Teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, program directors, and admissions officers all have the ability to provide us with opportunities and guide us along our paths. These same people can also act as gatekeepers, offering a leg up to those fortunate enough to be allowed in, while either deliberately or thoughtlessly keeping certain others out. In Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey, there are numerous stories that demonstrate the damage that people in positions of power can inflict by communicating to a student that they don’t belong or denying them opportunities they have earned. One example comes to us from Robin Wilson, who shared an early memory of encountering a gatekeeper who nearly altered the trajectory of his life.
“The summer after I took pre-algebra in 8th grade, my mom placed me in a self-paced algebra class that was offered at a local college and taught by a college instructor. I struggled through the course the entire summer and suffered the experience of always being the slowest one, but I survived the long days in class and the long bus rides home. When I went to my high school for the first time to meet my guidance counselor, who happened to be a middle-aged white person, he looked first at me, then at my record, and placed me into pre-algebra again. Despite my summer spent learning algebra, he convinced me that it was in my own best interest to repeat the pre-algebra course. My mother, on the other hand, upon learning about my schedule, marched up to the school the next day to demand that I be placed in the appropriate mathematics class—algebra.”
Starting around middle school, students are typically sent down one path or another in their math education. One path leads to completing Calculus in high school, an accomplishment that is virtually required for admission into some elite universities and is certainly expected for most students who aspire to a career in a STEM field. The other path, often labeled “remedial,” is one that signals to students that they don’t have what it takes to do math at a high level. Students get sorted into these different paths based on course grades, standardized test scores, parental advocacy, or simply a counselor’s impression of them. At each step, there are opportunities for gatekeepers to make decisions for children that have potentially life-altering consequences. “You are allowed in!” “You don’t have what it takes.”
When we get to college, who and what the gatekeepers are changes, but their impact can still be damaging. Jen Bowen had this experience.
“I attended a mid-size liberal arts university. Since I was in the Honors Program as a first-year student, my advisor was not in the Mathematics department. Late in my junior year, I finally was assigned an academic advisor in Mathematics. I was excited about my senior year, thinking about what was beyond college for me – I was considering a Ph.D. program. I read the catalog and noted every detail of my remaining requirements. The catalog indicated that I could substitute a graduate (800) level course for Abstract Algebra for the undergraduate (300) version. Eager to meet my new advisor and let him know my plans, he greeted me gruffly. No warm and fuzzy “Glad you’re my new advisee. Tell me about you and your goals!” When I carefully explained that I desired to register for a two-semester sequence of 800-level Abstract Algebra for my senior year, he responded, “Well every single undergraduate who has taken that route has either failed or withdrawn from the course.” Boom. Crushed. When I went to register, I realized that I could sign up for whatever course(s) I wanted for the next year. So, I registered for the 800-level algebra courses, I earned an A- and a B+. I didn’t go back to meet with the advisor again.”
Fortunately, Jen persisted in this story, knowing that she could tackle the challenge of taking graduate-level courses as an undergraduate. What doors did having these courses under her belt so early on open for her? Now, imagine a scenario in which Jen had followed her advisor’s advice. What opportunities might she have missed? How often does it happen that a few discouraging words from an advisor make a student feel unworthy to pursue their goals? Is Jen’s persistence exceptional, or are students routinely able to ignore bad advice from those who are supposed to guide them?
When on the path to earning her PhD, Chawne encountered someone in a position of power who made her feel small.
“I’d been in grad school a couple of years and earned a master’s before transferring to another school for my PhD. My grades were pretty good and admissions test scores were not too shabby. Which is all to say that signs were good that I had the preparation to succeed in a regular math doctoral program. Through a private fellowship I’d been awarded, I attended an annual doctoral mentoring program run by the foundation. The director of the program had us go around the room to introduce ourselves and mention our fields of research. He praised each new doctoral fellow, in turn, on details he recalled from their dossiers and offered encouraging words. However the word “math” seemed to trigger something in him. This man who I’d never met before had no kind words about my academic record and just declared to the room that I would surely fail. He said he had never seen a black person succeed in the math PhD program at my school. It was a gut-wrenching moment to say the least. In the years after that, I came to understand that he had spoken impulsively from the experiences of two grad students who had attempted the same program before. One finished the program with a few bumps along the way, and the other switched to a Math Ed graduate program (and has had an extraordinarily successful career ever since!). But I never returned to the mentoring program after that happened.”
Chawne successfully completed her PhD in math, but what opportunities did she miss out on as a result of being made to feel unwelcome in her mentoring program? What message did the program director send not only to Chawne, but the other fellows in her program about her ability to succeed? Chawne knew deep down that she was well-prepared to succeed, but how might the same message have undermined the confidence of someone else in her situation?
The three stories shared here demonstrate some important themes. First, gatekeeping is potentially damaging to students along their educational journeys. So, when we are in positions where we can either encourage and support our students or discourage them from taking the more challenging option, let’s choose to offer our support!
Second, one way people are able to overcome setbacks dealt by gatekeepers is by having advocates who counteract the messages or override the decisions of those in power. When we are in positions of power, let’s be those advocates for people! If someone comes to you to tell you about how someone else discouraged them from pursuing a goal, consider counteracting that discouragement with encouragement! Give a pep talk. Help your student/friend/child/colleague map out a plan for how they can achieve their goal!
Third, believing in yourself and having a growth mindset can help you be resilient in the face of a setback. It can be hard to follow a path that people tell you that you are not cut out for. But are you willing to learn? Can you put in the work? What if you put some energy into finding mentors, coaches, advocates, and friends to support you? What dreams could you fulfill?
Jen Bowen, Allison Henrich, and Chawne Kimber are members of the Editorial Board of the Living Proof blog.