their military bases in Europe and that would mean fewer jobs for teachers at U.S. military high schools. So, my wife and I decided to return to the U.S., and I would start a PhD program in mathematics education. This was before the Internet, and I only knew one university that had a PhD program in mathematics education. I applied by sending in a hard copy application though the mail (no email at the time). I got accepted, but was told that they did not know if there would be funding for me until after the application deadline. So, I waited until after the deadline and called the director of the graduate program. He told me that he still wasn’t sure because there were two really good students who were thinking of applying but hadn’t yet. He said that I should come, and something would work out. My questions were, “Isn’t the deadline passed?” and “I guess I am not considered a good student?” but I did not ask them. I was naïve. We decided to do what he said and come.
When the high school year was over and I was done teaching in the spring of 1990, my wife Sarah and I moved our family of four with a third child on the way to that university, which was in a part of the U.S. where we had no family. I arrived at the mathematics department and met the director of the graduate program. He informed me that the good students he was waiting on did finally apply and there was not a TA position for me. In fact, they did not even have a scholarship for me, and, since I had moved from Germany, I would have to pay out-of-state tuition. I thought it would have been helpful if he had told me these things earlier. Also, he let me know that during the first two years of the PhD program in math education, I would have to take standard mathematics courses to earn an M.S. degree in mathematics. It had been several years since I had taken a math course and for my undergraduate degree the math classes I took consisted of calculus 1, 2, and 3, linear algebra, abstract algebra 1, and number theory. In a casual way he mentioned that I was probably not good enough to earn an M.S. in mathematics. I wasn’t feeling very confident in myself.
I went back home and talked with Sarah about the situation. I looked for a local high school math teaching position, but the K-12 schools were starting soon, and I couldn’t find an open position. So, by default I started the graduate program. The first semester I took graduate classes in real analysis, abstract algebra, and topology. I also sat in a class in calculus 2 since I had forgotten much of that while I taught high school. Because we needed money, I got some part-time jobs doing construction and grading free-response questions on standardized high school math exams in the evening.
One day after class I learned that there was a room in the math department where graduate students and the professors could go to talk and get snacks. No one had told me about the room, but I decided to go. When I entered another graduate student told me I wasn’t allowed in the room. Later, I realize that she did not know that I was a graduate student. But with all that had happened during the past few months, I did not have a lot of confidence in my math worth and I silently left the room. During that first semester, I had little assurance that I could pass my math classes let alone do well in them, and there were times I was ready to drop out of the program.
At the end of the first semester, I ended up earning A’s in my three graduate math courses. The graduate director told me that a scholarship was available for me for next semester so that I wouldn’t have to pay tuition, but there was not a TA position for me. During the second semester I also received A’s in the next three graduate math courses, and I was offered a TA position for my second year in the PhD program. At this point I met some professors in the department who were very supportive. By the end of the second year, my confidence had grown and I transferred to another university where I earned my PhD in mathematics. In thinking back on this experience, I know that I could have easily stopped studying math. There were a lot of reasons for me to stop.
My story is not the only one like this. Too many others have gone through worse than I, and unfortunately there are some who are still experiencing dispiriting and demeaning situations, including those who want to studying math education instead of mathematics, work in industry instead of academia, those who are female or from underrepresented ethnic groups, and those who are LGBTQ. The book Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey (edited by Allison Henrich, Emille Lawrence, Matthew Pons, and David Taylor) shares a collection of such experiences and helps bring these elephant-in-the-room stories out in the open. We need to do a better job of supporting students and colleagues through their challenges, enabling everyone to flourish in mathematics. Let’s work to be more encouraging and empowering of all people in their mathematical journey.
I would happy if you sent me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org telling me your thoughts on this article or sharing your own personal struggles.
© Mathematical Association of America, 2020. All rights reserved. This piece first appeared as the President’s Message for April/May 2020 issue of the MAA FOCUS magazine. We would like to thank Michael and the editor of the FOCUS, Jacqueline Jensen-Vallin, for allowing us to republish it here.
Michael Dorff is the current President of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). He earned his PhD in complex analysis at the University of Kentucky and is currently a professor at Brigham Young University. He has five daughters, the oldest of whom has three children and is working on her PhD in mathematics. In the picture to the left, Michael is with Sarah and their three daughters (Becca, Lizi, and Hannah) while Michael was in his first year of graduate school.