Mathematics students find a Field of Dreams in St. Louis

University hosts annual conference that helps connect students from underrepresented groups with doctoral programs in mathematics

Fernando Azpeitia Tellez listens while N. Mohan Kumar, director of graduate studies in the Department of Mathematics in Arts & Sciences, describes Washington University's doctoral program in mathematics. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

In school, Fernando Azpeitia Tellez gravitated to math because it “was a language I could understand.”

“I came to the United States (from Mexico) when I was 10, so history and science were difficult,” he said. “Math was the one subject where I was able to do well and participate in class, even though I wasn’t fully speaking English.”

By his senior year in high school, he was taking calculus. At the end of the year, his math teacher asked his class who was taking the AP exam. Tellez didn’t raise his hand; he had heard of the exam, but he didn’t understand why people took it.

After class, his teacher urged him to take the AP test, explaining that it would earn him college credit, and offered to pay if the fee was a problem. It was a vote of confidence that stunned Tellez, the son of high school graduates and someone who didn’t expect to go to college.

Now a senior majoring at math at California State University San Marcos, he is considering applying for doctoral programs in mathematics. He visited Washington University in St. Louis on a brilliant fall day in early November as one of 20 students especially selected to come to the campus during the annual Field of Dreams gathering held at a conference center near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

"What I love about math is you never feel smart enough. The second you get something there's something else that says, No, you're not smart, turn back. It's challenging so you learn to think this way, think that way, to strategize your way across different math courses. And you apply this across your entire life without really realizing." Janelle Walker.
“What I love about math is you never feel smart enough,” said Janelle Walker of Harvard. “The second you get something, there’s something else to understand. It’s challenging so you learn to think this way, think that way, to strategize your way through. And you apply that ability to strategize across your entire life without really realizing it.” (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

Field of Dreams is the annual meeting of the Math Alliance, officially the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences. The Alliance’s mission is to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented groups in doctoral programs within the mathematical sciences.

The group was founded in 2001 as a partnership between the math sciences departments of three Iowa universities and the math departments at four historically black colleges and universities.

Since then, it has grown rapidly. Today, the community of mathematicians consists of roughly 900 students paired with 250 faculty mentors from 90 colleges and universities. Washington University, which joined the Alliance five years ago, served as host to this year’s Field of Dreams conference Nov. 4-6.

“The visiting students are all completing undergraduate degrees in math,” Provost Holden Thorp said. “And they are remarkable in many other ways as well. Many had to persist despite open discouragement and hidden difficulties. As a result, they have a resilience and depth of character that would make them valuable members of our university community and not just of the mathematics department.”

Rochelle D. Smith, assistant provost for diversity initiatives, helped to organize and secure funding for the conference. “This partnership is a testament to Washington University’s commitment to closing the achievement gap in STEM fields,” Smith said. “We must diligently re-imagine everything we believe about these fields, who belongs there, and how they get there. And so we are proud to host the Field of Dreams conference with the Math Alliance and to corroborate with them in this great work.”

"When I was young I used to wake up about five am to do math problems with my father. He worked long hours and I didn't have that much time with him, so that is how we bonded." Fahim Ahmed
“When I was young, I used to wake up about 5 a.m. to do math problems with my father,” said Fahim Ahmed of UCLA. “He worked long hours, and I didn’t have that much time with him, so that is how we bonded.” (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

The founder and director of the Alliance is Phil Kutzko, professor of mathematics and Collegiate Fellow at the University of Iowa.

A self-described New York Jew who grew up in the Ravenswood Projects in Queens, he is a research mathematician with an abiding passion for social justice — so he launched the Alliance. “This is a calling for me,” Kutzko said.

“We’ve got all these folks who are extremely talented in mathematics, and we don’t even know they’re there,” he said. “Some are minority students, but there are also (underprivileged) white kids in Appalachia and rural Missouri whose parents have no desire to send them on,  who are being wasted to us. We have to make sure they rise to the top so that they can contribute to our strength as a society.

“I originally went to college in creative writing, lasted less than a semester and dropped out for five years,” said Cecily Santiago. “I’m now a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College majoring in math.” That scholarship program offers full tuition to non-traditional students at a woman’s college with a strong record for science graduates. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

Kutzko noted how there is evidence this program works: “The mathematics department at the University of Iowa has now graduated more minority PhDs than any other institution in the country. We’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, so I thought, ‘If we can do this in a place like Iowa, we can do it nationally.’ ”

Nobody is underestimating the difficulty of the problem, however. “As I’m sure you know,” Kutzko said, “Washington University’s math department is one of the best in the country. It’s really strong, and traditionally there haven’t been many students who could hit the ground running in a program as strong as this university’s.”

I was lucky in that I had math teachers who were funny. I had a teacher in high school who got excited about the number e all the time and told lots of corny math jokes. That was just so awesome. xxxx NOT SURE SHE's FROM AMHERST THO. (NAME is a math and music major, with a particular interest in German leider.)
“I was lucky enough to have math teachers who were funny,” said Yariana Diaz of Amherst College. “I had a teacher in high school who got excited about the number ‘e’ all the time and told lots of corny math jokes. That was just so awesome.” Diaz is a math and music major, learning the repertoire of German lieder. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

N. Mohan Kumar, professor of mathematics and director of graduate studies in the Department of Mathematics in Arts & Sciences, explained  that doctoral students sit for qualifying exams in one of two areas — math or statistics — before beginning their doctoral research.

In math, for example, students must take and pass qualifying exams in: real analysis and function theory; complex analysis; algebra; and differential geometry.

Each year, Kumar said, the department receives about 200 applications for admission to the doctoral program in math, and 100 for the program in statistics. Typically, they admit seven students in math and one in statistics.

Renato Feres speaking to the students. Together he and David Wright helped mentor National Alliance students over the summer, helping to prepare them to apply for doctoral programs in mathematics.
Renato Feres, professor of mathematics at Washington University, speaks to the visiting students. He and David Wright, professor of mathematics, mentored National Alliance students over the summer, helping to prepare them to apply for doctoral programs in mathematics. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

“The goal of the admissions process is to determine whether you’re going to succeed,” Kumar told the students. “I don’t want to take a student who is going to fail, because that is devastating for everyone.”

It is enough to make even the boldest student hesitate. To encourage them, minority faculty members who came up through the National Alliance spoke about their experiences as doctoral candidates at the Field of Dreams conference.

“I remember breaking down on the way back from the Bread Garden in Iowa City during my first year,” said Syvillia Averett, assistant professor of mathematics at College of Coastal Georgia. “I was a full-fledged sobbing mess. ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

“But then I realized something: I was no longer alone. I could rely on the 20 people who entered the program with me. We pulled each other through that first year. Realizing I was part of a cohort made everything seem possible again.”

It’s what Kutzko envisioned from the beginning, that the alliance was organized as a community — of mentors and students.

Indeed, they can be both. “I know a lot of people struggle with math, and it’s especially hard for Spanish speakers who come to the United States,” Tellez said. “I was able to work as a tutor in high school, and I was able to help people because I could explain in Spanish. That’s very rewarding for me — to be able to do something for other people — so that’s one of the reasons I’ve continued with my studies in math.”

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