Writing My Math Stories

As many math people know, I’ve been working for over a year on the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement and Alliance of Marginalized Mathematicians (OURFA2M2). Fewer people might know that OURFA2M2 started because after my REU, I wanted to start having panels and talks about research opportunities for math undergraduate students.

In the beginning, OURFA2M2 was one way of dealing with my math pain. Part of it was because I was helping other people access research opportunities. Indeed, it is extremely gratifying to know when I’ve helped people achieve their goals. I recently encouraged a friend to apply to an internship at a national laboratory and she’s now in Alaska, doing that internship! I helped break the cycle, helped one person not have to deal with the pain that I went through of not getting that support. And it’s important and necessary in our STEM communities to do so. It was a way for me to feel like I found a weak link in the system designed to keep people like me out.

Then the OURFA2M2 team also had the great opportunity to contribute some blog posts, hold some talks about student organizing, and write about how to advocate for students of color. In some of our ventures, we were given the space to be honest about the hurt that we went through and how we want mathematicians with power to create better spaces and support systems for students.

But it’s not enough to help me deal with my pain.

Because that was obviously not the goal of OURFA2M2. Because I still felt myself diluting my experiences when I promoted OURFA2M2. I couldn’t tell all my anger, which is not always constructive in our work. Because sometimes there is no lesson, there is no “do better!” message that I want to scream at the math community. Sometimes I just want to tell you: this is my pain, this is what I went through, this is the depth of my pain, this is why I’m still crying about my math experiences even though I finished my math degree and quit math.

In Spring 2021, my last semester before finishing college, I participated in a memoir writing workshop with a professor that had done a training program so that she could teach students to write memoirs about a significant moment in their lives. For some reason, the three people in this workshop all decided to write about their pain, as if writing their painful stories were going to help them heal. That includes me- I wrote about an instance in which a professor who frequently fights for women in technology careers put me down in an interview for struggling my way through calculus and how I felt, thinking I’d never recover from the stain on my transcript. I don’t think the memoir helped me feel any less hurt, but I did get to read it to a professor who contributed to my recovery from the painful interview experience.

So I’m thinking about writing about my experiences with math on this blog, all the hurt and the isolation I felt through my 2-ish years of studying math in college and the aftereffects of that, and maybe the brief instances of happiness I felt. Because it still hurts so badly. Because I want someone to hear it and know the journey of a woman of color who quit math and stopped loving it and why.

I am also hoping to share stories of joy mixed in because there was still joy, although I have not felt it in a while. The joy is gone now, but it would be unfair to erase it. The joy often made the pain hurt more and made it even harder to leave. When I wanted to quit, I would remember the times when I was happy doing mathematics, and think How did that stop? Why can’t I have it again? If I could have it again, I wouldn’t have to leave. But I could not keep hoping and wishing for something that no longer existed.

When I was in high school, I used to write a lot of poetry about what I was going through. I graduated high school having written hundreds of poems and I intended on going to college to be a writer, too. I suppose I’ll make an attempt again, maybe with poems and memoirs.

Here are some of the stories I want to cover:

  • How I started studying math in the first place
  • Why I studied math and how that changed over time
  • The truth behind my transcript
  • How I felt when I found out that my parents were expecting me to fail out of my math degree/quit studying math
  • When my professor said I didn’t look like I’d be a researcher
  • Going to school with math majors who hated math
  • How I can only find joy in math when I do it with others
  • The last time I loved math
  • How I thought I would never be able to write a proof and when I discovered that I could
  • Why my work with OURFA2M2 is so important to me
  • My relationship with the National Museum of Mathematics: how it convinced me to continue my math degree when nothing else could, while also having a dark side
  • Struggling with my math classes in the pandemic
  • Why doing an REU program was so important to me when I applied
  • How horrible and wonderful my REU was
  • How one research experience helped me heal from my REU
  • Why I never talk about math
  • Why I quit math
  • Why I’m afraid I’ll never find the kind of mentorship I’m looking for
  • That time the AWM let me down

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