Three Colorado State University students, all of whom have taken classes in the Department of Mathematics, paid it forward over the summer by sitting on a council designed to help improve the student experience in CSU math classes.
The students provided honest feedback and developed an actionable idea that would benefit students in math classes of all levels. The idea — a new peer-led math space called Inflection Point — hopes to improve student support through community and shared learning.
The idea for the new space is funded by the math department and was designed by a council of three students of color: Amanda Elbaz, Kimberly Espinoza, and Abdu Tabib.
Students who join Inflection Point are expected to help their peers in one way or another: developing study or organizational skills, help on precalculus or calculus homework, etc. All students who participate can count their time in Inflection Point as a volunteer experience, which supports graduate or medical school applications. There will be food offered, as well as online support.
Forming the council
The Department of Mathematics has been deeply focused on improving the student experience, and the summer council was formed to center the voices of students of color, first generation, and low-income students. The goal was to identify and address gaps in student support within the math department. The funding, provided by Chair Ken McLaughlin, helped pay the students on the council over the summer and provided seed money to support whatever idea they put forth.
“I really liked that the focus was on first-gen students and underrepresented groups in general, so I just jumped on the wagon and applied,” said Elbaz.
Once the council had formed, Jess Ellis Hageman, a professor in the department, provided guidance or structure when needed, but gave full freedom to the students as they developed ideas and implemented their final plan.
“I liked the council because I was able to voice everything that happened to me,” said Espinoza. “Being able to talk to other people who experienced the same thing was just a relief.”
Bonding over shared experience
Each of the three students on the council shared stories of struggling with math and feeling isolated. It was intimidating regularly asking for help, and it was hard to find a community to help with their studies, they said.
“I’m a student that came from Libya,” said Tabib, who plans to go to medical school. “I’m an American citizen, but I lived my entire life in Libya. So, I didn’t have a support system when I was here and I struggled a lot with (precalculus courses). When I was a freshman, I really needed someone to guide me through it. I needed that support, so to be a part of this and be there for someone like I wanted someone means a lot.”
When Elbaz, now a data science and pre-med major, started at CSU, she struggled with precalculus courses, formerly known as PACe, and failed college algebra at Front Range Community College.
“Looking back though, I wasn’t really trying,” Elbaz said. “I was so convinced I was horrible at it … When I came to CSU, I would wear my hijab, and then I took it off because it was super awkward for me. Now that I’m a little older and looking back on that it does feel weird that I changed who I was because I was worried about other people being uncomfortable.”
Elbaz said that she wants people to know they are needed and welcome in math and science, even if it seems difficult. Inflection Point is meant to increase success and retention so that students in systemically marginalized groups can achieve their goals in STEM and can reimagine the traditional image of a scientist.
Espinoza, now in Calculus 3, shared similar stories about her struggle to find community and support, especially during difficult engineering courses.
“Being a first-gen, living off campus, and being someone of color, although I don’t look like it, I felt like I didn’t belong,” said Espinoza. “That made me feel less motivated in my math classes. The first exam that I took I just started crying.”
Some students have access to a support network in STEM fields; not having that built-in support can be a big setback, especially during hard math classes.
“My mom went to school until third grade, like she doesn’t even know how to do multiplication,” said Espinoza. Without that parental support in math, she said that she needed something on campus that could serve the same purpose.
As a straight-A student out of high school, it was emotionally taxing to be failing at courses she had previously succeeded in.
“So many students of color and first-gens drop out and don’t go through with (school),” she said. “It can be so overwhelming to the point where I thought: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
All three students expressed how helpful a group like Inflection Point would have been in their first few math courses at CSU.
Developing an idea
The idea for a peer mentoring space developed over the course of the summer, taking its final shape after months of critique and re-structuring.
While CSU does have several tutoring spaces already available, students can come to Inflection Point and find others with similar identities and build a community around math that will support them throughout their college experience. The group will also provide as many resources as it can: peer support, online support, calculators, web resources, community and understanding.
The space aims to work without hierarchy. No one is perceived as smarter or better than anyone else, and everyone gives and receives help in whatever capacity they can.
“Maybe we can create a sense of comfort and community for other students so they can see that they’re not alone in this process,” said Tabib.
Naming, implementing and planning for the future
Inflection Point focuses specifically on supporting students of color and first-generation students. However, students of all identities enrolled in CSU math classes are welcome to participate.
The name “Inflection Point” reflects the change in the participating students’ trajectory toward success in math once they connect and learn in community.
“I was on a downhill path until I sought help. I finally sought help with my professor, with my TA, at the Calc Center. I sought so much help that there was an inflection point. I started moving up … If you choose to give and receive help, you will start to move up,” said Espinoza, adding,
“If anything, it’s just a community to be there for one another. At the end of the day, it’s about helping others and getting help from others. I can’t express how good this is.”