2024 Student Essay Contest: Grades 9-12 Honorable Mention

“Finding Strength in Numbers: The Journey of Dr. Deanna Haunsperger”

by: Beaza Solomon (Ridge Point High School)

Interviewee: Deanna Haunsperger (Carleton College)

At times, the people who you expect to be there for you end up hurting you the most. The absence of support for female mathematicians stands as a barrier to inclusion, often perpetuated by other females themselves. Dr. Haunsperger is the former president of the Mathematical Association of America and now teaches at Carleton College. She experienced a difficult moment in graduate school when she received C’s in the first two terms of her graduate algebra course.  Her professor, one of the few women faculty members, offered no support. Her professor said, “Graduate school is hard. It’s like baptism by fire.”

“Those words really did hurt me, especially coming from another woman in the field. However, I knew I really wanted to teach math to undergraduates, so I needed to finish my Ph.D.”

Dr. Haunsperger’s journey began in 6th grade when she stumbled upon her older brother’s algebra homework. After spending time helping him understand the concepts, she realized that she had a natural skill for teaching math. It was when her brother said, “Why can’t my teacher explain things as well as you do?” that she knew she wanted to pursue a career in math education.

When Dr. Haunsperger was just 12 years old, her life took a dramatic turn after a traumatic car crash. The life-altering event led to her being paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on a wheelchair. Fortunately, she had always enjoyed a life of the mind, so her focus became more academic. As a first-generation college student at a small college in Iowa, Dr. Haunsperger completed most of the available math courses by her sophomore year. However, transitioning to graduate school presented a unique challenge as her undergraduate program lacked the necessary prerequisites for her graduate classes.

“Many of the graduate faculty made it clear that they didn’t believe I was going to finish.”

But everything changed when she crossed paths with Don Saari, who was her professor in graduate real analysis and who later became her advisor. “He was so special because he believed in me.” He gave her challenging math problems to think about and encouraged her to keep going. To catch up, she studied diligently using an undergraduate and graduate textbook. Haunsperger’s hard work paid off as she earned an “A-” average. However, there was a difficult end-of-year exam which was pass or fail and covered the entire year’s syllabus. She didn’t give up and worked hard to understand the material she had struggled with previously. Her determination and perseverance paid off. Her professor mentioned she was surprised she did so well.

A few years later, Don Saari bumped into Dr. Haunsperger’s former algebra professor, the same one who offered neither support for her class nor a welcome into the field of mathematics. When she asked Saari about his plans for the day, he replied, “Oh, I’m going to watch Deanna defend her Ph.D.” Surprised, she exclaimed, “NO WAY, SHE FINISHED?!”

Dr. Haunsperger is now an award-winning mathematician and requests to teach the lowest-level math class offered at Carleton each year in hopes of being a cheerleader for these students, especially first-generation learners. In addition to her work with undergraduate students, she co-hosted (with her husband, who is also a mathematician) a summer program for women in mathematics. This program provided participants with a small, supportive community similar to the one that got her through her graduate studies. In her closing remarks, Deanna Haunsperger emphasized the profound significance of finding one’s community, as exemplified by the summer program.  With about 340 undergraduate student participants over the years, including non-math majors who just kind of liked math, the program created an environment where these women felt at home. Remarkably, over a third of the female participants eventually earned their Ph.D.s in math—a testament to the power of supportive networks. Dr. Haunsperger is undoubtedly a remarkable woman who has bypassed many obstacles in her life and focuses her work on building inclusivity in the mathematics department. She advises young women to “find your community and the people who will support you, and rely on them.”