My little “Testimonio”
Some weeks ago I bought a wonderful book called “Testimonios” published by the American Mathematical Society in which the stories of some Latinx and Hispanic mathematicians in the U.S. are featured. Now that I am in the thanksgiving break I finally have had the time to read it and it has been a very touching experience to know about the many hardships that Latinxs and Hispanic mathematicians have had to go through to achieve their current positions in Universities in the U.S.
Inspired by those wonderful stories, I decided to write my own (really short) testimonio in which I can picture my own experience plunging into a broadly unknown academic world in which Latin and hispanic communities are a minority. Honestly, I haven’t had to face any tough circumstances regarding being Latino here, so I just want to use this entry as a cathartic opportunity to express my gratitude to all the people who have given me a hand in one or another way and that have influenced my trajectory up to this point, focusing on the impact that the Latin community in UIowa has had in my process.
As is commonly attributed to the Latino and Hispanic community, family is extremely important to me, and all this story must start with a short detour to recapitulate some of the most influential and math related family experiences that have taken me to this point. Starting from the very beginning, I have memories of my grandmother Helena Jara (“Madre” among her sons and grandsons) teaching me the multiplication tables in my very early years. Although she never could finish her elementary education due to the rough circumstances that she had to face as a child (and during great part of her life), at her 70’s she still remembered perfectly all the multiplication tables and she was able to recite them in reverse order without making any mistakes (that is something that I, currently pursuing graduate studies, am not capable of doing yet).
Then, I had the great advantage of having my mother as a math teacher. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education at the University in which some years later I would graduate from and she persistently helped me during all my school years and even during my first college years when I was having trouble understanding basic concepts of mathematics. She has always been my foremost inspiration and admiration in many aspects of my life and I just wish that as an adult (I don’t consider myself as an adult yet) I could be half as good as she is- I’m pretty sure that I would never be able to equal her as the wonderful human being she is.
My college years in the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas in Bogotá, were also full of sources of inspiration and friendly hands that guided me along the way. Not only I had great professors who inspired me and motivated me to continue my way, I also met wonderful friends that even today support me and cherish my achievements with honest joy, joy that people usually reserve just for themselves. During my second year of college I met Professor Arturo Sanjuan, who by that time was teaching the course Linear Algebra II. It was a time in which I was having serious troubles with my mathematical interests and aspirations and actually, I was about to be expelled from the university due to my poor academic performance. I had already failed two times in the Linear Algebra II course and if I didn’t pass it that semester I wasn’t going to be allowed to continue in the university. Probably Prof. Sanjuan has never realized this, but he literally rescued me from the (very) likely failure of my college studies. The way in which he taught his class unveiled to me for the first time the real beauty of mathematics and really convinced me that I wanted this for the rest of my life. Until this day, Professor Sanjuan has always been a true source of inspiration and motivation. He was my tutor and advisor during my college studies and one of the recommendation letters that I presented in the admission process to the University of Iowa was written by him (he has probably written about 7 recommendation letters for me in total and I am sure that he would be willing to help me again if I ever require another one).
With the help of Prof. Sanjuan I was accepted to pursue my master studies at the National University of Colombia and there, with the aid of wonderful professors and friends I ended up profiling my mathematical interests that took me to apply for graduate school in the University of Iowa. Professor Leonardo Rendón guided me through each step of this process and thanks to him, I could meet Professor Tong Li in UIowa, who will potentially be my advisor during my PhD studies.
And the end of this short detour finally brings us here, to the point in which I want to talk about the impact of the Latin and Hispanic community in UIowa during my first year as an international grad student. I have mentioned before how the global student population in many universities in the U.S. is importantly influenced by the steady flow of international students each year. Many of the STEM programs are broadly enriched by a great amount of students coming from countries like China or India. Yet, the percentage of Latinxs and Hispanic students in those fields is still outnumbered. Despite this general fact, I have had the great fortune to find a fairly wide (and vibrant) community in the University of Iowa that have made my settling process way easier and enjoyable.
No doubts, the starting point of this has to be Juan Diego. I met Juan Diego back in the UD while doing my undergrad and although we didn’t share a lot during college, he has been incredibly supportive during this year. He has technically paved all the way that I am walking and thanks to him, many of the hard things that he had to face by himself are now much more handable to me. First of all, he was the first person to talk to me about UIowa and to show me that it was not impossible for someone coming from a small university to be admitted to a University like UIowa. He advised me during my application process and once I was admitted, he helped me to find an apartment, to decide what flight tickets to buy and he basically let me know all the essential information to survive after my arrival to Iowa City (He has helped me in many more aspects that I don’t include here to respect the chronological order of my experience).
The months before my departure to USA I had the opportunity to take a summer course at UIowa that was intended to prepare math graduate students for their qualifying exams; a mandatory requirement to obtain the PhD degree in mathematics. Thanks to all the tools that we have learned due to the pandemic, the University was properly equipped to run the course hybridly and I was able to attend it remotely from Colombia. Although almost all classrooms had great cameras that allowed online students to see the chalkboards and whiteboards perfectly, the audio in some of those classrooms was poor and I had constant difficulties understanding many of the discussions of those sessions (needless to say, my English listening skills are not the best ones). Another difficulty was that this course was supposed to be for students who had already completed the first year courses “Introduction to Analysis” and “Complex Analysis” at the University, so the problems discussed in the sections were sometimes challenging and they definitely required some background knowledge in the related subjects.
During the summer course, a set of problems were distributed among all the grad students and each day, the students were responsible for presenting the solutions of their correspondent problems to the rest of the class. One day, I was assigned one complex analysis problem that I didn’t prepare properly and the day I had to present it I just messed it up and I wasn’t able to come up with a concrete solution. Although I was expecting disapproval from the other grad students, my surprise was huge when some of them just jumped into the discussion to propose ideas in which my route to solve the problem may be tweaked to finally get the desired result. With their help, we could solve the problem and we could continue with the dynamics of the class. Although my partners were really friendly and supportive I couldn’t avoid feeling bad and of course, my lack of preparation for the class was just notorious. Later that day, I received one email from one of the students taking the course. To my surprise, this email was written entirely in Spanish and in it, Adriana (International Student from Spain) was offering me the complete course material of the last two semesters to help me to prepare the problems of the summer course.
This apparently insignificant email was actually very important to me; first of all, it showed me that there were more people speaking Spanish in the University, it also confirm how supportive the grad student community in the University was and finally, it showed me that I was going to find people to whom I could ask for help. In this course I also met Margarita and Kevin. Both of them speak Spanish and have been really friendly to me during this year. We share the same office and it is great to talk to them daily. I use to call them “my second year advisory board” since they usually help me with many concerns regarding the student life in UIowa.
There is also another Colombian first year student in the math department; Juan Felipe. We also share the same office and it is great to have someone from your same country with whom you can freely speak Colombian Spanish. Sometimes it is hard to find the words in English to express some feelings/concerns/frustrations and having the opportunity to express yourself in your native language is, in my opinion, something really valuable. Of course we also share other common interests; some weeks ago Juan Felipe found out that Hector Abad Faciolince, a fairly prominent Colombian writer, was given a presentation in Iowa City previous to the commercial launching of the movie “Memories of my Father” in the U.S.: a movie based on Faciolince’s book “El olvido que seremos” that masterfully portrays some really neuralgic topics related to violence, poverty and injustice that have persisted in Colombia during an insane amount of decades. Juan Felipe invited me to go to this presentation and we had the opportunity to finally watch the movie and to meet Faciolince in person, a remarkable (and very unlikely) opportunity keeping in mind how big the USA is and how underrepresented Colombian films are outside the country. This is of course an experience that I would not have been able to enjoy with a non-Colombian person in the USA and it is the kind of things that I really appreciate about having Colombian partners in UIowa. Finally, it is worth mentioning that we both miss Colombian food and we usually talk about some typical dishes that we anxiously want to eat again.
Finally, I would like to mention that I have found support even within the group of my students in the courses that I am teaching this semester in UIowa. I’m teaching assistant in the courses Mathematics for the Biological Sciences and Engineering Math I: Single Variable Calculus. At the beginning It was a little bit difficult for me to express my ideas fluently in English (that is something that fortunately has been changing throughout the semester)and I must say that my students have been immensely comprehensive and patient with respect to this issue, and that I’m currently not feeling bad or pressured by these concerns anymore. I remember one of my first classes asking one of my students the correct pronunciation of “asíntota-asymptote” in English and the most accurate translation of “regla de tres” in the same language; she speaks Spanish since her parents are from México and she kindly help me when I have trouble with some English expressions that I don’t know.
I probably won’t have a testimonio like the one of Tatiana Toro, José Perea, Alfonso Castro, Federico Ardila or many of the other astounding Colombian Mathematicians that currently teach in U.S. universities and that I just couldn’t list here. I don’t even know if I will be able to pursue an academic career later. But I really enjoyed this opportunity to look back and be conscious about all the support that I have received from many people and to have the chance to express my gratitude to some of them. There are many other really significant people that I’m not mentioning here and that I should include later at some point but for now, I will content myself to give this very summarized Testimonio and to hope that later I will have enough material to write a much better one!