2022 Student Essay Contest: Grades 9-12 Honorable Mention

“From Stuffed Animals to Prison Higher Education”

by: Amanda Kossoff (Winston Churchill High School)

Interviewee: Anila Yadavalli (Mount Tamalpais College)

From a long line of math teachers, teaching is in Dr. Anila Yadavalli’s blood. Before realizing it, Dr. Yadavalli began in second grade—with stuffed animals. After convincing her mother to mount a whiteboard on her wall, zebras, tigers, and bears all learned to count by 5’s, step-by-step, from spirited, seven-year-old Yadavalli. As a 90’s kid growing up in the Bay Area, a few miles from Google Headquarters, she was surrounded by technological innovation. Yadavalli acknowledges her privilege, as she wasn’t aware of women’s underrepresentation in STEM; many of the women surrounding her were software engineers. But from observing her sister’s negative experience with math or being consistently compared to her math award-winning peers, Dr. Yadavalli saw limited potential in herself surrounding math growing up.

Yadavalli’s eyes twinkled when she spoke of her former precalculus teacher. “She had us working in groups and the board, very innovative instruction at the time!” Mrs. Warmuth was the first to praise Yadavalli’s creative solutions and hard work, essentially solidifying Yadavalli’s passion for education. But during Yadavalli’s undergraduate study at the University of California, San Diego, she almost left this passion behind. She was pressured to leave teaching due to stagnant wages and low salaries. Eventually convinced by her close group of friends who were pursuing math majors themselves, Yadavalli decided to major in pure mathematics on a Ph.D. track, a stark transition from secondary teaching.

Yadavalli’s devotion to the nonprofit, social justice education sector was sparked by her grandparent’s mobile science bus, which conducted science demonstrations at rural schools in India. After her undergraduate study, Yadavalli spent a year in Ahmedabad through Indicorps, creating and implementing mathematics curriculum for low-income schools while incorporating their local games and traditions. Yadavalli articulated that she saw “the realities of inequity, and began to wonder, why can’t everyone have an education?” Through joining the 500 Women Scientists Leadership Board and directing a Chapter of Girls Talk Math UMN, Yadavalli was on a mission to combine her math background with societal impact to benefit high school girls from underrepresented backgrounds.

Her next step was a Ph.D., and Yadavalli opened up about her mental health journey throughout graduate school. At twenty-two, one of her best friends chose to take their life. “It is shocking to lose a friend at such a young age… (and) the taboo surrounding mental health played a role.” Throughout graduate school, she rarely gave herself the grace to mess up, faced many rejections, and always felt that she had to prove herself. “It’s burdensome to avoid perfectionism as a woman or minority in an underrepresented field,” she comments. She eventually reached a nadir, experiencing physical fatigue and insomnia.

Though she initially couldn’t put her finger on why she felt excluded and faced difficulty networking, she refused to quit. Through utilizing university-provided therapy, her therapist elucidated microaggressions. Yadavalli connected the dots, recognizing that she was the only Asian American in her program, with very few women of color. Though this realization didn’t obliterate the subtle stereotyping or exclusion she faced, it untied a mental knot that confirmed her feelings were valid. She rejuvenated through cooking, yoga, and hiking.

Yadavalli persisted and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from North Carolina State University (NCSU) and was awarded the NCSU Maltbie Award for Outstanding Graduate TA. Progressing through her teaching postdoc at the University of Minnesota, she remembers “wishing there was a way to combine (her) expertise in math while positively impacting society.” And that is indeed what she did.

Yadavalli is not afraid of a challenge. Genuinely, the challenging, intricate, and nuanced nature of mathematics is what she appreciates most. She finds considerable beauty in the feeling you experience once you finally solve a complex problem. “Maybe a comparable feeling is your child telling you they love you,” she chuckles. Whether in introductory algebra or the final days of your degree, anyone in math revels in that same rush.

When she finished her postdoc, an exciting job popped up on LinkedIn, in the exact area she was moving to, which incorporated social equity: specifically criminal justice. “I felt like it was fate!” she gushed. But she almost didn’t apply. “My mind kept telling me I was underqualified; it was such a long shot, they won’t even look at my application!” She encouraged me to go for things I care about, even with a degree of uncertainty.

Yadavalli is now the STEM Program Coordinator at Mount Tamalpais College (formerly Prison University Project), where she trains instructors, supports students, and teaches classes. Yadavalli’s favorite part of the job is the student TA program for students who complete their math courses. “Many students have been told they will never amount to anything, which is very traumatic,” Yadavalli added. She explains that incarcerated students provide fresh perspectives regarding education with traumatized populations, who make up a large subset of her students.

Teaching math at San Quentin State Prison amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of challenging. Her students don’t have computers or email, making communication outside of class virtually impossible. Their current semester has been delayed due to the highly transmissible nature of COVID-19 in overcrowded spaces. She emphasized that she must be ready to pivot frequently and accepts that planning must be fluid. Being that many of her students haven’t been in a classroom for over twenty years, Yadavalli exercises patience, graciously meeting every student where they are.

As an optimist, Yadavalli regularly incorporates her bubbly personality to transform her classroom into a fun, upbeat environment. She noted that teaching seems intuitive, analogizing her teaching philosophy to cooking. “Culinary experts eyeball everything, with a pinch of this and a pinch of that. That’s how I adapt my classroom.” Yadavalli designed her career, though untraditional and risky, to carve a unique path focused on teaching and STEM equity. She advises students not to fear veering off a traditional path to follow their passion.

“Never doubt your intuition.”