Volunteering

Jenna Race

Jenna Race

Born in Würzburg, Germany • Birth year 1986 Studied Mathematics at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Highest Degree Associates of Science in Business Administration • Lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA • Occupation Associate Communications Specialist at Metro Transit

From an early age I easily understood patterns that baffled my peers. Because of this I gravitated toward Math. In my early years in school, I was a great student with top marks in all my classes. Things changed in tenth grade when I developed bipolar symptoms. My GPA (US grading scale in high school) plummeted. I eventually failed nine classes including statistics and pre-calculus. After that, Math did not seem like the field for me anymore. Still, my heart’s desire was to pursue math, and I have never given up on that dream.

This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics.

I started college shortly after high school. My mental health symptoms continued to get in the way and I did not do well. After years of hard work and dialectical behavioral therapy I learned to manage my symptoms and regain control of my life. I decided to resume higher learning with a new-found confidence. I started at Century College in January 2019 as a first-generation, non-traditional student. However, I did not allow those facts to interfere with my progress. Finally, I was the student I always knew I could be. I dove deep into my classes and actually excelled! I decided to study business, having accumulated ten years of corporate work experience in customer service and answering business correspondence. My first two semesters were filled with general classes, but College Algebra came in fall 2019. This class changed everything. It was the spark that re-lit the fire. It brought back the childlike wonder and awe I had for the beauty of mathematics. I poured my heart and soul into that course and maintained a 99% for most of the semester.

With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t.

I have heard many people say that math is so stressful to them that it makes them cry. In contrast, I have wept with wonder when recounting how the universe makes sense when math proofs are worked out. Math is the only subject I see myself pursuing for the rest of my life. This led me to update my college major to Mathematics. I made this change in April 2020: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In spite of the pandemic, I continued to excel in classes. I eventually earned my first degree in May 2021, an Associates of Science in Business Administration. It was in fall of 2021 when I was done with business that I took the class that I always dreamed of: Calculus I. I was especially excited to take that class with my College Algebra professor. With all my momentum and excitement, surely I would succeed again… until I didn’t. I studied for hours and devoted myself to class but was not as successful as I hoped. By the end of the term, I earned a grade of 70%. Although I was eligible to take Calculus II the next semester, I took my instructor’s advice and retook the class. I am glad I took his advice because I did much better the second time and was more prepared for Calculus II. I took Calculus II in fall of 2022. With lots of preparation I excelled in the course.

For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win.

Knowing how alone I felt as a female, minority, non-traditional, first-generation college student navigating mathematics during the pandemic, I wanted to give back to other students in similar situations. I was able to do that by becoming an organizer for OURFA2M2, the Online Undergraduate Resource Fair for the Advancement and Alliance of Marginalized Mathematicians. This is one of my proudest achievements since starting my math journey.

I wish that I could say that it was all downhill from there, but it was not. My last 3 semesters have been the most challenging of my math journey. That’s when I took Calculus 3 and Differential Equations. At the same time, I changed jobs and experienced significant changes in my personal life. For a time, I considered quitting, but I never let my struggles win. After 5 years, I am about to graduate from Century College and continue my mathematical journey at a four-year university. I know I will struggle in the future, but my experience so far has shown that I am tenacious and can tackle any challenges that come my way.


Elements of the first three paragraphs of this text are based on a book chapter by Jenna Race in “Read and Rectify: Advocacy Stories from Students of Color in Mathematics”, edited by Pamela E. Harris, Ph.D., and Aris Winger, Ph.D., whose permission has been obtained before publication.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

Born in El Adem, Libya • Studied Pure Mathematics at University of Lancaster, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics Education, University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Lincolnshire, UK • Occupation Director of NRICH, University of Cambridge

My journey is a story of twists and turns. There never was a grand plan, just a love of maths to help steer the way.

I wasn’t the healthiest of children, I missed more school days than I ever managed to attend. It would have been easy to fall behind in my studies, but my headteacher had different ideas. Textbooks appeared in my home and my mum was roped in as my teacher. Perhaps rather frustratingly for her at times, my curiosity was never satisfied; I always wanted to try different ways of doing things. I loved playing games, but also inventing new maths games too! I’d even collect the numbered cardboard doors off my advent calendar to use in them in my latest creation.  Numbers had a special place in my life from a very early age.

Having decided that maths was the subject I wanted to study at university, the transition from school to university maths was not as straightforward as I hoped; coming from an all-girls school, it was a shock to find myself on a course dominated by boys. I’d never really associated maths as a ‘boys thing’ until that point. Maths had always been something I just enjoyed doing, but perhaps not everyone enjoyed the same opportunities as I had growing up.

Wednesday afternoons at University  were spent on the sports field or at a local teaching college. Although I love sport, my curiosity meant that I eventually tagged along with the teaching group one day – and never turned back! Our tutor challenged everyone to subtract two numbers and record our method – not exactly a tough challenge for soon-to-be maths graduates but I soon discovered that I was the only person in the room to use my chosen approach, and there were two or three other methods in general use around the room. When we were asked to explain our approaches, there was a discussion about ‘milk bottles on doorsteps’ which totally confused me. What did milk bottles have to do with subtraction?  Turns out that the ‘milk bottles’ were place value jottings. No wonder so many people complain that they find maths confusing!

[…] through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too.

At the time of that college visit, I was focusing on my thesis exploring the different ways mathematicians had proved the Pythagoras Theorem, and through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too (without referring to milk bottles). And, as a female mathematician, perhaps I could be a role model too. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place and I applied for teacher training.

[…] I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge.

As a maths graduate, I opted for a secondary teacher programme which came with a generous grant for signing-up to teach a shortage subject. Tutors required trainees to spend their first fortnight in a primary school, I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge. Even though it meant losing my ‘welcome’ grant, I switched to a primary course and I’ve never looked back. Primary teachers are incredibly hard-working individuals who need to cover a wide range of subjects and inspire their charges all day, every day. They are amazing people. I soon found myself leading maths in my school and supporting the teaching of maths in other schools nearby by sharing useful resources. At that time, I became an advocate for the types of maths resources designed by NRICH which challenge and engage young learners.

After joining my local authority’s maths team, I helped to set up schools’ maths competitions and lead parental engagement events – opportunities for families to enjoy problem-solving and rethink commonly-held negative views about maths. By volunteering to lead maths masterclasses introducing some of my favourite undergraduate classes such as topology and networks, I hoped I could also act as a role model for younger female students. Ever curious, I began reading more widely about maths education and signed up for my Masters and later my PhD at Cambridge (where I investigated different approaches to calculation, of course!). Today, my love of maths means that I get to work in one of the world’s finest maths departments at the University of Cambridge, helping to support school teachers to inspire future mathematicians and researching ways to increase diversity in my chosen subject as the Director of NRICH – a project which had inspired my classroom teaching. It’s such a privilege working with the NRICH team, and we’ve got exciting plans for the future. Watch this space!

Posted by HMS in Stories