I come from an army family, so we moved around throughout my childhood. We spent most of my younger years in Killeen, TX. I always enjoyed math and logic-based activities. I remember my elementary school started using a bulletin board outside of the cafeteria to feature a new math problem each week. Students who wished to participate would drop their answer in a bin and the answer would be revealed each Friday during the school announcements. I really looked forward to seeing a new challenge each Monday and would always participate. My first “exciting” math course was Geometry in 8th grade. My dad says many times when he would pick me and my friends up from school, my friends and I would discuss/argue about geometry problems in the backseat during the entire ride home.
I always knew I would attend college but didn’t think too deeply about what I would study. In high school, mixed in with the heaps of mail from colleges and universities, I received a letter from the NSA inviting me to apply for a scholarship. I had never heard of the NSA (I’m not sure it was a household name back then), so I took the letter to my calculus teacher and her eyes lit up when I showed it to her. That was the first time it had ever occurred to me that I could: (1) Major in mathematics in college and (2) Serve the country in a civilian capacity as a mathematician. That experience at the impressionable age of 17 cemented my academic ambitions: I decided to study mathematics and aimed to become a cryptographer.
I am now a mathematician in the Cryptographic Technology Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This is an accomplishment in itself; I feel fortunate to have followed my passion and found my dream job. My most proud accomplishment, both professionally and personally, was completing my PhD. It took me years to feel like I belonged in my PhD program and to believe in myself, so I am grateful for the support I found in my family, mentors, and peers.
One of the biggest hurdles along my mathematical journey was my first semester in college. My university granted me course credit for Calculus I-II due to my AP Calculus exam scores, so I was placed into Calculus III my first semester in college. I was the only freshman, the only black girl (maybe one of 4 girls), and I felt supremely uncomfortable and out of place. Instead of reaching out to my professor or the department about the culture shock, or even reaching out to my high school calculus teacher for tangible advice, I isolated myself and tried to push through on my own. My advice to any student who finds themselves feeling out of place in a course is to talk to someone who has the means to help you. Math professors aren’t always the most emotionally intelligent humans, but they do have access to resources: knowledge of study groups, tutors, grad students, additional textbooks, office hours, organizations. Don’t be too shy or intimidated to ask for help!