First generation Navajo student builds pathway to mathematics success

Irv Bahe explaining information on a boardMathematics isn’t about one, clear answer to a problem, it’s about the diverse journeys and pathways to get there. Irv Bahe’s unique story proves that the same holds true for mathematicians.

“I am a Native American mother currently walking the path of a first-generation student,” Bahe said. “I am pursuing my first Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics in hopes of obtaining the knowledge and skills necessary to improve the future of my nation and native community.”

Bahe is from the Navajo Nation, and grew up in Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. She is the third of five siblings and the first to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

“My mother often told my siblings and I that education is important and that we should take advantage of it,” she said. “I took her words to heart and decided to achieve all I can in my education.”

A unique journey to mathematics

For Bahe and many others, an education is a ticket to financial stability, something she lacked growing up. She was raised in a hogan, a traditional, one-room home, without running water and often without electricity. Her mother took care of the family by herself, at times struggling with housing stability and enduring hardships as she worked to support them.

Throughout her childhood, Bahe strove to maintain academic excellence as a way to help her family. Her passion for learning eventually caught the attention of her junior high math teacher, who helped her to attend Navajo Math Circles.

Navajo Math Circles is a summer math camp held at Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, that invites students from 6th-12th grade to learn about math in new ways. Bahe explained that the camp inspired her to pursue a career in math.

“This math camp became the steppingstone for my journey in mathematics,” she said. “Before this summer math camp, I was never shown how fun math could be and how much more there was to it.”

She explained that the instructors’ passion and enthusiasm for math inspired her own journey.Irv Bahe

“I loved how these mathematicians showed the beauty of math and treated it differently than you do a textbook filled with dull words and confusing jargon,” she said. “This experience gave me a different lens to view the beauty of mathematics and inspired me to become a passionate, enthusiastic mathematician.”

Navajo Math Circles and some of the students in the camp were featured in a documentary by the same name, showing the impact the program has had on the students. Bahe, along with other students featured in the documentary, were invited to a screening in Maryland. On the trip, they visited the National Security Agency and met mathematicians working there.

“Just witnessing a group of nerds helping to protect the nation – I thought that was pretty cool,” she said. “I want to use my passion to inspire others and protect my community and nation as a mathematician.”

Bahe explained that she hopes to serve the country using her knowledge and skills as a mathematician. She hopes to give back by teaching and inspiring future generations, the way Navajo Math Circles inspired her.

Life as a first-generation student

Bahe has a long list of academic accolades: salutatorian of her high school class, recipient of an International Baccalaureate Diploma and the Native Students in Science scholarship from the CSU College of Natural Sciences. She has also been awarded the Sequoyah Medal, an honor that grants her lifetime membership to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and she currently serves as treasurer for the CSU chapter.

“Irv recently received the AISES Sequoyah Medal/Fellowship recognizing and honoring her engagement in leadership, mentorship and other acts of service that support her commitment to the AISES mission, to STEM and to the Native American community,” said Arlene Nededog, director of Inclusion at the College of Natural Sciences. “Irv is rare as a female, Navajo student working towards a degree in mathematics. She is a role model to many Native American students.”

Nededog connected with Bahe during her first year and helped her to navigate the financial aid processes involved in paying for college as a first-generation student.Bahe at an American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference

“She was juggling many things while in high school — her family, extracurricular activities and maintaining her academic excellence,” Nededog said.

Bahe is also a single parent to her four-year-old daughter, who lives in Arizona under the care of Bahe’s mother.

“I often miss my daughter and feel emotional because I am not home raising her myself,” she said. “I make the sacrifice of not raising her in order to secure a future with stability and prosperity for us.”

Bahe explained that college is important to her, her family and her community. She explained that college has been difficult, as her family can only offer motivational support, and that finding a community at the Native American Cultural Center has helped her to succeed.

“Going to college means that my mother has done her best raising me and supporting me to achieve my goals,” she said, “it means that we have stepped further as a family and have put another stone in our foundation. Not only will my family take this as an achievement, but my native community will too.”

Bahe’s passion for mathematics has driven her to achieve as much as she can. From her home on the Navajo Nation Reservation to her time at CSU, her journey shows just one of the many pathways to success.