Finding belonging through mentorship

Guest blog by Stephen McKean

On my first day of college, I showed up an hour early to my very first class. The class was Math 2210, multivariable calculus. For some reason, I thought this was the highest math class offered at the university. After a while, the professor and a few older-looking students trickled into the room. The professor clearly knew I was in the wrong place: he looked at me for a moment, wrote “Math 6510: Differentiable Manifolds” on the board, and smiled at the panic on my face. I quickly packed up my things and rushed off to find the right classroom.

Luckily, I also had many math professors who seemed convinced that I was in the right place. They offered me encouragement, advice, and support. When I decided to become a math major in my third year, they told me about graduate school and helped me develop a plan of action. Without these mentors, I never would have been able to become a mathematician.

Becoming a mathematician is difficult. Many days are filled with discouragement, disappointment, and doubt. I have often felt like I did on my first day of college, lost and intimidated by a subject clearly beyond my reach. A mentor can help remind you that you are in the right place — that you belong as a mathematician.

In graduate school, your advisor is a built-in mentor to help you on your journey. As an undergraduate, it can be harder to find a mentor. Many universities have Directed Reading Programs, where undergraduates are paired with graduate student mentors. These graduate-undergraduate pairs work together on a semester-long reading course, and the graduate mentor can help their undergraduate mentee learn more about research and graduate school. Directed Reading Programs also present an excellent way for graduate students to get involved and to improve their mentorship skills. I highly recommend the Directed Reading Program to anyone who is interested.

However, there are many liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and other colleges and universities that do not offer Directed Reading Programs. In response, I am helping organize an online mentoring program called Twoples. Like the Directed Reading Program, Twoples pairs undergraduates with graduate student mentors to work on a semester-long reading project. During the semester, the graduate-undergraduate pair also prepares a final project, such as expository notes or a short recorded presentation. Unlike the Directed Reading Program, these reading projects take place online, so undergraduates from any school can find a mentor.

We will be piloting Twoples during the Fall 2020 semester. If you are interested in being a mentee or mentor, please sign up! We would also love to hear from you if you have any questions, suggestions, or want to get involved. Your participation will help us improve the program for future semesters.

Stephen McKean

Biography: Stephen McKean is a PhD student at Duke. Before Duke, he was a graduate student at Georgia Tech and an undergraduate at the University of Utah. He is interested in questions at the interface of algebraic topology, algebraic geometry, and number theory. Outside of research, Stephen is passionate about making math accessible through teaching, outreach, and advocacy. His non-mathematical interests include hiking, painting, and cooking with his amazing wife.

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