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.

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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.

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

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