One of my earliest memories of my life dates back from before entering kindergarten. Around the time when my parents were doing all the paperwork to enroll me in the neighborhood school, my late father once approached me and said to me, “there is no reason to be scared of mathematics. Most people are afraid of the new, and consequently become stunned and are unable to make any progress. That happens a lot with math. But if one does not understand it on the first attempt, one should not get dazed, one should rather persevere until one understands.”
Then he added, “Besides, math is very easy. It only consists of 10 symbols, (0,1,2,3, …, 8,9), from which all other numbers can be derived and all operations can be done. Mathematics is exact, concrete, objective, accurate, and very important. They permeate it all! From biology and politics, to astronomy and computing.” His speech made me, from an early age, approach mathematics without fear and with great enthusiasm, although my relationship with them have not always been smooth.
When I arrived to the United States, at age 14, for the spring semester of my sophomore year of high school, I was placed in a class named “Informal Geometry ESOL” due to my lack of English and to the difference between the American and the Colombian educational system. That class was particularly easy, which, on the one hand frustrated me because I like to be challenged, specially mathematically challenged; but on the other hand, I saw it as an opportunity to be a helping hand to my classmates.
But my discontent grew when for the following year I was required to take the exact same class, regardless the perfect A+ I got on the course. This was because I had started school in the middle of the academic year and I needed to complete the missing half credit. Fortunately, that did not happen. Navigating a foreign system and overcoming language barriers, in the end I was able to sign up for Geometry Honors for my junior year.
To be able to take honor classes, with a broken English and a family that was constantly moving while settling in a new country, was a big step. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to take the most out of this wonderful and new educational system that was presented before my hands. While in Colombia everyone in high school is required to attend the same classes, in the United States students have the opportunity to choose their courses according to their capacity and talents. Students even have the opportunity to take university-level classes, something that had never crossed my mind before as a possibility for a high school student.
As my junior year progressed, my new goal was to take AP Calculus before graduating. For my senior year, I applied to Boca Raton Community High School’s STEM magnet program. Although I did not meet all the requirements to be eligible for the program, specially because I was already an incoming senior, Dr. McKee, Boca High’s then principal, took a bet on me and admitted me into his school.
With this turn of events, I took AP Calculus during my senior year, along with several other AP classes. In the beginning, I struggled with the class because I skipped a lot of the mandatory prerequisites. I had the additional distress of not feeling free to ask questions out of the fear of exposing the fact that I was not supposed to be taking that class. I studied really hard, both the class material and the things I did not know from the prerequisites I never took. In the end it all worked out because not only did I accomplish my goal of taking an university-level math class before graduating, but I also passed my AP test.
Instead of pitying myself for the struggles, I feel glad that the challenge was there for me to conquer. Looking back about how mathematics felt forbidden for my status quo during my high school times, I feel proud now that I am on the verge of graduating and becoming a professional mathematician, but I also feel thankful for those that helped me to get where I am, people like Dr. McKee that looked beyond the requirements and saw potential in me, making a profound impact on my life by letting me attend his school.
I have had an amazing journey as an mathematics undergraduate student, attending over fifteen academic events and participating in other fifteen as a panelist, organizer, poster presenter, speaker, and even as a radio host. I have had the chance to study and do mathematics in three different continents, six countries, and four languages; the opportunity to meet students and professors with diverse stories to tell from all walks of life; and the experience to collaborate with scientists and journalists from around the world in both research and science outreach projects. And I am aware that all of this has been possible because the United States is my home and my springboard to fulfill dreams.
I became more mindful of this fact during the semester I spent abroad in the Math in Moscow program. We were ten American mathematicians studying in fairytale Moscow amidst the, worldwide-followed, U.S. presidential election of 2016. Inside our dorms we would constantly reflect on the differences between Russian and American cultures, and also on how our ideas about the right to free speech and rule of law defined us as a group and identified us as Americans.
In addition, among all other foreigners, we stood out for our sunny and positive nature, and for our carefree and generous personality. What is more, in such remote place I noticed the similarities that I share with my fellow Americans. I realized that I owe my independent, self-confident, and hard-working personality, to my upbringing in the United States, a land where the air you breathe is full of empowerment.
My dad only attended first grade of school, and I am still amazed to this day by the wisdom in his words that inadvertently led me to be a mathematician. But the best legacy he left me with was the gift of bringing me to the United States, a country he loved and felt very proud to be part of. Looking forward, I believe that it is my responsibility to prepare myself and reach my full potential to contribute to the society that has given me so much. For that reason I am going to keep jumping on my springboard to conquer the world.