Student Essay Contest

An Unconventional Path

2016 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Honorable Mention

By: Sarah Fleming Williams College (Williamstown, Massachusetts)

For most of her life, Pam Harris had no plans to become a mathematician. Brought to the United States from Mexico at the age of eight, she had no prospects of attending university after graduating high school because of her immigration status. As she still wanted to continue her education, Pam began taking classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College, a community college near her home. She originally set out thinking she would become an art teacher because she had had several influential art teachers throughout her education. To complete her degree, though, she needed to take a math class, so she enrolled in college algebra. To her surprise, she enjoyed it so much that she decided to use her remaining elective credits to take trigonometry and three courses in calculus. She soon graduated from community college with associate degrees in art and science, and she longed for an opportunity to take more math courses.
By this point, her immigration status had improved tremendously, and she was newly married to her husband, Jamual. She could now attend a regular four-year university. As she started at Marquette University in Milwaukee, he joined the military. At Marquette, Pam had incredible math professors who encouraged and supported her through her courses. This led her to major in math. Still, she had never even considered pursuing math beyond the college level until one professor said to her, “When you go to graduate school,” acting as if it were a given that she would, in fact, continue with her education. Growing up, Pam had never known it was possible to attend graduate school and get paid to study math, and she certainly had never known anyone who had done it. That single phrase uttered by her professor profoundly influenced her plan for the future, and she still thinks back on the conversation as a critical factor in her decision to pursue a career in math. She graduated from Marquette in 2005 ready to attend graduate school.
At this point, Pam was three months pregnant, and her husband was about to be shipped to Iraq for a year-long deployment. The next fall, as a military wife raising her newborn daughter, Akira, alone, Pam was not the typical graduate student. Luckily, she was very vocal about her need for support, and professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee accommodated her needs accordingly. She received a fellowship that allowed her to take one semester off a year to focus solely on her coursework with a light teaching load the other semester.
When she first entered graduate school, Pam was convinced that she wanted to study ordinary differential equations. Her advisor, however, told her that she had to take modern algebra in order to complete her degree. She dreaded taking the course, but, surprisingly, she loved it. She instantly connected with the professor who taught the course. He actively demonstrated his care for her personal wellbeing, asking her about her husband and her daughter and providing her with emotional support. By the end of this course, she selected abstract algebra as her specialty. Not only did she feel incredibly comfortable with her professor, but she also fell in love with the material.
Over the course of graduate school, things got much better for Pam. Beyond the support of the math department, she also found a close-knit group of friends, especially other women in math. She befriended another woman with a child, and she found an amazing sense of community with these women. Thanks to this support system, she no longer had to worry as much about Akira, who was growing up and becoming more independent.
She also had more time for herself, and she found passions outside of math. She fell in love with jiu jitsu, a hobby she plans to continue throughout her life. As a mathematician, she always found herself worried about the next step, which was often months—if not years—away: How would she write her thesis? Where would she get a postdoc? What would she do with her future? She would often forget to live in the moment and focus on the present. Jiu jitsu provided a way to think about the present moment and clear her head of thoughts of the future—she couldn’t be thinking about where to apply for a postdoc as a 200-pound man was inches away from her, ready to take her down if she was not completely focused on her present movements. Jiu jitsu helped to center her and to make her feel present, and by 2012, she was ranked tenth in jiu jitsu in the state of Wisconsin.
After six years, Pam graduated with her Ph.D. the same week that Jamual finished his second enlistment in North Carolina and left the military. A month later, they moved to New York with Akira and for the first time in eight years, their whole family was together for more than a few days at a time. In New York, Pam began her postdoc at the United States Military Academy (West Point). Her position allows her to spend half the year teaching at West Point and half the year working on projects in image processing, research that is sponsored by the Army Research Lab. At the same time Jamual began pursuing a degree in physical therapy.
Next fall, Pam will begin a position at Williams College, where she will continue to balance work and family. Jamual plans to complete his degree in physical therapy so that he can work for a Veterans’ Association clinic in Bennington, Akira will start school and continue with gymnastics, and Pam plans to join a new dojo that just opened up in North Adams where she will get back to jiu jitsu.
Throughout her career, Pam has understood what it is like to suffer from feeling as though she is not good enough. As a Mexican woman working in mathematics, she frequently feels humbled and fears that her knowledge or qualifications will be judged or questioned. Rather than letting this stop her from continuing on in math, however, she uses this insecurity to motivate her to work even harder and strive for more. Her feelings of inadequacy have never stopped her from achieving her goals, and she hopes to pass on this message to future students, especially students who belong to groups that are historically underrepresented in mathematics.
Pam has devoted a lot of her time to helping students of underrepresented groups in math, and she hopes to continue this work throughout her career. At West Point, she started a speaker series called “Women of Color in the Mathematical Sciences” to bring minority women to campus to talk about their research and life path through graduate school and beyond. Not only has this brought positive role models to students who are members of traditionally underrepresented groups in the STEM fields, but it has also helped Pam herself to network and collaborate with a variety of people.
She has also organized sessions for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at its yearly conferences. These conferences have proven to be formative experiences in her development because they synthesize science with cultural traditions in an amazing way: over the course of one day, there will be scientific symposia, Native American prayers, powwows, and traditional dances. She has rarely experienced anything else like this in the mathematical community, and she has found invaluable support systems through her involvement with SACNAS.
Pam’s path to math is certainly unconventional. Her identity as a Mexican woman in a field typically dominated by white men has made her keenly aware of the obstacles to success many students face, especially students belonging to minority groups. Her own experiences have been formative in her actions and her plans for the future. Next year, she hopes to begin a chapter of SACNAS at Williams and start up a similar speaker series to continue her work encouraging and supporting underrepresented minorities in the sciences. She serves as an incredible role model, and I look forward to having her as a professor next year.
About the Student:
Sarah Fleming is a junior math major at Williams College. She is very involved in her student chapter of the AWM, and she has been working on bringing speakers to campus and facilitating discussions about the experiences of historically underrepresented groups in math. She looks forward to collaborating with Dr. Harris next year on events and programming at Williams! After college, she plans to attend graduate school in math and hopefully become a math professor.