Many people who set high goals for themselves and reach them can tell you that a clear objective, determination, and support from loved ones got them were they are. I cannot. I had none of this support early in life. My father did not foster career-oriented aspirations in me because I was a girl, not a boy. He also did not support my decision to go to college later in life. I had a teacher who was excited about mathematics, but she never told me I could become a mathematician, although she did instill a love of math in me early on. Without support early in life, it was hard to set any goals at all, simply because I didn’t know I could. In other words, I didn’t set many goals because I didn’t know I should have any.
As an Italian and Cuban-American girl growing up in the Midwest, it was hard to find mentors, or even friends, who were of a mixed cultural heritage. I left the area as soon as I got out of high school and went to a more diverse area at the University of Wisconsin for college. Madison was a bigger city; it was southern Wisconsin, so it was a little bit more diverse but still wasn’t enough for me. I still felt very out of place, and soon I dropped out of college and moved to California, where suddenly the whole world opened up. The process of getting through college at a university seemed nearly impossible early on because of my lack of support from home. My father had encouraged my brothers tremendously and helped them pay their tuition, but he refused to give me a dime. In the end, I was forced to wait until I was in my mid-twenties to be considered financially independent so that I could apply for financial aid with or without my family’s help.
It wasn’t until I moved all the way to California that I realized how much diversity, or rather a lack of diversity, had affected me growing up. Still in California, however, there were very few women, especially Latina women in the field of mathematics. It did not even occur to me that mathematics was an area I could thrive in until I took a community college calculus course in San Francisco. I got such good grades and seemed to enjoy the work so much that my peers began to enquire about my plans for a four-year university. When I told them I hadn’t given college much serious thought, they were astounded. Eventually some older student friends of mine convinced me to give college more serious thought. Finally I was being told, “Of course you can!” instead of “Why would someone like you be interested in that?” Soon I began to look into University of California, Berkeley, and in time, I was accepted to the school.
While my goals and passions in mathematics seemed to be finally coming into clear view, I still didn’t have many mentors in the field encouraging me to thrive. Eventually I managed to put myself through college and graduate school at Berkeley as a mathematics major by working and going to school full time. I had this goal when I got into graduate school that it didn’t matter if I got my Ph.D. What mattered was that I learned as much as I could. I would only set these small goals for myself, not knowing how far I could take anything. Simply getting a B average was a goal, and then I got all A’s. By setting these small goals, I eventually was able to overcome the large obstacles set before me.
Now I am a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I get to teach other students and run a program called the Wisconsin Emerging Scholars program. The program is supposed to increase the number of minority students in science and engineering by having them in intensive calculus discussion sections, similar to honors classes. I have come full circle back to the area in which I grew up, to the first university I attended and then left. It’s interesting because not a lot has changed. People still assume the ethnic norm to be Caucasian, and students of color often get marginalized and placed in the category of “other.”
Part of my job is to try and bridge existing gaps so that students don’t get left behind or not offered important opportunities to help them thrive. My experience growing up here and my education living in California help me bring together two worlds here. My favorite part of being a mathematician and teacher is working with students. I love it when I get to talk to a student outside of the classroom and find out their individual stories. I think it is important for me to offer mentorship because it is something I never had. It is part of my goal to offer support to students who may not have it and help define objectives that may not yet have been offered, so all they need is determination to carry them the rest of the way.