Student Essay Contest

Mathematics for the Colombian Indians

2016 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Honorable Mention

By: Maria Lozada, Broward College (Pembroke Pines, Florida)

Beyond a common interview, this essay presents the wondrous life story of the mathematician who inspired me to pursue a degree involving applied mathematics and the woman who taught me the definition of courage. This mathematician is Yahaney Yagari, a woman member of the indigenous community Embera-Chamani, which inhabits the central region of Colombia, the country in which I completed my high school education. I met Yagri during a program launched by the university for which my mother worked, Universidad de Antioquia. This university participated in a regional reform that attempted to provide the indigenous communities of the region with elements that would allow them to take better care of the land they inhabit. As a result of this reform, the university created a program exclusively for members of indigenous communities. This program was titled “Pedagogy of Mother Earth,” and it was directed to combine biology and environmental sciences with a pedagogical approach that respected the Embera-Chamani’s religious and cultural beliefs. Yagari, along with two other women and fifteen men from her community, enrolled in this program and started to attend university without even having finished high school.
University represented a challenge for Yagari. No one from her community had previously attended university. Therefore, the university’s particular approach to education was an unknown concept for her. However, as Yagari discovered the many wonders of science, university became her home. She was in every activity that the university hosted, movie clubs, conferences, student government, and theater workshops; she even enrolled in the university’s work study program. In essence, Yagari fell in love with university’s ability of being the point of intersection of cultures and disciplines.
In 2007, Yagari along with the other seventeen members of her community completed the Pedagogy of Mother Earth program. After completion of this program, all members of the community, except Yagari, returned to being completely emerged in their habitat; that is they had limited contact with the urban areas of the region. On the contrary, Yagari continued to visit the university. Approximately three months after recurrent visits to the university, Yagari decided to undertake another university program. This time a program on her favorite high school subject, mathematics.
Yagari enrolled in a mathematics degree without telling anyone from her community, which was a detail she forgot when she got accepted in the program. The day the university communicated to her that she had been accepted in the mathematics program, Yagari, propelled by excitement, told everybody in the community. The community was shocked and offended. They perceived Yagari’s mathematics studies as a rejection of her cultural duties. Embera women are in charge of teaching the children of the community how to preserve the environment, conserve their culture, and manufacture traditional crafts. None of these tasks involved mathematics. Therefore, in the eyes of her community, there was not any other explanation to Yagari’s studies but the assumption that she wanted to leave behind her community. Indisputably, this situation led the community to think that Yagari was abandoning her beliefs and customs, which translated into the community’s reluctance to university in general. The Embera-Chamani community was considering university a pernicious distraction instead of an element of development. But, despite the community’s aversion to her mathematics career and the dangers that her decision represented for younger Emberas who wanted to attend university, Yagari carried on with her mathematics studies. This was a true act of courage as she decided to follow her passion for mathematics even when that meant being in conflict with her community.
In 2012, Yagari graduated with the Colombian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Upon graduation, she set the goal of changing her community’s ideals of university and most importantly of helping the community understand the endless applications of mathematics. The first step towards reaching her goal was to completely emerge herself in the community. By doing this Yagari demonstrated to her community that her plans were not to use mathematics as a mean to abandon her culture and beliefs, but rather to use mathematics as a mean to aid the development of her community. After Yagari had spent a month in her community doing traditional Embera-Chamani tasks, she started to show the women of the community simple applications of mathematics. The first application was the organization of an accounting system to keep track of the earnings obtained from selling the indigenous crafts that the community manufactured. This first simple application led to the formation of a complete quantitative analysis of production that allowed the community to set fixed prices for their crafts, determine which crafts sell better, and organize an inventory of supplies. As the community started to see the benefits and to understand Yagari’s intentions, they accepted some of her views of education and mathematics. Eventually, the community’s reaction to such tangible changes in terms of production and profit provoked the emergence of a special interest in mathematics among young indigenes. Consequently, such interest evolved into a permanent program seeking to teach college level mathematics to Embera- Chamani teens.
Today the program is still active, and Yahaney Yagari does not just teach Indigenes from her community, but she also travels to other Embera communities of the region to teach mathematics. It was impressive to witness how the decisive power and love for mathematics of a single indigenous woman was able to transform a whole community’s perspective of university and mathematics. When I contacted Yagari, who currently lives in Colombia, to tell her about this essay, she seemed delighted with the idea of using her story to raise awareness about the impact that a single woman, no matter the race, religion or culture, can have on the world around her. Yagari’s reaction to this essay resonated with me because the ability to generate change is completely intertwined with my major, engineering. And if we women have the courage to embrace our creativity and passions ─ regardless of the social adversities we might face ─ we can generate change not just in mathematics or mathematics-related disciplines, but also in every field that we decide to undertake.
About the Student:
My name is Maria Lozada. I come from a family of Lebanese descent who had to leave Lebanon after the Lebanese civil war. My family radicated in Colombia, where I was raised and educated. I completed High school in Colombia, and two years ago I moved to United States seeking better opportunities. Having come to this country without speaking a word of English was a challenge. However, I was dedicated to learn this language, and I did not stop until having done so. With this new language, I was able to discover a new set of opportunities that propelled me to set higher goals and aspirations. I became a biomedical engineering major. And I had maintained a 4.0 GPA since I initiated my studies in this country. I highly value education because it was the only element that my family had to survive in Colombia after they left Lebanon. Aside my love for higher education, I am interested on helping the community. And my major allows me to combine both, my love for education and my desire to help. My major fulfills my passion of creating new instruments and techniques that would eventually improve people’s lives.