Kean University Women Math Graduates Defy the Odds

UNION, N.J. ­–– Four women of color who will graduate with mathematical sciences degrees from Kean University this May have been accepted to graduate programs nationwide, bucking a national trend showing both gender and racial gaps in math higher education and professions.

The four students — Emely Garcia, Alexandra Vasconez, Alexis Oakley and Katherine Rodriguez — said they are grateful for the opportunities that Kean’s math program provided to them as women from underrepresented groups.

Garcia, from Cliffside Park, started at Kean in the summer of 2016 as a student in the Exceptional Educational Opportunities (EEO/EOF) program for educationally and financially disadvantaged students. A first-generation college student, she was accepted into two Ph.D. programs and will be attending Kansas State University to study applied mathematics with a full tuition waiver and a teaching assistantship.

"Knowing that there are underrepresented minorities, including women, in STEM is not just a motivator for me, it is a reason to excel,” Garcia said. “I want to show people that a Dominican girl like me is interested in STEM, and I want to reduce the obstacles to learning math. Most of the people I knew hated math. It took me a year in college to realize I was capable of much more."

Vasconez came from Ecuador with her family and now lives in Plainfield. She was accepted to seven doctoral programs and has chosen to attend the University of Delaware for a Ph.D. in mathematics, with a full tuition waiver, teaching assistantship, and a graduate scholar award.

"After finishing my studies, I aspire to open a learning center that caters to all types of students, especially those with learning disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Vasconez said. "I want to give everyone a chance to reach their potential. I think it is only fair to give back since I was given this opportunity to continue my studies."

Each of the women told a similar story about finding their academic footing in Kean’s math program and said they are grateful for having professors who pushed them. Each also attended the national Math Alliance Field of Dreams Conference in St. Louis and received mentoring through the national alliance that promotes doctoral studies in the mathematical sciences.

“We have the expectation that every student will succeed,” said Louis Beaugris, Ph.D., executive director of the School of Mathematical Sciences and the Alliance mentor to the students. “Every student is encouraged to take the hardest classes and is supported in those classes. We also provide students with mentoring to help them achieve their career goals.

Oakley said she was bullied as a biracial student in Allentown, Pennsylvania and struggled in school until she found confidence in math class. A member of the Kean softball team for four years, Oakley graduated in January 2019, but will walk at Commencement in May. Her next stop is the University of Iowa to pursue a master’s degree in educational measurement and statistics.

“I want to prove myself beyond the expectations that people set for me in the past,” she said. “I want to show those who tried to hinder my spirit that their actions only pushed me to accomplish my wildest dreams. I want to become an advocate for future generations of black or mixed-race female mathematicians to tell them that they can do whatever they set their mind to.”

Rodriguez, from Middletown, is the first member of her family to graduate college. She was admitted to two programs to study biostatistics — a doctoral program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health, and a master’s program at the University of Iowa. However, she has decided to put school on hold, for now, to get professional experience using her math skills at a lighting manufacturing company in Perth Amboy.

“Math was always one of my academic strengths,” she said. “But after taking more advanced math courses, I realized that math is much more than numbers and could help make a real difference in the world.”

IMAGE: Clockwise from front row, left): Kean mathematical sciences students Katherine Rodriguez, Alexandra Vasconez, Emely Garcia and Alexis Oakley