Mathematics holds the key to increasing STEM enrollment of U.S. students

William Yslas Vélez
Emeritus Professor, University of Arizona

This article presents four main points.

  1. Promote the undergraduate mathematics major not only as entry into the workforce but also to prepare students for graduate programs in STEM fields.
  2. Recognize the difference in the educational systems between the U.S. and other countries and the impact this has on graduate enrollment in the mathematical sciences.
  3. Suggest that the AMS take a leadership role in leading the mathematical community towards a comprehensive look into the evaluation of graduate school applications.
  4. Point out the lack of diversity in the graduate programs of our top research departments.

Just take one more math course

“Just take one more math course” was the lead sentence in the article [1] announcing that the Math Center at the University of Arizona (UA) had received the 2011 AMS Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. The Math Center forms part of the department of mathematics and is dedicated to organizing the mathematics major program by providing advising, information about internships, research experiences and scholarships, and supporting recruitment efforts. The Center also records demographic information (citizenship, gender, ethnicity) in order to assess diversity efforts. I had taken over the directorship of the Math Center in 2003 with the goals of doubling the number of mathematics majors and increasing diversity. Rather than emphasizing outreach to increase the number of mathematics majors, I focused on reaching into enrollments in our mathematics classes, an activity I labeled as INREACH [2]. I sent emails to students enrolled in mathematics classes encouraging them to pursue further mathematical studies. At the UA, there were 30,000 undergraduate students enrolled, many of them in STEM fields. I advanced the view that the more mathematics a student took, the more opportunities would be available. I promoted the math major shamelessly. I learned early on not to suggest that a student change their major, but rather that they add mathematics as another major. This proved to be a successful strategy. When I retired in 2018, there were over 650 mathematics majors, 20% of them from minority backgrounds. Half of the graduating mathematics majors had another major or another degree. There were an equal number of mathematics minors with the percentage of minority students greater than 20%.

Most of the mathematics majors were not headed to graduate schools in the mathematical sciences, rather they were using their mathematics to make them more competitive in the job market or in applying for post-graduate studies. The mathematics major, combined with stellar grades in the students’ other fields of study, helped students gain admission into top graduate programs in STEM fields. This suggests that if mathematics departments encouraged undergraduates to increase the mathematical content of their curriculum and add the mathematics major or minor, this would increase the participation of U.S. students in STEM fields. As the data below shows, U.S. students do not constitute the majority of students in many STEM graduate programs. What should this percentage be? Certainly having graduate programs that would be 100% U.S. students would be unacceptable, as would 0%. A percentage of less than 50% is problematic. A reasonable percentage for U.S students would be between 70%-80%. After all, graduate programs in the U.S are part of the U.S. educational system. Graduate education is the economic engine in increasing the earning potential of its citizens.

Data on U.S. participation in STEM fields

Dependence on foreign oil, in the past, caused great concern in the U.S. because it endangered our national security. Yet, dependence on international students to power our graduate programs and our scientific enterprise appears to be acceptable. Exactly how dependent is the U.S. on international talent? In 2016-17 (the latest data available) international graduate students represent the majority (over 50%) in many STEM graduate programs, as Table 1 [3] shows.

Table 1 is an excerpt for Table 22 of [3]

Doctorate recipients, by subfield of study and citizenship status: 2017

Area of doctorate

total number of doctorates

Temporary visa holders

% temporary visa holders

Computer engineering

419

294

70%

Structural engineering

103

67

65%

Electrical, electronics, and communications engr

1900

1230

65%

Industrial and manufacturing engineering

253

161

64%

Agricultural economics

144

91

63%

Computer and information sciences, general

123

75

61%

Civil engineering

741

444

60%

Computer science

1587

931

59%

Computer and information sciences

1987

1101

55%

Mechanical engineering

1409

750

53%

Econometrics, economics

1184

626

53%

Finance

188

99

53%


For the mathematical sciences profession, we can obtain data from [4] and it shows that 51% of doctoral degrees are awarded to international students. I strongly support the age-old view of “everything in moderation” as a good guideline for our graduate programs. We have long since passed the point of moderation.


Differences in the educational systems of the U.S. and other countries

In most other countries undergraduate students arrive at a university already having been accepted into a major. Some mathematics majors take analysis in their first year of study and three or four mathematics courses per semester as undergraduate students. Here is a link to the program of study at the University of Guanajuato in Guanajuato, Mexico (http://www.demat.ugto.mx/index.php/estudiantes2/consejos-para-nuevos-estudiantes-2/licenciatura-en-matematicas). International students have often completed academic training comparable to students with Master’s degrees in the U.S..

A liberal arts education is a requirement for most U.S. students. It is not unusual for U.S. students to declare a mathematics major in the second or third year of undergraduate study and take 1-2 mathematics courses per semester. The liberal arts education gives students the opportunity to explore other areas of interest before deciding on a major. Students interested in pursuing a graduate program in the mathematical sciences may not take analysis until their last year of study. In the meantime they have developed the mathematical maturity to understand this abstraction.

Is there any evidence that this later arrival at mathematical maturity correlates with creativity, or determination or any of the other factors that impact students’ abilities to become successful mathematicians?

Rethinking the admissions process for graduate school

Graduate programs must consider two criteria when accepting students into a graduate program. Can students pass entry-level courses and the requisite examinations, and are they creative enough to write a strong dissertation? Departments want the “best” graduate students. However, contrary to mathematical culture, “best” is not defined.

Perhaps “best” means what is best for the nation? Historically, minorities lack representation in the mathematical enterprise. By attracting students from under-served populations, mathematics departments could play a vital role in addressing STEM diversity. Certainly, increasing diversity is an important goal, one of increasing importance in a country undergoing such dramatic demographic changes. Mathematics departments could follow the lead of the Math Alliance [5] (https://www.mathalliance.org/), an organization whose stated purpose is to increase the number of minority students applying to graduate programs in the mathematical sciences.

Could “best” mean what is best for the department? International students have completed coursework equivalent to a U.S. Master’s degree and have demonstrated that they understand entry-level courses. This preparation enables them to move quickly on to their research interests and this demands less teaching from the faculty.

Perhaps “best” means selecting students with the best mathematical creativity? Mathematics departments choose prospective graduate students with the highest grades and GRE math subject scores. Instead of selecting students with mathematical creativity, admissions committees choose students who excel in test-taking and mathematical knowledge. In this process, mathematics departments fail to recognize the differences between domestic and international educational systems when comparing students’ GRE scores.

When I became director of the mathematics graduate program at the UA I was given no instruction. This is so typical of the mathematics profession. In graduate school we are prepared to become researchers. When we accept a faculty position we are then expected to become effective teachers, mentors, evaluators and administrators. The AMS should bring the community together to investigate new methods of evaluating selection criteria for graduate school and to develop training for faculty in these methods. Departments have relied on standardized testing platforms, like GRE, for decades. Its effectiveness in predicting success in graduate school could be one of the projects initiated.

Sadly, there is evidence of even further bias against U.S. students being accepted into STEM graduate programs. In a 2017 article, Mervis [6] stated that university administrators were concerned that Trump’s administrative policies would result in a 30% drop in the number of applications from international students, compared with the number of applicants from 2016. The article went on to say that a smaller applicant pool allows “administrators the option of admitting students who previously would not have made the cut, including more domestic students. But educators are loath to move the bar if it would lower the quality of the talent pool.” I find it quite surprising that university administrators are so willing to disparage U.S. students in public.

The U.S. educational system sets forth the requirements needed for a student to earn an undergraduate degree from the university. Presumably this preparation has prepared students to continue to post-graduate study. Students from outside of the U.S. must complete more advanced mathematics courses in order to earn this same degree and are therefore at a distinct advantage when applying to U.S. graduate schools. What is the rationale for changing the bar other than the fact that so many international students are applying? The bar should be set at a level commensurate with the requirements set forth by our educational system. This higher bar places U.S. students in an inferior position as far as the graduate admission process is concerned.

No taxation without representation

Universities are supported by U.S. tax dollars, both state and federal. Part of that support comes from the minority population. What is the minority population getting out of this investment [7]? For the academic year 2016-17, 1957 Ph.D.s were awarded by 299 departments. How many minorities were part of this group of doctoral recipients? Among the US citizens earning doctoral degrees, 4 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 30 were Black or African American, 33 were Hispanic or Latino, and 4 were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander [4]. This is a total of 71 minority doctoral recipients! For decades, billions of dollars have been spent on mathematics graduate programs with a negligible return for the minority community. If mathematics departments are not going to include minorities in their graduate programs, then don’t take their tax dollars!

The situation for minorities is even worse at the top research universities. The Doctoral Math Private Large grouping in the AMS survey [8] consists of 24 departments with the highest annual graduating rate of Ph.D.s (23 of the 24 departments responded to the survery). This grouping contains some of the best research departments in the country yet the percentage of female Ph.D.s is the lowest of all the groupings. Moreover, this grouping reported a total of 2 minority Ph.D.s! for the academic year 2016-2017. How is this even remotely acceptable! Given that NSF has an explicit goal of increasing diversity, why are these departments supported by NSF grants?

Where are the top research departments going to find minority faculty if they are not producing any minority mathematicians? Our faculty do not represent the population of the U.S. and this is a problem that needs attention. By reconsidering the admissions process for graduate schools, top research departments could begin to build pathways for faculty positions.

Everything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs

In [4] we see that almost all of the percentages of U.S. citizen doctorates are around 50% in the mathematics groupings. I am surprised that percentages of U.S. students are not higher in biostatistics. The mathematical requirements for applying to graduate programs in biostatistics are three semesters of calculus, linear algebra and probability theory. (Harvard Biostatistics: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/admissions/degree-programs/#research) and U of Washington Biostatistics: https://www.biostat.washington.edu/program/admissions/requirements). Biostatistics programs need to devote some energy towards recruitment of U.S. students.

In looking at graduate programs at different universities, I came across the mission statement from The Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications (CMSA) at Harvard:

The Center for Mathematical Sciences and Applications will establish applied mathematics at Harvard as a first-class, interdisciplinary field of study, relating mathematics with many other important fields. The director of CMSA Yau states, “The center will not only carry out the most innovative research but also train young researchers from all over the world, especially those from China”. How is Harvard finding the funds to support an effort specifically aimed at training international postdocs? The U.S. minority community does not have such funds to encourage Harvard to create such a program for U.S minorities. The purpose of the Harvard program is to train international postdocs who would then out-compete U.S postdocs in the marketplace. Is this what is best for our nation?
Curiously, I gave a presentation at JMM in Denver in January 2020 pointing to the CMSA website. Curiously, this mission statement at CMSA disappeared soon thereafter.

The role of mathematics in producing U.S. STEM graduate students

Undergraduates with a strong background in mathematics are competitive for STEM graduate programs. The U.S would benefit if mathematics departments increased the number of mathematics majors. However, it is important to realize that the goal of an undergraduate degree in mathematics is not necessarily to pursue a graduate program in the mathematical sciences. We need to communicate to students that the mathematics major at the undergraduate level can lead to a wide variety of employment opportunities. For those interested in pursuing STEM graduate studies the mathematics major will strengthen their applications.

In my own work at the University of Arizona, the outstanding graduating senior in department X was often also a mathematics major or minor. This occurred year after year and the administration took notice. Mathematics majors were an integral part of STEM education at the UA. This model is worth replicating elsewhere. Mathematics does not just reside in a mathematics department. It needs to be incorporated into STEM and by increasing the number of mathematics majors across campus, we provide a well-prepared workforce for the country and a larger pool of eligible students for graduate schools.

Increasing diversity requires extra work and dedication. The UA model shows how a commitment and an infusion of resources can help faculty accomplish this goal and carry out this meaningful work. The importance of these efforts cannot be over-emphasized. The changing demographics of the U.S. requires a concerted effort to re-examine the application process of our graduate programs and respect the education of our undergraduates.

References

1. Arizona’s Math Center Wins AMS Award, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 58, Number 5, 2015, pages 718-721. http://www.ams.org/notices/201105/rtx110500718p.pdf
2. Inreach is the new outreach, William Yslas Vélez, MAA Focus, Volume 35, Number 4, August/September, 2015, pages 4-5. https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/MAAFocus/Focus_AugustSeptember_2015.pdf
3. Data Tables, National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2017, Table 22. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data
4. Report on the 2016–2017 New Doctorate Recipients Amanda L. Golbeck, Thomas H. Barr, and Colleen A. Rose, Notices of the AMS, Volume 66, Number 7, August 2019, pages 1151-1160.
5. 2017 Award for Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference, Allyn Jackson, Notices of the AMS, Volume 64, Number 5, pages 476-478. .https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/201705/rnoti-p476.pdf
6. Drop in foreign applicants worries engineering schools, J. Mervis, Science, 17 February 2017, p. 676.
7. Broken Social Contract, Letter to the Editor, William Yslas Vélez, Notices of the AMS, September, 2020.
8. Departmental Groupings, The Mathematical and Statistical Sciences Annual AMS Survey. http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/groups

Author notes. The author thanks Helen Grundman for thoughtful comments on this article and for suggesting a less combative tone and to the reviewers for many helpful suggestions. This article was originally submitted to the Notices of the AMS, but after several revisions, it was rejected. The referees were very helpful and accepting their comments improved this article. Regarding the sectionEverything in moderation went by the wayside in our graduate programs”, one referee commented, “This entire section needs to be removed from the paper. It does not add value to the paper and it is not at the professional level of the rest of the paper or the Notices in general.” On the streets of this nation, people are demonstrating against injustices, but apparently, the Notices will not allow minority voices to complain about the injustices suffered. In the end, I could not accept the revisions suggested.

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The Mentorship of Our People

By Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

A couple of months ago I found myself wondering how I was going to navigate applying to graduate school by myself this coming cycle. To some people, applying is not that big of a deal. They have a mom, dad, multiple mentors to go to for help. For people like me, a first-generation college student born to immigrant parents living at or below the poverty line, this seems like an impossible task. Who do you ask for help?

It got me thinking about my undergraduate application process. High school counselors and teachers guided and mentored me through the application process. I was also a part of College Match Los Angeles, an organization that provides high achieving low-income students with free SAT prep, college tours, and help with applying to college and financial aid. It literally took a village to get me to Williams College.

While at Williams I had one mentor in particular that not only took an interest in my success at Williams but also ensured that I had a game plan for achieving both my short term and long term goals. Along the way, especially towards the end of my time at Williams I met professors that understood me and really saw me. All of me. I may not have had the opportunity to be academically mentored by a professor who looked like me in the STEM fields, but seeing her as a professor on tenure-track at Williams did more for me than she will ever know.

Which brings me back to a couple of months ago when I was expressing my concerns about the graduate school application process to a couple of my best friends. One of my friends, who applied to biochemistry and chemical biology programs, took it upon herself to share everything she had learned from the application process with me. A second friend, who will be applying to medical school and thus does not have a lot of knowledge on the graduate school application process (PhD), recommended I look into Cientifico Latino. Cientifico Latino aims to make the application process easier by pairing applicants with a mentor, either a PhD student or a post-doctoral fellow in a specified field, who will guide the mentee through the application process. Because my relationship with my current laboratory is tenuous, I sought out my former Williams mentor and he suggested The Women+ of Color Project (WOCP). WOCP organizes a three day workshop for women of color interested in the physical sciences and mathematics, providing 50 women+ of color with direct mentorship, and 100 women+ of color with access to recordings of the workshops.

As I continue preparing for the graduate school application process, I’m constantly reminded of the value and importance of mentors and mentorship. Mentorship can be difficult to find and definitely requires two-way interest. I sought out every mentor that I’ve formed a relationship with and it was immensely helpful when my mentor had a strong desire to share their knowledge with me and invest in me. Professors, friends, and/or coworkers can all be possible people to form a mentor/mentee relationship with. Mentors don’t necessarily have to be 50 years old and a full professor. Personally, many of my mentors are people around my age. A different way to meet mentors is through mentorship programs. Cientifico Latino and WOCP are just two of many programs available to aspiring STEM graduate students. For example SU(5) provides support and mentorship to incoming physics and astronomy graduate students. Project SHORT is dedicated to supporting graduate school and pre-health applicants. The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and BioAcCES all organize conferences each year for underrepresented minority students in STEM and provide different resources which may include mentoring programs.

While there is no doubt that the application process is daunting, it can also be a chance to find your people. People who will cheer you on, pick you up when you’re down, and remind you of your worth when imposter syndrome threatens to take over. It’s important to not only have mentors ourselves but also to pass on the knowledge to those coming after us. Like Toni Morrison so perfectly put it, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Reach back and help those trailing you. Pass on information you wish you had, resources you needed, job listings you know about. Mentorship and community are integral parts of succeeding in spaces that weren’t designed for people like us. Despite the lack of consideration for us and our experiences, we have an ever growing community willing to help each other into these spaces.

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes

Jennyfer Galvez-Reyes is an aspiring chemistry professor. She hopes to use her chemistry and Latinx Studies education to teach chemistry in a culturally relevant way. Her research interests lie at the intersection of chemical biology and ethnic studies. Jennyfer is passionate about making STEM diverse, inclusive, and equitable through advocacy and education. She enjoys doing her make-up, listening to music, and spending time with her friends.

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SUBgroups: An Interview

 

By Vanessa Rivera Quiñones

Transitioning to graduate school is a challenging and isolating process for many first-year students. ​SUBgroups are groups of 3 to 5 first-year students from different mathematics graduate programs that meet through video chats every two weeks to build community and support one another. These groups have three goals in mind:

● Sharing the challenges, successes, and everything in between.
● Uplifting each other by listening, cheering, commiserating, and offering advice and
different perspectives.
● Bridging the graduate student transition and connecting to the wider mathematical
community.

Registration for the Fall 2020 SUBgroups cohorts is open. ​There will be two SUBgroups cohorts in the fall, because of different start dates for semesters/quarters. One cohort will begin in early September (registration window from August 17-28), and the other begins in early October (registration window from August 17- September 25). ​This amazing online initiative is organized by fellow mathematicians Dr. Marissa Loving (Georgia Tech) and Dr. Justin Lanier (University of Chicago). In this interview conducted via Zoom, I chatted with the organizers a bit about what inspired them to create this program.

VRQ: I am so excited to chat with you. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourselves?

Marissa: “I am an NSF postdoc at Georgia Tech. My research is in geometric group theory. I study hyperbolic surfaces, more specifically, curves on surfaces. My research involves drawing a lot of pictures and making combinatorial arguments about topological things. I have been in the mainland for a while now, but I was born and raised in Hawai’i. And, I am the second oldest of 12 kids. I am the first Native Hawaiian woman to get a Ph.D. in math, and that has shaped my experience in the math community in many ways.”

Justin: “This past spring I finished my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, and this fall I am starting as an NSF postdoc at the University of Chicago. I work in the same field that Marissa does: mapping class groups and surfaces. Before I started graduate school, I worked in K-12 education for 10 years, mostly in New York City.”

VRQ: Last year, you launched SUBgroups, an online peer group for first-year graduate students, and you took a new approach to support these students. What motivated you to take on this initiative? How did that happen?

Justin: “It was inspired in part by my experience as a teacher—networking and being in community with teachers online through blogs and Twitter. Being a teacher and being a graduate student have a lot in common. You are doing the same things as many other people, but you are doing it in a pretty local way. Some people have the luck of having a friend or a collaborator in the office next door, while others feel very isolated. It is a bit luck of the draw. Someone who could be your new best friend or collaborator might be several states away. The experience of building meaningful relationships virtually was a part of my professional vocabulary when I started graduate school. I also knew that a fair amount of doing mathematics research happened online—collaborations on Skype—but not so much for graduate students. You have your cohort at your university that you may or may not get along with. You may have imposter syndrome, or there may be competition among people. So people have negative experiences. It would be great if you could connect with peers in a lower-pressure setting.”

Marissa: “As I mentioned I did my undergrad in Hawaii, and I went to a small state school, UH Hilo, so I was part of a small cohort of students, and it was really tight-knit. When I started grad school, it just felt like you got lost in the shuffle a lot. There were not a lot of brown women in my department, and that added another extra layer of isolation. On top of that, there were a lot of classmates that were constantly jockeying to show how much math they knew. And how much better they were at everything than you. It was very discouraging and very lonely. It felt that there weren’t many places to have discussions about how you were struggling because you were expected to maintain a certain facade of like: “I belong here”, “I am really smart”, “I am not having any problems”, “Everything is awesome”. The hope for SUBgroups was to create an environment where students can be more vulnerable about their experiences. I really believe in the power of vulnerability and how that allows us to connect very deeply with people in ways that are nourishing for ourselves. It is hard to do that at the local level. Especially, when there is so much pressure on you to perform to a certain level. The goal of SUBgroups is to break down some of those walls by connecting people at different institutions. The motivation for me was knowing how hard it was for me. The feeling like I had to project this air of having it together, no matter how much on the inside I was falling apart.”

VRQ: Is that part of the reason you chose to focus on first-year graduate students?

Marissa: ​“Definitely, that was part of it. The main thing is that the first year is a big transition point. The change from going from undergrad to grad school, the change in course work, the change in surroundings, the actual physical uprooting that happens, it’s a lot of things happening at once, and it’s such a critical point in your overall career. If you really have a horrible first year, people can often end up leaving programs over that. They have to abandon whatever dreams they had for themselves in mathematics. So it seems like a critical point to catch people, keep them connected, and stop them from slipping through the cracks.”

Justin: “It is also the moment where grad students haven’t become specialized. As time goes on, you would want different kinds of support for them that are maybe more focused on their area of research. But for first-year graduate students, they have a lot of common concerns and experiences that they are encountering together even though they are in different local places. To piggyback on something Marissa was saying, there is a big difference in social culture between undergrad and grad school, when in undergrad, you show up and you’re meeting hundreds of people in your different classes, sports teams, clubs. Starting grad school has a very different feeling from that. There are ways to connect with people outside your department, but it’s just harder. And there is not usually structural support to make those social things happen. That is also a further reason why SUBgroups is a useful support structure.”

VRQ: What is most exciting about this project is that it showcases that when you believe in an idea enough (and you are willing to put in the work) you can make it happen.

Justin: “When I walked into the new environment of grad school, I already had a toolkit. I saw the problem, and it felt like I already had the hammer—to connect grad students virtually. The rest is just details: the individual structural choices about how the program works, how big the groups are going to be, or how they interact, all of those are choices. But it just felt shocking to me: are you telling me there doesn’t exist a systematic effort to organize people coming into the math research profession in order to support each other? It’s not that big of a world. This is not something that would be easy to coordinate for, say, all beginning public school teachers in the country. But the scale of math graduate school is so manageable, we could write to all the graduate directors, it’s not that many people.

A starting point of this project is that you have to believe in people. You have to believe that if you have people, and you help to connect them, good things will happen. I’ve had so many extremely positive experiences building relationships virtually. And way more people are going to encounter how powerful virtual connections can be now, because of the pandemic. It’s really easy to get caught up in what will be most effective or useful. But maybe you should think instead about every conversation that doesn’t happen because it can’t happen in person. A lot of good things can happen for free, at scale, that people don’t even consider.”

Marissa​: “That’s how Justin and I built our relationship. Because Justin invited me to start a reading group with him over Skype, and it was great. Until last year, the majority of our interactions were virtual. Justin was a grad student at Georgia Tech, and I was still a graduate student at Illinois. As soon as Justin pitched me his idea for SUBgroups, I was in. Because meeting and doing math (online) with Justin was a big part of feeling like I belonged in math. He was one of the first people I connected with to do math research in my specific area. Building community beyond my institution has been so important to me throughout my math journey, and I knew SUBgroups would work because I had experience building strong human connections with people online. I didn’t need much convincing to buy in.”

VRQ: It makes me think a bit about logistics. Were there any initial challenges when you were getting started that you can think of?

Justin: ​“First of all, it’s not so surprising that logistical difficulties can be overcome, and that the program does work. There are so many math collaborations that happen exclusively virtually. It’s only other aspects of our professional lives where using virtual tools is a novelty. One challenge last year was trying to match up groups so that the participants all had Skype or all had Google Hangouts. That’s a big change going into this year just because everybody has Zoom. Another challenge was trying to be diligent and careful about the privacy of people’s information. That was something we didn’t know about at first, but we got help and support from folks who understand the laws that are in place and the technical aspects that need to happen to make sure protected information is safe.”

Marissa: ​“We sat together for hours as we carefully sorted all of our participants into different groups. We tried to match up all of their timing preferences and other group preferences to meet their needs. So, for example, we had students who were the only women in their incoming class, so it was really important for them to be in a group with other women. We had a Latinx student who shared that they were only in week one of their program and they were already really lonely and wanted to connect with other Latinx students, if possible. So, we tried to be very mindful about taking student’s group preferences into consideration so they could be placed with other students having similar experiences.”

VRQ: It might be easy to think, ‘oh, we just divide students into groups’. But what I am hearing is that you are not just finding a group, which might not work either, you could be in a group full of strangers and feel equally isolated. I think what makes SUBgroups different is that you try to make tailor-made groups to what the student needs.

Justin: “At the same time, we don’t have a magic formula, we are not asking their opinions on lots of things. One challenge is that we are going large scale—pulling together people from so many different programs—and then moving to a smaller scale. And whenever you are doing something that depends on a handful of people, then you need to make sure that they are all showing up and in on the loop. And even when you have a group of people who have goodwill, and who have the incentive to be there, the program still has to be structurally robust enough that people don’t just drop away. If people start disappearing, then the group dynamic falls apart, or the meetings stop happening. So there are these other layers of trying to come up with preventive measures and additional ways of connecting people so that it’ll work well.”

VRQ: We’ve talked a bit about logistics and challenges, but what has success looked like for SUBgroups?

Marissa: “Hearing from students that it was a good experience. That they liked it, and that they would recommend it. One of the SUBgroups participants I knew beforehand. I was one of her mentors for an undergraduate research program. So I knew her as an undergrad and knew that she was going to start her first year of grad school last fall and I was really happy that she decided to join SUBgroups. This past week, she retweeted our announcement for the upcoming SUBgroups cohort and said: “I did SUBgroups last year and I loved it! 12/10 recommend”. So, that was extremely rewarding! Without SUBgroups, I wouldn’t have been able to provide the same kind of support to help her navigate that transition effectively. Some undergrads I have mentored in the past have signed-up for the 2020 cohorts as well!”

Justin: “As we are starting up this year’s SUBgroups, we are getting emails from students. In checking in, they are really thankful that the program exists and that we are organizing it. Especially, at this particular moment, where people are starting graduate school remotely. And that’s satisfying. I am glad it’s not our first year to try to do it at this moment—that would be tough!—but I am also glad it exists now, and we are not starting this a year from now. I think it will be good for a lot of people. It also feels good when people more senior to me say this is a good idea, and I get to say thanks, and also, it’s not hard. There are a lot of ways life can be made better, and they don’t have to cost a lot of money. You just have to set them up.”

VRQ: That’s a great point. You know, I see all these initiatives that I wish existed when I was a grad student. Is it going to be perfect? No, but will it be good enough to make a difference? Yes. Is there anything else you would like to share about SUBgroups?

Justin: “Something that SUBgroups makes a small dent in is that you want mathematicians to recognize themselves as part of a broad professional community. You hear people that have a small group of people or friends that they met at that one summer program or at that conference. And those are places where mathematicians mix. It is really easy for us to get locked into more narrow research areas, and that becomes our community. It just makes it so our sense of responsibility fragments. But, you know, 10 years from now there are going to be groups of professors that did SUBgroups together. They are gonna know a small handful of people in other fields, in other different kinds of institutions. I think having shared experiences and shared work to do, that isn’t math work, is part of being a mathematician. You want people to have those experiences to build their self-concept of what it means to be in a math community. It’s really powerful, like in Project NExT, having faculty at undergraduate serving institutions that have a shared purpose. All in all, it’s a powerful and empowering piece of professional activity.

I think there’s a lot of room to develop more profession-wide programs and activities that could better address the needs of the math community. So much of our thinking happens on an institutional basis. Individual grad committees will think about how we can support their students better. But who is having a conversation about how we support all math grad students, together? I don’t know of a body that has that as its focus and mission. There is not a committee on entry into the profession. SUBgroups is an attempt to bridge that gap.”

Marissa: ​”That’s the great thing about SUBgroups. We don’t need to have a cap on how many people can join and who gets to be part of it. If you are a first-year graduate student who is starting a math grad program, and you are concerned that you’re going to feel isolated. Or, you want to connect to other people by plugging into a community that you’re going to share your experiences with. To build them up and be built up by them, then you should register for SUBgroups. You should come and get in on the fun.”

Justin: ​“What is challenging, in this work, more than other experiences I’ve had with teaching, is you’re putting an experience together for others to have, but where the experience is happening out of sight. We have a bedrock faith if you put people of goodwill in touch and you help to shape that experience, that it will be a supportive and positive experience—and then you say go. A piece of SUBgroups is that we have them do some reflecting about what’s gone well and has gone poorly. We are prompting them to journal and go to a group of peers to talk about how life is going. They are the only ones actually doing the work. We just set up the machinery and support for that.”

Marissa: ​“In this conversation, I’ve realized that a big reason I feel invested in SUBgroups is that I have sent so many people into this pipeline. And I know there is the potential that they will get chewed up and spit out. So I feel responsible. There are all these young people that I have encouraged and pushed to be in these places, math graduate programs. Although I am always giving them all the caveats and warnings about what that experience can be like, it feels good to do something tangible to help them have a more positive grad school experience. That is actually very important, because I definitely had gotten to a point where it felt irresponsible to keep encouraging young students of color to go into math graduate programs, while knowing how bad it could be for them, how bad it was for me. Now, through SUBgroups, I am doing something real to help them have a better math experience, the kind of experience that I really dream of them having.”

Have questions about SUBgroups? You can reach the organizing team at gradsubgroups@gmail.com.​

Posted in career advancement, Changing Graduate Programs, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Outreach, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Just Say Yes. Meaningfully.

By Julianne Vega

In this post, I hope to convince you that when opportunities arise there is no need to panic and say “yes” or “no” immediately. Rather, I hope to convince you that by thoughtfully considering what the opportunity means to you and how you will accomplish it, you can respond meaningfully. In doing so, you will find yourself engaging in experiences that are impactful and aligned with your personal mission statement. I will share with you how I approach decision-making and some questions I ask myself along the way.

Let me start by providing three touch points to anchor this post.

The first happened two years ago. I went to the Graduate-Professional Student Leadership Conference at University of Kentucky and attended a session titled “How to Be a Graduate Leader.” The two moderators, one other graduate student, and I were the only attendees. Because of the smaller turnout, our session became a discussion. During which the other student said, “This is my second year at this university and I would like to get into leadership roles. How do I do that?” To my dismay, the moderator responded, “I have a friend who is a Dean and the way she got there was by saying ‘yes’ to everything. So, if you want to get into leadership roles you should say ‘yes’ to everything.” Now, I hope this makes you cringe as much as it made me in the moment. Just say “yes” to everything? Just say “yes” to everything, as a second year graduate student? I couldn’t believe it. Saying “yes” to everything is a slippery slope to burnout and the advice is in direct contradiction to the typical advice of learning to say “no.” I jumped in to redirect the message from saying “yes” to everything to saying “yes” meaningfully. I encouraged the student to think deeply about what his strengths were and what he wanted to accomplish as a starting point.

The second touch point happened about a month ago. As a brand new assistant professor, I reached a professional benchmark: I said no to something that was truly meaningful. At the end of a virtual Math Circle research camp, my students expressed interest in continuing the project to work towards writing an expository paper. I really enjoyed my time working with these students and I would have loved to continue, but upon further reflection I realized with the pace we were working coupled with moving, starting a new job, and several research commitments of my own, there was potential that the students would feel less excited and less empowered at the end of the project than where we were at the end of the camp. It was only after careful consideration of how much time I could commit and what a successful product would look like that was able to make a full decision. I was also concerned that by not continuing I would be letting down the students. My fears subsided when I saw that their email responses were still filled with genuine joy and gratitude for the time we did spend together.

The last event happened a few days ago, as I attended a faculty orientation. As we discussed service opportunities one of my new colleagues wrote in the chat “Learn to just say NO!” This led me to think “rather than learning to say no, why don’t we learn how to say yes meaningfully?’’ So, I went on a bit of soul searching to try to understand what leads me to feel so empowered to say “yes” with purpose.

Why is it so hard to make a decision?

It would be wrong for me to continue without acknowledging that part of the reason why it is so hard to say “no” is because of the pressure to please supervisors, the pressure to avoid making waves pre-tenure, the fear of letting others down, and the fear of missing out. My aim is to empower you to view saying “no” as a positive response that will lead you to a more fulfilled mathematical journey.

How to navigate saying yes or no meaningfully?

1. The first thing you’ll want to do is buy yourself time before giving a response. Express some interest and ask about the timeline for the invitation and by when they require a response from your part. Then reflect on the following questions: How much time will I need to spend per week on this new task? What does a successful product or outcome look like? When does it need to be completed? The purpose of this step is to punt your answer so you can provide a thoughtful response after consideration.

2. Consider whether the opportunity is right for you. Ask yourself, does this fit with my personal mission statement? If you haven’t done so already, check out this post on personal mission statements. Taking the time to create your own personal mission statement will be invaluable when it comes time to think about engaging in an opportunity. If the opportunity does not align with your personal mission statement then saying “no” is a breeze. No matter how meaningful it is overall, if it’s not in alignment with your mission statement there are certainly people better suited for the task.

3. If the opportunity does align with your personal mission statement, then you want to consider if you have time to commit to the task. Ask yourself, what would success look like for this project and do I have time to commit to completing the task? More generally, you can ask, can I see a way to complete this project in relation to the rest of my work?

Notice that the second question is not just considering time in the present schedule. Instead it’s viewing all of your projects as waves that are in the process of coming in and going out. This will allow you to say “yes” on more occasions than may seem possible while still accomplishing them to your personal standard.

Hopefully, your answer to this question will allow you to make the final decision of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity. If you need a little extra push in your decision-making process, see the next section.

What else should I consider when deciding if I should participate in an opportunity?

1. You are a leader. Let me say it one more time for those in the back, you are a leader. We are all leaders. “Leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal (Ward).” The sooner you see your leadership strengths and the impact of your actions, the sooner you will be able to find meaningful activities to fill your time. I truly believe that everyone, starting from kindergarten, is a leader and engages in leadership.

The book that really cemented this strong leadership view within myself is titled Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders by Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller. The following excerpt focuses on teacher leaders, but parallels leadership at many levels. As you read, reflect on what parts resonate with you.

“Teacher leaders lead within and beyond the classroom; identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders; influence others toward improved educational practice; and accept responsibility for achieving the outcomes of their leadership. […] Teacher leaders also reach outside their schools to a wider professional community. […] These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for teachers to realize that their leadership skills are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.” (p.6-8)

Did you see parts of yourself in there? To strengthen the parallel consider replacing “teachers” with “students” in the last sentence: “These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for students to realize that their leadership skills (i.e. contributions and strengths) are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.”

Leadership comes in many forms. Formal leadership roles include positions held during extra curriculars, volunteer work, or committee work. Informal leadership occurs during group work, collaborations, and even takes the form of personal leadership throughout your own learning. In all of these roles we are contributing to a community of learners and leaders, influencing others, and accepting responsibility for the outcome.

As a leader, your time is important. You need to find what is meaningful to you and pursue it with passion. If all else fails and you are ever on the fence of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity stop what you are doing, gather up all of that Lizzo[1] energy, and think to yourself, “I am a leader and my time is important. Is this something that I want to do with my time?” Then, listen to that gut reaction and run with it.

2. “Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else.” I received this advice from Ben Braun and it has resonated with me since. Admittedly, this advice is never the reason I say “no,” but it is advice that makes me feel better about saying “no.” As we discussed above, there are many reasons why it is hard to say “no” and this advice has given me the extra boost of confidence to follow through on a “no” response.

3. Who will you be working with? When you are making a decision, consider who is in the group. Is it just one other person or a group of people? Is there a chance that you will find mentors, sponsors[2], or collaborators among the group? Will you be supported? Is there someone in the group that you know you don’t work well with? Could this opportunity be a stepping-stone? All of these questions could impact your decision. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, “Sometimes to lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life” and in the words of Pamela E. Harris, “You need to find your people. Focus on finding those people whose working and communication style match your own.”

If you have reached the point where you are committed to saying “no,” check out The Four Parts of No by Courtney Gibbons which details how to craft a “no response.” Of course decision-making is always difficult especially when it comes to professional commitments, but my hope is that you are walking away feeling a little more empowered to confidently make decisions that are right for you.

Julianne Vega

Short Bio: Dr. Vega is an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and an MAA Project Next (Brown ‘20) fellow. Her mission is to cultivate a community of compassion and empowerment, a place in which everyone is growing together.

References:
Katzenmeyer, M. & Moller G. (2009) Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders (3rded.). Corwin.
Ward, S. (n.d) What is leadership? And can you learn to be a good leader? Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://www.thebalancesmb.com/leadership-definition-2948275.


[1] If you are unfamiliar with the singer, rapper, songwriter, and flutist Lizzo, take a moment to listen to her music. Her energy is amazing.
[2] A sponsor is someone who advocates for you as you advance in your field.

Posted in career advancement, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Need for Mentor-Mentee Contracts

Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Noel Bourne, Ethan Bush and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones,
Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

We recently participated in Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness. This workshop was organized by a group of underrepresented mathematicians, who know first hand the many challenges and situations that underrepresented students, like ourselves, must navigate in order to successfully complete a PhD in the mathematical sciences. In one of the workshop’s sessions, we discussed the mentor-mentee relationship and its effects on a student’s experience in graduate school. In this article, we describe the main takeaway from the session: that open communication in the mentor-mentee relationship was crucial for student success.

As part of the session, we read the article Mentoring minority graduate students: issues and strategies for institutions, faculty, and students by Thomas, Willis, and Davis, in which they discuss how miscommunication leads to a dysfunctional mentoring experience. The authors state that “when the lines of communication… are not left open and properly defined, incidences… become more evident, and in some cases cause conflict.” Of course, communication establishes a baseline for current and future interactions, and without articulating clear expectations or without having open lines of communication it could lead to potential problems within the mentor-mentee relationship. Yet, through our discussion, it became evident that some of us had expectations of mentors that we had never directly communicated nor agreed on with them. For example, some students expect their mentor to be able to advise them on job searches/placements and to help expand their network and connections with other people in the field. Yet, the reality is that not all mentors can or should serve in this capacity as this type of mentoring requires a mentor to be well connected to other scholars and to help students find people who might be more equipped in addressing more specific goals.

Being able to fully articulate expectations in a mentor-mentee relationship is key to building a strong and supportive relationship. Through the setting of mutual expectations, we can avoid the hurt feelings associated with being let down, which can be experienced both by a mentor and by a mentee. In fact, one great way to work on building a list of mutual expectations is by completing a Mentor-Mentee contract such as the one found here. Although that contract is based on a research mentor-mentee relationship, many of the items used for building strong communication skills apply to general mentor-mentee relationships. These include:

  • A strong mentor/mentee relationship starts with a conversation to discuss what each person is trying to get out of this relationship. It is important to establish this at the beginning of a new relationship because the potential mentor may not have certain characteristics that you may initially expect a mentor to have. This will help you to determine if perhaps searching for another mentor is the most appropriate course of action. Note that you cannot force a mentor to have a certain characteristic if it is not within them already. For example, if you need a more hands-on mentor, and the mentor does not believe in hands-on interactions, then the relationship will probably not work.

  • It is important for the mentor to acknowledge their own limitations, and know when to direct their mentee to other experts in the field or a more suitable mentor. It is unrealistic that a single mentor will know everything. As a mentor, you have to become familiar with what you can provide to a mentee, and be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. It is a sign of maturity to know that you have to direct your mentee to other experts in the field that will be able to answer your mentee’s questions and who could potentially serve as better mentors.

  • Familiarizing yourself with each other’s career goals is important in the mentor/mentee relationship. The responsibility of the mentor is to help the mentee reach their end-goal, and knowing what the mentee wants to achieve will help guide the mentor in providing resources to the mentee, as well as stimulate constructive conversation during one-on-one meetings. Coming up with 30, 60, and/or 90 day milestones can be beneficial in approaching career and life goals. This is meant to be used as a measure to see how far along you are to achieving your goal within a specific timeframe. What can be achieved in 30 days? 60 days? 90 days? Goals that are broken down from short-term goals to long term goals can be helpful in keeping track of one’s own progress.

Even with a contract in place to guide the mentor-mentee relationship, we must acknowledge that there may be reasons to end the relationship. The contract linked above has specific language to address this and mentions: “In the event that either party finds the mentoring relationship unproductive and requests that it be terminated, we agree to honor that individual’s decision without question or blame.” Although this is within the contract it can be a source of stress for either the mentee or the mentor to bring up that the mentor-mentee relationship might not be a positive and mutually beneficial one. Yet, there are times when it is best to simply end such a relationship. Even when it may feel like a “breakup” we should know that not all mentor-mentee relationships will last a lifetime. Some can simply be for a predetermined amount of time. In fact, reassessing the benefits of the relationship every so often can be quite productive in either addressing new needs and new challenges within the mentor-mentee relationship.

Although we have described the mentor-mentee relationship in a contractual way, it would be a missed opportunity to not mention that these relationships are deeply personal and at times emotional. Mentors are people that guide you throughout your academic and professional career. They are someone who can give you guidance and wisdom. The mentor-mentee relationship often extends beyond just school-related and professional work. A mentor is someone that you can talk to during times of distress. When a mentor-mentee relationship works, they are deeply meaningful and impactful to both parties. Given this impact, it is important to focus on how to build strong communication skills so that the mentor-mentee relationship is a positive one for all involved. We encourage the use of a Mentor-Mentee Contract to begin having these conversations.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Staying the path: Motivation through graduate school

Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Jasmine Camero, Alejandra Castillo, Fabrice O. Ulysse, Victoria Uribe, Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez, and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

Graduate school is a journey. It has its positive moments and its struggles, but one thing is clear: the goal is to obtain the PhD. So what is our drive and motivation for obtaining a PhD? This was a topic for reflection and discussion among the participants and organizers of Math SWAGGER. The Mathematics Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness (Math SWAGGER — www.mathswagger.com) is a five-week virtual program that brings together a group of underrepresented current and incoming graduate students (including women, underrepresented minorities – African Americans, American Indians including Native Alaskans, Latinxs/Hispanics, and Native Pacific Islanders – and persons with disabilities) for a workshop on graduate school readiness to address and create action plans for underrepresented students to navigate challenges and situations while successfully completing a PhD in the mathematical sciences.

In this article, three incoming PhD students and two current graduate students provide their reflections on their motivation to complete their graduate studies and what mentors could do to help strengthen, support, and further motivate them throughout their journeys. As you read some of the authors’ reflections you will get a glimpse into their lives and also see some similarities in motivation factors, including, a passion for mathematics, people, and community.

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Alberto Alonso

Alberto Alonso is a Mexican-American who will be pursuing a PhD in Mathematical Modelling at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He graduated with degrees in Applied Mathematics and Sociology from SUNY Geneseo. Alberto intends to focus his studies in Mathematical Biology to better understand the spread of diseases, or medicinal drug transportation in the human body. In his spare time, he enjoys baking, playing classical music, and crocheting.

Alberto Alonso: Pursuing a PhD in mathematics has always been the end goal in my academic career since high school. Initially, my motivation for pursuing such a degree came from wanting to wear the doctoral regalia. However, as I continued through to my undergraduate studies, I realized that earning a PhD meant much more. The title of being called “Dr.” brings such a different tone when people address you– a level of respect that was not always apparent during my experience in mathematics, and in academia as a whole. Being able to prove to “the world” that a gay Latino can earn a PhD is a motivator, but definitely not the main one that comes to mind.

What really pushes me forward is the support of my family. Being the first-born in a Latino family, a first-generation student in college, from immigrant parents who moved to America not knowing the language, what motivates me is achieving the “American Dream” for my family. To give back to them the way they have always provided for me– that is the greatest motivator. My parents have always believed that working hard, and staying focused will get you far in life, and I am willing to make any sacrifices that may come my way. Secondary to the latter, I want to be able to be “the person” for anyone who is pursuing a career in STEM. It would have been great to see a reflection of me in academia sooner, to affirm that I can make it in STEM, and that I’m not alone in academia. I want to be the recluse for someone to be able to relate to and empathize with where they are coming from.

Right before I started undergrad, my institution had a program that brought together a cohort of people from underrepresented groups to help prepare students for undergraduate work. The cohort was structured in a way that helped expand our thinking socially and academically, to notice nuances in our experiences that may not be apparent or present for others; and this was aided with the help of mentors in the program as well. The mentorship that was provided by upperclassmen and facilitators really prepared me for my academic career, and being a participant in Math SWAGGER could have not come at a better time.

As I was applying to graduate schools, there was this constant fear of not being ready for graduate studies. Having also taken a two-year hiatus from school to work a corporate job also did not help in mitigating my fears. No one in my extended family ever sought out to pursue a higher degree–I felt completely alone until I became a part of Math SWAGGER. The group reminds me of the summer before my undergraduate studies, and I could not be more grateful for the people that brought this group of people together.

To be able to listen to other people’s experiences, and to be able to learn from professors and 3rd, 4th years alike, is an experience that will be irreplaceable. Moreover, the mentorship that the group exudes is helping me prepare for what to expect in graduate school. It perpetuates the feeling of unity, and togetherness that I would not otherwise find once I start my program. Being connected to a group of bright, humble, funny people gives me the confidence to pursue the PhD program, and motivates me to “make it.”

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Jasmine Camero

Jasmine Camero is a Mexican-American who, in the fall, will be an incoming Mathematics PhD student at Emory University. Born in Santa Ana, California, she earned her B.A. in Mathematics from California State University, Fullerton. With a PhD, she plans on becoming a professor and serving as a role model for all underrepresented groups, especially women of color like herself. As a professor, one of her goals is to plunge into spreading her admiration for such an influential subject to others. During Jasmine’s free time, she enjoys cooking and baking, working out, and playing with her dog.

Jasmine Camero: Motivation is described as something that causes a person to behave in a certain way. To me, motivation is defined as the desire and passion to do something you want, but that may not always be easy. Now, motivation, from the perspective of a graduate student, can hold many meanings. However, for a person of color who is navigating academia, motivation is not something that is always constant. When tackling a responsibility that will take five to six years of your life, such as completing a PhD, you will need a lot of grit because the secret to success is not purely from talent, but from perseverance.

So, why go to graduate school? Following the motivation session in Math SWAGGER, I realized that my purpose and my motivation is an amalgamation of reasons. It has to start with the mathematics. If you plan on dedicating an extensive portion of your time doing something, you have to enjoy it. We must relish in the idea of further uncovering the world of mathematics because the discoveries we make in the field can hopefully one day gear the societal progress we need. However, it is never just about this. It has to be more than that. Graduate school is definitely not going to be easy, so if I am going to put myself through that, there has to be more. There has to be people. Much like Math SWAGGER has been emphasizing, community is critical and extremely influential in building our framework as people and as students. Being a part of Math SWAGGER, I am now part of a welcoming environment that only celebrates the stories and experiences of underrepresented folks. It has made me more aware that we must take the extra steps to create these spaces for us to connect, relate to one another, and support each other through the ups and downs of this journey.

Another incentive to continue my academic journey is my family. As a first-generation, Latina student studying mathematics, I obtain pleasure in the anomaly that my presence in the world of academia holds. I have never felt prouder to be a first-generation student. I am the first in my family to earn my bachelor’s degree and I cannot wait to earn my doctoral degree in mathematics. My parents were not afforded the opportunities that I have had so it is really important to me to do this not only for myself, but for my entire family. Although they may not completely understand this journey that I am on, I know I can eternally count on their encouragement.

After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, my ultimate career goal is to become a professor. I would like to be at an academic institution where I can research, teach, and facilitate the development of future mathematicians because I believe mentors have a strong impact on students. The latter of these tasks is super important to me because, as a person of color who loves math, I recognize that members of underrepresented groups wanting to enter STEM fields still face systemic hurdles. I want to do my part in removing those hurdles by becoming a role model and mentor for those looking to enter the field. This is what I believe mentoring is about–providing productive direction and encouragement while being an advocate for the success of the students.

Motivation can hold various definitions for everyone and requires a subjective aspect for each individual, but one thing that can be agreed on is that motivation is what keeps us going–this can be your family, your cohort, or simply people you have encountered along the way. I constantly remind myself that everyone’s journey is different, and it may not be perfect, but as long as you enjoy what you are doing, then it is all worth it.

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Alejandra Castillo

Alejandra Castillo is a graduate student in Statistics at Oregon State University with research interests in unsupervised learning, statistical inference, and statistics education. She received her B.A. in math from Pomona College and calls the nearby San Gabriel Valley home. Alejandra also enjoys hiking, finding good boba places, listening to podcasts, and reading.

Alejandra Castillo: My motivation to pursue a graduate degree has changed a few times. There are aspects that have not, such as the support from my family, working on problems in/with statistics and my goal to help broaden the path for others in higher education. As a current graduate student, I’ve come to see that there is no one way to do well in graduate school because growing and growing pains are at the center of it all.

In college, I learned that there were intellectually enriching professions. I became interested in this active exchange of ideas. I could not believe that these were jobs. I could not believe that part of professors’ jobs was to learn, teach, and keep learning. Representation is powerful, so being surrounded by people with PhDs, I became interested in graduate school. While I enjoyed what I was learning, ultimately it was fellow classmates and professors who kept me engaged despite the obstacles. Mentors throughout college were instrumental in supporting my interest in math. They have been key in humanizing math and thereby making it accessible.

In discussing the topic of motivation with the Math SWAGGER community, similar themes of family and representation emerged for many of us. The organizers also shared with us their motivations throughout graduate school. Their willingness to share personal stories has been moving because it reminds me that no one really has a perfect graduate school experience, but people can help make it better. In an effort to help us grow, one organizer challenged us to think more critically about how we will use any source of motivation to persist in challenging circumstances. This resonated with me because of the instances in graduate school where I have felt isolated. There have been times where, as much as my family wants to help, they can’t. I believe that this is where graduate mentors can help. They can meet students where they are, be advocates and share opportunities, among other things. I’ve been fortunate to find mentors who are willing to listen, offer advice, and demonstrate care beyond the academic transaction that might be coursework.

I can’t help but think about how helpful having these conversations would have been prior to beginning graduate school. This is why I am very excited to learn and share what I’ve learned with incoming graduate students. I have found a new community in the space Math SWAGGER has created.

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Fabrice O. Ulysse

Fabrice O. Ulysse is a Haitian-American incoming PhD Student in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame. His current research interests are in Algebra and Logic. Born and raised in Canarsie, Brooklyn, NY, he received his A.B. Cum Laude in Mathematics from Cornell University. He hopes to become a Professor. His interests outside of mathematics are politics, music, film, the Premier League, NBA, and NCAA Ice Hockey.

Fabrice O. Ulysse: When I finished my Bachelor of Arts in May, some of my fellow math majors let me know they’ve had enough of math and are glad they don’t have to do it again. Other undergraduates could not entertain the idea of spending any more time in school, at least not at the moment, and felt that they’d learned enough. I, on the other hand, still feel like I have more to learn and more to do in mathematics. This hunger to learn more in math, and one day contribute to math, made me realize that I see myself being a professor, hence further motivating me to pursue a PhD. Even when I’m tired of doing mathematics, I always enjoy reading pieces and books about the History of Mathematics and reading articles about the current state of Mathematics research on Quanta Magazine. I am fortunate that my love for mathematics has kept me going.

Passion for mathematics is often the first source of motivation to get through graduate school mentioned by incoming grad students. However, that passion for mathematics gets tested during the PhD years. Furthermore, it can completely go away from time to time. So the love of the subject alone won’t get one through the 5-6 years of the PhD. I know that Abstract Algebra would not have been nearly as fun without the study group I formed. We spent many hours together, suffered, bonded, and enjoyed lots of funny moments. This study group even made doing mathematics more fun and exciting. I looked forward to studying with them every week, and this group was vital to my success in the course. Likewise, the great friends and mentors at MSRI-UP in 2019, kept my dream of pursuing a PhD alive, even when I almost gave up on it.

There are several spaces where I’ve met many URMs in the mathematical sciences. Those spaces have given me the confidence to pursue a PhD, partly because I know that other people that look like me have succeeded and are even thriving. Math SWAGGER is now one of those spaces, and it is allowing me to make more meaningful connections with other black and brown mathematicians, hence helping me build a community. These are people I can contact for professional, academic, or even life advice, with the added benefit that they can understand my experiences as a minority in math. I know that I will not be lonely for the next 5 years, because of this network of support. So far, during Math SWAGGER, the personal stories from professors and graduate students have often emphasized the importance of community. It became clear how crucial having a good community was during the darkest hours of the PhD, which is one of my biggest takeaways from last week. I now know that building and finding communities, even if they’re not on campus, will be essential to get through graduate school.

Lastly, I believe that mentors should not make their mentees feel guilty about wanting a life outside of mathematics. It could make them question if they’re a fan of mathematics, and ultimately negatively affects their motivation. It also denies the reality that we are multifaceted beings, and are capable of enjoying more than a select few related activities.

____________________________________________

Victoria Uribe

Victoria Uribe is a Mexican-American PhD student in Applied Mathematics at Arizona State University. Her current research interests include inverse problems, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning. Raised in Paradise, California, she received her B.S. in Applied Mathematics from California State University, Chico. After graduation, she hopes to work as an Applied Mathematician in the aerospace industry. Her interests outside of mathematics include triathlon, weightlifting, traveling, and writing.

Victoria Uribe: My motivation for completing my PhD program is generated in large part from having eliminated alternative career paths. Before starting graduate school for applied mathematics, I first attended a semester of law school. Despite getting my undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, I decided in 8th grade that I would become an attorney, and I was determined to see it through. I had always enjoyed math but thought that I needed to become an attorney to really help people. I thought that it would be the most tangible way to make a positive impact in the Latinx community. Within two weeks of law school, however, I knew that I was in the wrong place. I felt as though I was missing out on the “next thing” I would have otherwise learned in math. I quickly dismissed these thoughts, believing that the math PhD I was dreaming of would be considered selfish: something that only benefitted my own interests.

It wasn’t until I met with the Dean of Students about leaving law school that I realized how getting a PhD in applied mathematics could positively impact the Latinx community as well. She pointed out that few in the mathematics community look like me and that my success could help inspire others to pursue mathematics.

Transitioning from law school back into mathematics didn’t happen overnight. While studying for admissions exams and applying to graduate programs, I worked in an ice cream shop before finding a job in a corporate office. Having these jobs really made me appreciate being in school and pursuing my own interests. When it finally came time to start graduate school again, I couldn’t wait.

Many PhD students have told me that the first year is the hardest. Having just completed my first year, I certainly hope so! This past year brought many challenges, but I never truly considered giving up. I believe that taking several years between my undergraduate and graduate programs in applied mathematics allowed me to determine that, above anything else, this is what I want to be doing. Being a part of the Math SWAGGER workshop and community this summer has been a huge blessing. Going forward through the rest of my PhD journey, I am motivated by knowing that I have 37 allies in the other participants and leaders. Taking part in this group of underrepresented mathematicians, who want to create real and lasting change in our field, reaffirms my decision to positively impact the Latinx community via a PhD in applied mathematics.

Supportive mentors have been instrumental in my success thus far. My best mentors have been good listeners, have been invested in my well-being, and have been quick to share opportunities such as Math SWAGGER with me. It is important that mentors see their mentees as more than just students. While school is a full-time job, many students are also facing challenges outside of the classroom. Knowing that you have faculty cheering you on can make all the difference.

____________________________________________
Acknowledgements: We acknowledge funding support for Math SWAGGER through the National Science Foundation Award #1744463.

Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Networking Basics for Math Undergrads

Joanne Beckford, Alex Christensen, Pamela E. Harris, Lucy Martinez, Eduardo Torres Davila, and Fabrice O. Ulysse

No matter what grades, awards, projects, skills, languages, etc. a person may have, networking is an essential skill and tool for success. It is no surprise, therefore, that networking is at the forefront of so many conversations about career opportunities. Networking, as defined in Webster’s, is the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business. This article will share advice and tips from several students on networking in the mathematical community, and in particular, how to make sure these relationships are productive.

Office Hours

One might not expect this, but office hours are not only a place for solving homework problems. Office hours are also where the professor gets to place a face to your homework and exams, and where you get to know the professor as a person. There is a lot of potential for non-coursework related conversations; topics could range from the professor’s research, to travel stories, or even finding out you both play Nintendo Switch. This, believe it or not, is a form of networking.

If you attend office hours often, and eventually decide to ask for a letter of recommendation, the professor will not only be able to attest to your academic ability, but also to your characteristics as an individual, hence improving the quality of the letter. Whether or not you ask for a letter of recommendation, it is a good idea to send an email to your professor at the end of the semester. These thank you emails serve to demonstrate your passion you had for their class. Sending an email to the professor of the class you liked will demonstrate that you are interested and it could lead to possible opportunities such as formal and informal mentoring relationships.

Another thing to note is that the words of the letter of recommendation are not the only things that matter, the social capital of the letter writer does too, since you will be benefiting from the letter writer’s network. There are times when the people reviewing your application happen to know your letter writers, and therefore understand the importance of letter writer’s co-sign of your abilities. The following tweet illustrates this process, and this is the essence of networking, and why it works:

We should also note that in office hours, you are often not just there with the instructor. Your classmates are there as well, making it a great time to meet other students in the course. Office hours are often where study groups for classes start, so it is highly beneficial to be there. In the process of doing this, you are expanding your network in your major and among your peers. This opens doors to new opportunities as you learn more about what they are involved in, or decide to start a new project together.

Research

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is an NSF program that “supports active research participation by undergraduate students…” There are many REU programs at many U.S. colleges and universities in several disciplines. If you are a U.S. citizen, we highly encourage you to apply to REUs, and to as many as you can. It is not uncommon for people to apply to as many as 10 REUs! In an REU, you will have the opportunity to tackle some difficult research questions, surrounded by a bunch of people that also love the things that you are doing. You will likely gain some mentors and good friends. These relationships will allow you to start building a community outside of your home institution, i.e. expand your network. REUs have very competitive selection processes, so gaining admission signals to employers and graduate schools that you possess qualities that are the most suitable for the program. While REUs are not necessary for admission into graduate programs, they do help a great deal. After completing an REU, you will have developed research experience, presentation skills, and sometimes you will have submitted a scientific paper, each of which is a very positive addition to your application. You will also have a whole new network of people supporting you in achieving your goals. REUs also give you a stipend and assist you with housing, so money is usually not a concern. It must be noted that one typically needs at least two letters of recommendation to apply, so we will take the opportunity here to emphasize once again the importance of networking on your campus, and getting to know professors.

If you are unable to attend an REUs, getting involved in a research project at your institution is another good option. Researching at your own institution shows a level of maturity as a math student and working with a professor will help the professor get to know you better both mathematically and on a personal level. It is important, as mentioned above, that your professors at your university know you both in academics and beyond so that your future letter of recommendations are strong.

Conferences

Conferences are a fantastic place to meet students and professors from other institutions. You might even meet someone from your institution for the very first time! To attend a conference, you should always look for funding opportunities to participate in the conference, such as by giving a poster presentation or talk about any previous research you may have done. Fund. This could be from your department, the conference itself, and programs or organizations you are a member of such as McNair, LSAMP, NSBE, SHPE, SACNAS, etc. The funding can usually cover the cost of your travel, food, and lodging, so make sure you can attend the conference at little to no cost. If you don’t know where to start finding funding, ask your professors! They can point you in the right direction.

Conferences can be quite overwhelming, especially large ones such as the Joint Mathematics Meeting. It can be quite easy to remain with people that you know. However, it is essential from time to time to step out of your comfort zone. You do not have to talk to every single person at the conference. It might help to set a goal to speak to two or three people and have some questions in mind for them, especially about their research interests. These interactions will be more fluid if you are genuinely interested in these individuals. Hence, allowing you to cultivate a productive relationship quickly. Having a business card, LinkedIn page, or, better yet, a personal website to give to the person, is an easy way to exchange contact information. It is necessary to make sure you stay in contact with the individual after the conference. A simple email the day after, where you remind them of your name, institution, and the topic of your conversation, can go a long way in building a new network.

Grad Fairs / Job Fairs

There are conferences designed to give students opportunities to interact with faculty and students from different universities or organizations in events such as a Grad Fair/Job Fair. While you are navigating a grad fair, make sure to talk to graduate students and professors. Come prepared and be ready to ask questions. If you are unsure of what questions to ask, we refer you to the blog Bank of REU/Grad Fair Questions which contains a list of questions you may ask at a grad fair. Asking valuable questions will show that you are a mature student and that you are serious about your career. Professors will be impressed that you came prepared with important questions. As mentioned in the conferences section, bringing a business card to a grad fair is one way to promote yourself and it will set you apart from most undergraduates attending the fair. Make sure to include important information in your business card such as your website, email and home institution.

While it is overwhelming to walk in a grad fair as there are a lot of people around you, we encourage you to come out of your comfort zone. Set a goal of how many booths you want to visit and make sure to select the ones that you will potentially be applying for graduate school or maybe summer opportunities. There are a lot of students who have been recruited at grad fairs for a job or for a graduate program. Be yourself and have fun!

Summer Schools

Oftentimes, REUs give you access to only a small pool of professors; and they may not be from the institution you are visiting. For instance, attending an REU at a site, you may not necessarily interact with all the math faculty at the institution. However, attending math classes at a summer school will allow you to interact with the professors from multiple institutions as well as with local students from the hosting institution. Spending a summer at a university will give you an idea of what attending that institution might look like during the academic year.

Applications to summer schools may include filling out google forms and funding requests. Some are more involved since they are more popular. Keep in mind that attending a summer school may give you the opportunity to be invited again. Professors might notice your academic growth and they could potentially be interested in mentoring you academically.

Another benefit of attending summer schools is that they are “guided conferences.” In other words, the first week is often an instructive week to get undergrads and first year grad students up to speed with the material and theme of the program. In addition, a summer school gives you a week to adjust to the material so you can prepare questions in advance. Remember that asking questions is important. Keep in mind that if you have questions, the student next to you will more than likely have the same questions as you! Therefore, do not be afraid or shy about raising your hand to ask a question as the rest of students will also benefit from them.

The following is a list of summer schools targeted for graduate students. However, if you email the organizers, they could give you an opportunity or chance to apply for it as an undergraduate student. Note that some of these programs may not run again – these are just examples of what you can look for when searching for summer schools.

Some summer school links:

For other summer schools (and conferences) we encourage you to check out the AMS Calendar of Events.

Online Networking

Given the current circumstances, most of what was mentioned in the sections above has moved online. We encourage you to look for online opportunities. Since online programs/conferences/workshops do not require you to travel, attending them will most likely be free. During these online events, make sure you take advantage of the time by asking professors and other graduate students for their emails. If you are with the right people, they will always be happy to offer their help. Creating connections via online platforms will help you in the future because people will (at a minimum) recognize your name. Make yourself known and the opportunities may come to you via these connections.

Conclusion

As a summary, we have compiled all the sections into the following list:

  • Office Hours: Visit your professors, get to know them and send thank you emails at the end of the semester.
  • Research: Apply for REUs and make sure you find a professor at your home institution to do research with as well.
  • Conferences: Come prepared to meet mathematicians and approach them after they give a talk. Ask for their emails and make sure to follow up after.
  • Grad Fairs/Job Fairs: Have a list of questions for the booths you want to visit. Have business cards ready and talk to graduate students, math faculty, and admissions personnel.
  • Summer Schools: Search for summer schools and apply for them. Search for these programs via the AMS calendar of events and through universities and math institutes.
  • Online Networking: Meet people virtually and search for online programs/workshops/conferences. Attending them will likely be free so take advantage of these opportunities to expand your network.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, Uncategorized, Undegraduates | Leave a comment

Do I owe you?

 

The grad years

You accepted me into a graduate program having just given birth to my daughter 4 months prior. Offered me a fellowship in which I had reduced teaching responsibilities and when I did teach I was left to my own devices — teaching with no prior training other than the single hour when some professors pretended to be students in a classroom and asked me to “teach.” In this way, I learned by doing and I taught many students. Some of these students saw for the first time someone of their same ethnicity reflected back at them from the front of the room.

Throughout I was often made to feel like I owed a debt.

Is this sense of debt and continued expectation for me to be grateful for the opportunities I was provided due to being let into this program because you thought that no one else would accept me? Even with a near perfect GPA? Was the thought that because I started in community college I was going to be unprepared to succeed in any graduate program and so you’d take a chance on me? Was the default to admit me into a Masters program, even though my experience should have placed me in the PhD program? Was this based on preconceived notions of my mathematical abilities based on my ethnicity? On my gender? And when I was left with no supportive mentors and failed examinations did you feel vindicated because you knew I wasn’t ready?

If so, do I now owe you?


The postdoc years

Moving onto that first academic position, that familiar feeling of owing a debt returns. Being told that I should be grateful to have a job, as if I dug at the bottom of a barrel to find an academic position, when I selected this one among over 10 other great offers. Yet simultaneously getting the clear message that these offers only came because I am a Latina woman. Did you hire me because of these reasons? Maybe this is why I am often mistakenly called by the name of the only other person of color in the department… a Black woman. You can’t even tell us apart. Or how about those hallway conversations where you tell her that you met her husband and she corrects you: “I am not married, you met Pam’s husband.” To which he replied: “No I meant your husband… the Black fellow.” Because in your mind, a Latina woman and a Black man together is an unthinkable concept.

Is this why you ask me to mentor women and underrepresented students and tell me it is my job to fix issues of culture within departments in which I am perceived as a constant problem? The expectation that I fix the problems I point out and played no part in creating leads to my exhaustion. So you tire me out. Is this to make room for others whose faces are more reminiscent of those pictured in departmental images of years past? Pictures in which women didn’t appear until my lifetime, and our contributions are constantly erased. So, I should be grateful for the opportunity to be here now.

I ask again, do I owe you?


The tenure track years

Week one on the job a “colleague” told me I never had a real postdoc because it could not possibly compare to their postdoc at Elite University of the Universe. They kindly offer to help as long as they can list me as a mentee on their annual report. Was this because they saw me as a naive fool who they could manipulate to benefit from my work and sheer existence? I later learned that they continually attempted to sabotage my career behind closed doors. Going as far as harassing and intimidating a vocal and supportive advocate whose only mistake was to announce their plan to nominate me for an award. An award I won and for which they congratulated me to my face. All the while my teaching feedback from colleagues includes feedback gems like “today she held a cup of coffee and it made her appear warmer.” To add insult to injury, when I questioned the validity of this feedback, the response was a warning that people will hold grudges when I go up for promotion and tenure. After all, I should be grateful for their mentoring and help in navigating a tenure process that I was surely going to fail.

After years of being under constant surveillance… err mentoring, their narrative changed. My success became theirs, for they “supported” me and that surely helped me thrive. So now my many successes are diluted by those taking ownership of them — after all, what Latina woman could survive without rescue by people who pretend to support her while they pat themselves on the back for feigned caring. That familiar feeling returns — yet again, I am made to feel like I owe a debt.

The tenure process came and went with a positive result. Yet comparing records, we quickly realize the bar was higher — almost insurmountably higher — and yet I should be thankful that with all of the support I received I made it to the other end. Did I thrive because of their support or in spite of it?

So, do I owe you?

 

 

Posted in career advancement, General, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized, work life balance | 8 Comments

Math SWAGGER

By Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quinones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, and Michael Young

In our times of need, we have come together, often behind the scenes, through all mediums and platforms, to make space to discuss the many challenges that we have experienced as underrepresented minorities navigating academic environments within the mathematical sciences. Unfortunately, this work is often unseen, it is personal, and requires long-lasting relationships that are based on mutual trust and a sense of belonging within the mathematical community. Something that can take years to cultivate or even find.

Yet, we are all at a stage in our career where we can look back and without hesitation point to these relationships as a key source of support which helped us complete our graduate degrees and helped us advance professionally. This was not always there for us. In fact, our graduate school years were not only formative, but they were also full of uncertainty. We could not help but wonder:

  1. Am I good enough to do this?
  2. Is it OK to spend time on something I am passionate about that is not school?
  3. Why do I feel so alone in graduate school?
  4. Why am I doing even this?
  5. Why is everyone nodding during this talk?!? I don’t understand a thing these people are saying!

These are questions which many graduate students have, but being underrepresented means we face additional burdens, such as working to quiet an everyday voice telling us that we are not there simply because we checked the right boxes, we must avoid a nonsensical self-imposed pressure in which we represent our entire communities. Also, being the only graduate student of color in a graduate program can be or is an incredibly isolating experience and a huge culture shock.

The fact that there is much work to do to support underrepresented students succeed in completing their graduate programs were leading points of discussion at two meetings of Networks of Mathematicians of Color and Latinx Mathematicians Network, both workshops hosted by the American Institute of Mathematics. As the workshops’ names imply, each of these workshops addressed the need for programs specific to brown people and black people separately. But, as can be expected, there are many commonalities facing underrepresented communities, as a whole. In particular, the need to create spaces and communities where we can flourish together both personally and professionally became a recurring theme. While each AIM group independently brainstormed programs designed to give a survival toolkit for black/brown students, we were inspired and motivated by the EDGE Program which has been successfully mentoring women as they enter and complete graduate programs for over 20 years, and all with excellent results.

Thus we have come together to create and organize Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness, a FREE five-week (virtual, due to COVID19, but we hope to be in person in future iterations!) summer program for any underrepresented student who will be enrolled in a mathematical/statistical graduate program in Fall 2020. The goal of the workshop is to provide support, but most of all community, amongst graduate students of color. We hope that students walk out of this as a part of a tiered mentoring network. One where they find community with peers and potential mentors to which they are able to stay connected throughout their careers.

The program will have students and facilitators meet virtually three times per week for 90-minute discussions on predetermined topics centered on the challenges faced by underrepresented students in those programs. We plan to discuss topics such as motivation, which centers the question “Why are you attending a mathematics graduate program?” and how this question is central to success in grad school. We also will not shy away from having difficult conversations, as an example, we will have a session on “Dealing with Whiteness,” where we address the experience that predominant narratives are white narratives, and how we can navigate through such environments while remaining true to ourselves and our identities.

In many ways, for students of color and those from underrepresented backgrounds, the topics we discuss represent only a subset of challenges they will face in their journey to complete their graduate degree. It is because of this that throughout the Math SWAGGER programming, our main effort will be placed on offering participants space and opportunity to connect with other students and faculty that can offer advice, support, and a safe place to have these difficult conversations. Not only do we expect that Math SWAGGER will equip students with tools to navigate their graduate program and be successful, but it will also open the door to a wonderful community among peers, faculty, and mentors.

The importance of getting connected to a community and network of mathematicians, cannot be overemphasized. Having such a network has shaped our own experiences with mathematics and has built a sense of belonging within each of us. Unfortunately, many of us did not feel like we belonged until much later in our careers, and for far too many of us, that sense of community comes too late.

Thus it is our hope that by participating in this program each student will be able to transform their graduate experience in a meaningful way and leave the program having started connections that will have profound impacts on their careers, so that they too can be unapologetically themselves in math.

[Applications to participate in Math SWAGGER are due May 22, 2020, and the application can be found here.]

 

Posted in career advancement, Changing Graduate Programs, General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, graduation, Outreach, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning During the Pandemic: What we wish our professors and mentors knew

Student Authors: Mayleen Cortez, Brooke Keene-Gomez, Lucy Martinez, Amaury V. Miniño, Jenna Race, Kelemua Tesfaye, and Stephanie. Blog post compiled by Melissa Gutiérrez González, Pamela E. Harris, and Alicia Prieto Langarica.

In this blog we center the voices of mathematics students as they share their experience with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What do you wish your professor knew about your current experience with remote learning and living during this pandemic?”

  • How hard it is to focus on school work at home and how anxious I am about finances. 
  • I wish my professors knew that my mental health has not been stable. I am also currently attending online classes in the dining room which is not the best place to focus for my classes. I do not have a designated area in my home to do my homework or to attend my classes. It is difficult to sit at the same spot where you eat and complete homework. Sitting in front of a computer is also exhausting and it has been difficult to focus on each class. 
  • I wish my professors knew how disruptive the move to online courses and social distancing measures have been to my daily and weekly schedule. I spent years learning about myself and how I best function, and all of that feels as though it has been thrown away since I am stuck at home. It is particularly stressful since I am in my last semester, and was in no way prepared for the additional stress and anxiety that has come through the pandemic.
  • One thing I wish my professors knew about my current experience during COVID-19 is that I’m dealing with so much more than just living through this pandemic. My family is currently going through a tough time over something unrelated to COVID-19. My heart feels broken over a certain family member’s situation and I feel helpless. Some of my close friends are stuck at home with emotionally and mentally abusive family members and I feel helpless. Furthermore, so many of my loved ones and friends are undocumented immigrants who are not recieving stimulus checks or unemployment and my heart feels heavy all the time. My people are suffering. Our people are suffering and I feel… helpless. I can’t think of a better word. How can I just sit here and work on an essay or another assignment that feels like “busywork” when people are sick, scared, starving and dying? I’m doing the best I can, but sometimes I wish I could drop my classes and just focus on my family. I want to put my effort into finding ways to help my community… not replying to another discussion post or trying to derive numerical quadrature techniques or writing another essay on whether or not I think numbers actually exist.
  • I don’t have unlimited free time just because we’re quarantined. I live with people who are working from home, my siblings who are also trying to do school online, and my young son, so I don’t have undisturbed time to work.
  • This pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities myself and loved ones hold in society. Those of us operating from communities at high risk are organizing to support one another within the evolving circumstances. Online learning is predicated on students having access to the resources campus offers as well as having the stability and capacity to maintain the workload despite the circumstances. This assumes a privilege of distance from the crisis, as well as a baseline level of wealth, access, and health to navigate the new academic terrain. Students like myself existing at rich intersections are well practiced in resilience and creativity in overcoming structural barriers. Even if this isn’t the dominant narrative at the university, I think it’s vital for institutions to exercise the same creativity we exhibit in support of students. 
  • I wish my professors knew how hard this is. My whole life has changed. Going to class was the highlight of my day. Now I don’t leave the house for days other than to check the mail. I’m above average when it comes to motivation, but lately it’s been a struggle. I’m an extrovert and I get energy from people, especially people who are enthusiastic about their field. Now I watch pre recorded Zoom videos in lieu of lectures. I think perhaps if that was my established expectation, I wouldn’t find it as disappointing. I do hope the professors know they are appreciated, and that everything they do does help. I want them to know that while this is hard, most students realize it’s hard for them too. It’s a transition for everyone.

“What do you need from your mentors during this time?” 

  • I urge my mentors to exercise empathy and organize to challenge structural racism and classism, to combat disposability politics. 
  • I need my mentors to be understanding of the abnormal situation we are in. As I work through my courses, I am less motivated by a desire to learn, and more motivated by a need to establish normalcy. I want to care more about the work that I am doing, but I am scared of what will happen in the coming months and years. One of the best ways my mentors could help is by simply checking in with me, talking with me, and guiding me to ways to ground myself.
  • Advice about future academic goals and less emphasis on exams, more on course material.
  • I need my mentors to motivate me and guide me through this difficult time. I know that this should be a two way ongoing mentorship and guidance because professors are also going through challenges as well. Students and mentors should work together to create a strong and collective participation. Small emails are important for me as a reminder that we are all in this together. Meeting through a form of video call has been essential for me as it keeps up my self-esteem.  
  • To ease up on the workload. Many professors are assigning more work and I don’t have enough time to keep up with it.
  • I need patience and understanding. I just want to be successful. I’m going to ask a lot of questions and ‘blow up your inbox.’ I apologize in advance. Please try and understand this isn’t what I signed up for. I know it’s not what you did either.
  • I need to know that if I don’t end this semester with awesome grades, or if I take a little too long to respond to an email, or if I just haven’t checked in with them in a while, that they understand and aren’t holding it against me… that they still value me and they know I’m trying my very hardest to be positive, productive, healthy and responsible during this pandemic. I just need them to know I’m trying my best… and I need to know that that’s enough.

We hope that these comments inspire faculty and mentors to listen to their own students  and to understand what they are experiencing as they live through this pandemic. May the experiences shared by Mayleen, Brooke, Lucy, Amaury, Kelemua, and Stephanie inspire you to reach out to your students wishing them continued health and safety, and to remind them that they matter, that they are valued, and that they continue to be more than enough.

Posted in career advancement, General, Going to graduate school, graduation, Uncategorized, Undegraduates, work life balance | Leave a comment