Splitting my university education between Indiana, New Jersey and California, I was ready to move anywhere to find the right position. SFA was one interview of 15 I had lined up in January 2005. The SFA interview committee members were warm and attuned to the reality that universities serve real students with real needs and diverse interests.
I still remember Dr. Debbie Pace, SFA associate dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics (then an assistant department chair), asking if I had questions at the end of the interview. I asked what department culture was like. She leaned forward and simply said, “We’re like a family.”
I was sold. One month later, I turned down offers in Maryland and Israel, and I told my family I was moving to Nacogdoches.
The SFA family welcomed me with open arms. From cookouts to kayak trips, to 10-hour road trips to mathematics conferences (on a bus with 15 faculty members and approximately 30 students), we shared life and the academic adventure of teaching and learning mathematics. I won’t ever be able to repay the professional, yet profoundly personal, mentoring I received from my SFA colleagues.
Five years into my time at SFA, I was included in writing the Talented Teachers in Training for Texas grant, a multimillion dollar project that has helped recruit and train dozens of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers. I believe it is not an overstatement to say that this project has changed many of those teachers’ lives. It also changed mine.
Being the project director for this grant has allowed me to invest in SFA students, and it is as close as I’ve come to being able to repay the “family investment” of those SFA math professors who mentored me.
Exciting experiences, such as taking students who have never flown before to national mathematics teaching conferences in Denver and Boston, and less exciting ones, like coaching young people through the grueling preparation for final exams, have allowed faculty members to engage these students. So far, we have a 100-percent graduation and teacher certification rate for those students who participated in the T4 grant. It is important to note that students outside the T4 mentoring program who plan to major in math and certify to teach at the same time have a 20-percent chance of success — a shocking difference!
What accounts for this variance? To me, the difference is family, and that is what SFA does like no other university. During the past 13 years, I’ve visited students in the hospital, served as best man at a student’s wedding and everything in between. Through the SMART Texas grant, another National Science Foundation-funded project, I have been able to award scholarships to freshmen who never thought college was doable — whose parents thought it “just cost too much.” Later, I’ve beamed as those same parents expressed joy and pride at their daughter or son overcoming the challenges and succeeding in college.
It is an exquisite privilege to serve SFA students, but sometimes, as an educator, it can be challenging to remember that. I am grateful I still have colleagues who, like a family, remind me of what is important. I am richly blessed to be a faculty member in the SFA Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
[Talented Teachers in Training I and II (NSF1136416, NSF1556983) and SMART Texas, formally Science and Mathematics Attraction, Retention and Training for Texas (NSF1557295) are funded by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.]