About five years ago when I was an undergraduate student at California State University, Fullerton, I had the opportunity to participate in an intensive summer program called Preparing Undergraduates through Mentoring towards Ph.D.’s (PUMP). PUMP is particularly aimed at minority students, women, and first-generation college students in the California State Universities studying mathematics. At this program, when I was a student that was too shy to ask any curious questions about analysis such as “who is this Cauchy guy and why do I keep hearing this name?” I met Andrea Arauza Rivera, who, at the time, was a Teaching Assistant for the program and a graduate student at University of California, Riverside (UCR). I learned a lot from her during that summer about analysis and linear algebra (and I finally found out who Cauchy was and why he is kind of a big deal) and five years later, I am still constantly learning from her–but now, it’s not just about math. At the time we met, I was an undergraduate student and she was a graduate student. Now a couple years later, we have both gotten a major upgrade: I am a graduate student and she is an Assistant Professor. She is a trailblazing Chicana who is paving the way for others like me. In the conversation that follows, you will see how integral it is to have an individual like Andrea as a part of the mathematical community.
Jasmine: Tell me about yourself.
Andrea: My name is Andrea Arauza Rivera. I am a Chicana woman born in Guadalajara, Mexico. My parents emigrated to the United States when I was very young so I have some memories, but for the most part I grew up in the Central Valley of California. Once I graduated from high school, I went to Modesto Junior College (MJC) before transferring to Cal State Stanislaus and got my bachelor’s degree in math. Right after that, I went to UC Riverside for my Ph.D. I graduated from UCR in 2018 and then I went straight to Cal State East Bay where I am now an Assistant Professor. My work is in an area called Noncommutative Fractal Geometry. It is like the intersection of Functional Analysis with Fractal Geometry.
J: Tell me about your journey such as your experience in undergrad and how you ultimately decided to pursue graduate school.
A: I started at MJC as a nursing major because my mom had done some training to be a nurse while she was in Mexico, but it wasn’t really thought out because I don’t think I have what it takes to be a nurse. At some point, I took a calculus class and I saw the definition of a Riemann Sum and how you get integrals from taking the limit of sums and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. I was so excited about it and I thought it was genius. It was such a simple idea, but it was so incredible for me. At some point in that semester, I decided that I wanted to be a math major. I don’t think I had any particular career in mind, I just wanted to learn more. When I was an undergrad at Stanislaus, I took as many math classes as I could. I was also one of those students that actually read the emails that the chair of the department would send out and I got some about panels and conferences. I went to this conference at Sacramento State that gave students information about graduate school. I learned that you could go to graduate school for math and it would be free! To me, this felt like a route to financial independence. So I thought, why not? I like the subject and this seemed like a good way to get out of the Central Valley so I was very motivated. That summer, I did MSRI-UP and it was amazing. I loved it, I loved being there, and I loved being with a bunch of people who also loved math and wanted to talk about math all the time, but were still human beings. I really loved my experience there so I credit that program for putting me on the path to graduate school.
J: When you were in grad school, how was your transition from undergrad to a graduate program?
A: It was tough. At Stanislaus, they taught me the fundamentals really well, so I had those down, and I learned how to learn. I hadn’t seen a lot of math. There were a lot of advanced topics that I had never seen before. When I got to grad school, I was in classes with people who had master’s degrees already, people who did their undergrad at other schools and took grad classes as undergrads and I felt that it was such a difference in what they seem to know and what I currently know. It seemed like such a divide so I was initially really worried. In a lot of the classes, it felt like my performance was based on the performance of my peers and it made me nervous about it. In the end, I knew how to learn, and I knew how to digest information. I knew that there were supposed to be growing pains so I wasn’t discouraged by that. Eventually we all get to a place where we don’t know the material already and I thought I’ve been confused and struggling this whole time so it’s not a big deal for me whereas for others it wasn’t like this so it was more of a struggle.
J: How did you deal with a lack of diversity in your program and being a woman of color in a PhD program in math?
A: When I was growing up, I was always around people of color, Latinx specifically, and a lot of them were women. So in undergrad, I was around brown women doing math all the time. It didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem until I was in grad school. For the first two years, I was so focused on getting through classes and quals, I wasn’t really focused on any other aspect. It wasn’t until my third year that I started feeling it. I looked around and realized that I only had one woman that I interact with on a daily basis and there’s no women of color. There’s maybe two people of color in the department who I talk to, but not other women. So the intersectionality of everything started to get overwhelming and isolating. I really wanted that feeling of community that I was missing.
J: Did you experience any imposter syndrome and if so, how did you deal with it?
A: I don’t know that I experienced it a ton. I went into those spaces and had a lot of self confidence. I felt like even if others thought I didn’t belong there, I’d make it so that I did belong there. I thought, I will make this space my space if it’s not already. I had this feeling like “of course I can do it, I can do anything”. There’s nothing they could tell me that I couldn’t do because I know how to work hard. I was ready to put in the work to get through it so I was super committed. It helped that I had a supportive family and that UCR gave me a nice financial package. I had things that helped me and gave me that time to be able to hustle through it. I felt like if anybody should be here, it should be me.
J: What was your motivation during grad school? What is it now? Has it changed or is it the same?
A: I think at the beginning of grad school I was motivated by math. I loved it and I wanted to learn more of it. That was a big thing at the beginning. And then I think it transitioned a bit. In 2016, a really traumatic thing happened to this country and it shook a lot of people including myself and I just thought that I needed to do something. I started feeling this sense that the country hated me… that’s just what it felt like when Donald Trump got elected. It felt like I needed to do something and I started to think about what I could do to be the most helpful. I thought of dropping out and being an organizer and doing all this stuff. I figured out that I had already made it into this space that was already very exclusive and wasn’t welcoming to a lot of people like me and that was the place I could make the biggest impact because I was already there. I already had the skills and knowledge about the culture being in academia in general and that was where I could make the biggest impact. I think towards the latter half of grad school my motivation changed and became more political.
J: What do you think is the key to success in grad school?
A: Oh boy. People. People are the key to success in grad school. I mean that in two ways. People can be the key in helping you or people can be what screws you up. If you can build a community for yourself or you find a community–it can be different communities for what you need–people can help you during the hard times. In those difficult moments people are the ones that are going to get you through it. On the flip side of that, people can also screw things up for you. If you enter a space that’s hostile or doesn’t believe in you, that can make a big difference as well. Your decision for going to grad school needs to include the idea that “are the people here going to support me? Are they going to be a positive influence for me?” So I think people are the key.
J: What are your long term goals?
A: I want to build a legacy that I am proud of. That really encompasses how I feel as a human being and what I do in my career.
J: What is your favorite thing about what you do now?
A: The interactions I get to have with other people and my colleagues. I do this job for the interaction I get to have with the students. It’s an honor and a responsibility that I’ve been trusted with. I get to be their teacher and it’s such a sacred job to have. To be someone who has knowledge and shares it with other people. I am grateful that they trust me with it and that I get to be the person in the room with them while they have this “ah ha” moment. I really think it’s an honor to be a teacher. That particular feeling I don’t think I can get from anything else.
J: What advice do you have for current math PhD students?
A: Find your people. People can make all the difference. Even if people are far away they can still be your people. I really think you need a community. When I got to grad school I thought I had to do it all by myself, but I quickly figured out how important it was to have friends who you could connect with on a human level. Find your people and community.