How challenging experiences led me to pursue a PhD in Mathematics by Shanise Walker

As a student graduating high school, I was convinced of one thing: I was going to be a high school mathematics teacher. Everything I had done in high school and the inspiration and encouragement I received from teachers, family, and friends helped me feel reassured that my decision was the right one. As a high school student, I excelled in every subject, but doing mathematics was a passion. My love for mathematics led me to tutoring both middle school and high school students in mathematics, participating in mathematics competitions, and learning about other areas of mathematics outside of the curriculum. I had even earned the highest achievement award every year for mathematics in my grade level, so being a high school mathematics teacher seemed like the perfect choice for me.

As an undergraduate student, I immediately declared that I wanted to be a mathematics education major. Although I would have to be accepted into the program, I was sure of my choice in major. Completing the requirements to get into the program were easy because I was eager to be a math teacher. For the first few years of undergrad, things were going well. I added the mathematics major to my degree program and became a double major in mathematics and mathematics education. I was accepted into the mathematics education program and was set on my goals; everything was going well.

Fast forward to the spring semester of junior year, something changed. While taking a math education course focused on technology in the classroom, I found myself in a situation that I could not explain and one that could not be explained to me at the time. One of the first assignments in the course was to write an argumentative essay on technology in the classroom and its benefits or hindrances. When I wrote my essay, I focused my attention on the hindrances and how too much technology could lead students to rely heavily on devices and not enough on understanding the concepts. In the end, I received a low score on this assignment and when I inquired about the low score, the teaching assistant responded, “It’s just wrong.” This was just the beginning of a long battle of receiving low grades because “it’s just wrong.” Those words haunted me, so I stopped inquiring and just accepted the grades. I received lower grades than my peers, even on assignments where we had the same answers. I really disliked going to that class, but I knew I needed to finish the course because it was a requirement for my mathematics education degree. The real test came during the group final project. The project consisted of a group paper and a class demonstration on teaching a math topic to students. For the group paper, my group scored near perfect, but on the class demonstration, I scored significantly lower than my classmates. My group members and I did not understand it since I had written over half of the group paper and the project idea was one that I had brought to the group. I spent countless hours working on this project only to get near perfect or perfect grades on the group graded portion of the project but a low grade on my individual portion.

After receiving the group project grade, I had had enough. I decided to meet with the instructor of the course about my grades and my displeasure with the course. During our meeting, I asked the instructor to explain to me why my grades were much lower than classmates, especially on assignments where we had the same answers. It was then that I learned that this was not about my work, but about who I am. The professor outright admitted that the teaching assistant had given me lower scores because I was Black. The professor was already aware of the situation and had been for semesters before I became a student in his course. It had happened to other Black students who had taken the course before me. I was given assurance that while my grades were low, my final grade would not be. When I left that meeting, I cried. I was angry. While I knew that the particular teaching assistant would not be a grader for any other courses I would take in the major, I felt that I no longer had a place of belonging in that major. Despite feeling like I didn’t belong, I still had a passion for teaching high school mathematics, so I was determined to complete the degree.

The determination to continue with my mathematics education degree would change while I was a participant in an 8-week summer REU mathematics program. When I arrived at the REU program, I had no knowledge of how to conduct mathematics research and I was also unsure of what exactly I would be researching. However, with good mentorship from my research mentor and a postdoctoral student (now a tenured faculty member), I found myself interested in mathematics beyond teaching it. I was interested in solving math problems and I found that sense of community during the REU program that was lacking in my home department. Within the first few weeks of the REU program, I had decided that I wanted to get a PhD in mathematics–a thought I had not had before. My research mentor gave me advice on preparing and applying to graduate school. I took the advice and applied for PhD mathematics programs.

When I returned to my university the fall after the REU program, I was still pursuing a double major in mathematics and mathematics education. I knew that I had only one semester of coursework before I would be student teaching, but there was some unrest in me in continuing my mathematics education degree. I had just come from spending an entire summer doing math research, and I had this motivation in me to pursue a PhD. A week before classes started, I dropped my remaining mathematics education courses. After dropping the courses, I found myself in the position of being able to graduate at the end of the semester since I needed only one mathematics course and one elective course in a certain area to graduate. However, I decided I wanted to stay the entire senior year, so I enrolled in two mathematics courses and other electives.

While I dropped my mathematics education courses, I did not immediately drop my mathematics education major because I was still a bit torn about the idea of perhaps not being able to teach high school mathematics. However, before the fall semester ended, I went for it. I dropped the major and pursued my newfound interest of getting a PhD in mathematics. I started on a research project with a faculty member in the mathematics department and began submitting applications for graduate school. I submitted a number of applications for PhD in mathematics programs before the Thanksgiving break, so everything was going well.

In the spring of my senior year, I had another incident that solidified my pursuit of a mathematics PhD. I attended a graduate school fair at my institution to learn about other graduate programs at other institutions. While doing so, I stumbled upon a master’s program in mathematics education and thought to myself: “Well, maybe I could get my teaching certification while in this program because after all, I still had a passion to teach high school mathematics.” The program was at an institution close to my hometown, so that also meant that I would be able to spend more time with my family. The deadline to apply to the master’s program had not yet passed, so I thought to myself I would give it a shot. I spoke with the program’s representative, and we discussed the program and my GRE scores. She told me that I would likely get into the program with probationary status due to my GRE composite score. When I told her I had already been accepted into PhD programs in mathematics, there was a bit of shock on her face (and I am sure on mine as well). What I knew to be true was that my GRE Verbal Reasoning score was not as high, but I had done well on the GRE Mathematics portion. The composite score missed the mark for their institution to be granted full admission, so with this information in mind, I did not apply to the program. I continued with my plan to get a PhD in mathematics and finally decided that teaching high school mathematics was not the best fit for me. The following fall, I went off to graduate school, pursuing a mathematics PhD program at the same institution I had done the REU. Six years later, I completed the program and earned a PhD in mathematics.

Now, as I write about this experience almost ten years later, for the first time I ask myself, “How can eight weeks change the whole course of your life?” This is exactly what the REU program did for me. It changed the course of my life. It gave me a mathematical experience that I had not encountered before. It provided me with the mentorship I needed to succeed and gave me a sense of belonging in the mathematics community that I had not felt before. It also provided me with motivation to pursue something different–a doctoral degree. For this, I am grateful.

Two years ago, I had an opportunity to fulfill my passion of teaching high school mathematics. I taught calculus to a group of underrepresented minority students at a STEM summer program for high school students. This experience was just as joyful as I thought it would be, and I will always cherish it.

Shanise Walker is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She received her Ph.D. from Iowa State University under the guidance of Professor Ryan R. Martin. Her research interests lie in extremal combinatorics and graph theory. In particular, she has studied forbidden subposet problems, graph partitioning problems, and more recently the intersection of game theory and graphs. At UW-Eau Claire, Dr. Walker supervises undergraduate research projects. Dr. Walker is also active in service to the mathematical profession related to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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