How Math, Equity, and Representation Added up to an Award-Winning Essay

It was supposed to be an essay about an inspirational woman working in mathematics. It turned out to be so much more.

Asmi Pareek ’23 found out about a student essay contest sponsored by the Association for Women in Mathematics while looking for writing opportunities. As a student with a talent for math and an interest in writing, it seemed like a perfect opportunity—until she read the prompt. “It was ‘write about a woman,’” Pareek said. “And I thought about how many women math teachers I’ve had, and I haven’t had a woman math teacher since 5th grade.”

Until the 2020/21 school year, that is, when she was placed in Yolanda Rolle’s math class. She reached out to Rolle about an interview and found the story that became “The Proof is in the Purpose,” which nabbed Pareek an honorable mention in the high school category of the competition. While the essay is about a woman in mathematics, its true focus is the importance of equity and representation.

“Dr. Rolle talked about how, growing up in the Bahamas, she was surrounded by people who looked like her, and they were teaching her about math. A lot of them were women, a lot of them were Black women, so she felt comfortable,” Pareek said. “Then she went to the University of Nebraska and the situation just took a full 180; she’s oftentimes the only woman in the room and most likely is the only woman of color in the room. She said no one was outwardly rude to her; she just felt like they didn’t see potential in her, so they didn’t put in that extra mile. She started to feel afraid to fail because, if you fail, people start doubting you. But back in the Bahamas, she had felt comfortable with failure.”

Rolle didn’t fail, however; she received her doctorate in applied mathematics. She also went on to Yale Divinity School, where she received her ordination as an Episcopal priest. Pareek was interested in how the intersection of math and faith were intertwined in Rolle’s life.

“She feels that oftentimes people use math and faith to shut others out,” Pareek said. “It’s like, ‘if you’re a good mathematician, you must look like this, and act like this.’ Dr. Rolle said ‘no, I, as a woman of color, have as much of a right to play with math as you do.’ In terms of faith, there’s often a sense of ‘this is what a good Christian looks like, and this is how you should practice your faith.’ She says, ‘no, that’s not true. Anyone can practice their faith in any way.”

"She talked about how math is a matter of social justice for her; it made me think ‘okay, maybe math doesn’t have to be just calculus and the Pythagorean theory. Math can be something more than that.’”

Pareek found the blend of math and faith in Rolle’s life not only to be interesting, but it gave Pareek a glimpse into a future she hadn’t thought was possible before. “I thought you had to do either pure math or pure liberal arts,” she said. “But she showed me it doesn’t have to be that way. She talked about how math is a matter of social justice for her; it made me think ‘okay, maybe math doesn’t have to be just calculus and the Pythagorean theory. Math can be something more than that.’”

“I think Asmi captured quite beautifully the reach that mathematics can have,” Rolle said of Pareek’s essay. “I believe that there is a real joy that can be derived from mathematics, and that when you ‘catch that joy’ you can share it. And when you do, it can change a life.”

There’s one big reason why Rolle elected to teach at the high school level, rather than teaching at the university level or being a full-time priest. “She wants to be that familiar face for people in math. I’m not Black, but I am a girl of color, and I’m so glad I had her because a lot of people don’t get that opportunity,” Pareek said. “I want to pursue math in some form when I grow up, and I’m bound to hit some similar challenges when I go to college. She provides a frame of reference in terms of ‘Dr. Rolle could do it, so I can, too.’”

 

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