2021 Student Essay Contest: Grades 9-12 Honorable Mention

The Proof is in the Purpose

by Asmi Pareek (Sidwell Friends School)

Interviewee: Yolanda Rolle (Sidwell Friends School)

If you were to ask the average person to define the subject of mathematics, they would probably tell you it is nothing more than a dry topic that deals with things like numbers, equations, and Greek symbols. For Dr. Yolanda Rolle, however, “math is a matter of social justice.” She has demonstrated this belief consistently throughout her life and work.
Dr. Rolle grew up in the Bahamas and attended an Episcopal school from Pre-K onwards. It was there she discovered two of her life’s passions: mathematics and religion.
Although they seem an unlikely pair, Dr. Rolle doesn’t view math and faith as all that different.
“Every time I [see] something that people use to exclude others, and deny them their rights simply based on their identity, I’m drawn to [it],” she states.
This mixing of spiritual and personal beliefs meant that when she saw people judging others’ faith unfairly or making arbitrary statements such as “girls just aren’t good at math,” she became determined to prove them wrong.
Dr. Rolle first decided to study math because she was, by her own description, “a contrarian.” She wanted to break the status quo that said only boys could excel in math.
“I approached it more from an equity standpoint; I wanted to buck up against the social norms and say, ‘no, I can study math, and I can do it pretty darn well.’”
Throughout high school, math wasn’t inherently beautiful to Dr. Rolle. When she decided to study the subject at the University of The Bahamas, it was for practical reasons – but it was there that her relationship with math slowly blossomed into one of love. She began discovering “solutions in places that [were] unexpected,” such as within her dreams, and these subconscious messages made her see math in a new light.
“I had never experienced math in that way before,” she recounts, “[and] that’s when I started viewing it as a revelation.”
That revelation led her to the University of Nebraska, where she pursued a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. In the U.S., new social challenges reignited an unshakeable need to prove herself to others.
Being a black woman in the U.S. academic world brought new hurdles for Dr. Rolle. In the Bahamas, her teachers were all black, and most of them were women. The math department at the University of Nebraska was a different story. Often she was one of few women, and the only black woman, in her classes.
“The […] things I took for granted in terms of people believing in what I could do wasn’t something I could assume anymore. It was like I was always trying to prove to someone that I belonged in the room.”
At home, surrounded by familiar faces, she’d felt comfortable being wrong. During her Ph.D. studies, however, being incorrect had higher stakes. Words like “affirmative action” were used to express doubts about her merit. “I never found that place where I could just be,” she confesses. “I felt I had to be perfect all the time.”
Dr. Rolle’s professors were as much a source of tension as her mostly-white classmates. “I haven’t had a black math teacher since I moved to the United States, so I never got that kind of support where they looked at me and said ‘you can do amazing things,’” she reflects. “I was always proving to my teachers, every step of the way, don’t count me out.”
Even as Dr. Rolle struggled for acceptance within her own education, teaching others felt natural to her. She had always enjoyed explaining things to her peers and loved to “break [a topic] down and make it easy for them.”
While in high school, Dr. Rolle had a habit of asking teachers to let her know if any students were struggling with a class. Once she acquired a target, she would tutor them until they had mastered the subject to her satisfaction.
Whether they arose from numerical equations or divinely inspired scriptures, this passion for teaching and her need for a sense of salvation remained with her as she grew into a young woman.
Dr. Rolle married her deep Christian faith with her love of teaching when she attended the Yale Divinity School, became an Episcopal priest, and soon after decided to teach high school math rather than become a professor or a church leader. She wanted to inspire future generations of female mathematicians by being a role model they could relate to.
“I always had someone who looked like me teaching me and believing in me for a very long time, so my foundation was so strong,” Dr. Rolle contemplates. “When I reflect on my life now, math was my salvation,” she continued, and listening to her story, it’s clear she has become that salvation for many others.
Dr. Rolle fosters a classroom environment where students feel safe being themselves and approaching math in an unfettered way. She wants them not to be daunted by the cold logic and austere appearance of the subject. The one lesson Dr. Rolle wishes all her students leave her class with is the idea that “math is playful, and they have a right to play with it.”
“I [moved] out of trying to prove a point – I want them to be in it for the love of mathematics,” she says.
Dr. Rolle’s guiding question when deciding what to do has always been, “how can I use math to make the world better, and how can I use myself as a vessel to do that?”
Dr. Rolle seems to have found her answer. When she first decided to pursue math, she was driven by an intense need to prove her worth. Now she works every day to make sure that no other child has to question whether they “belong in the room” when it comes to mathematics.
She inspires us to learn out of pure love for the beauty of the subject—and math’s immense potential to change lives.