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Black History Month
2020 Honoree

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Nathan N. Alexander

Nathan N. Alexander

James King, Jr. Visiting Professor of Mathematics Teaching

Morehouse College

 

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Charlotte, NC. I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I double majored in mathematics and sociology. I then moved to New York for graduate school and I completed my PhD in education and mathematical and statistical modeling at Columbia University Teachers College. Prior to Atlanta, I was a proud resident of Oakland, CA and I’ve spent some time living and studying abroad in Belize and Singapore.

 

Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

My real love for mathematics started in middle school when I joined Odyssey of the Mind. Two days out of the week, a small group of us would spend time working on different problems in mathematics and science. I really didn’t know what we were doing at first but my best friend William and I decided to stick it out. I always had a thing for mathematics in school but this was the year where I really began to love mathematics and working with my peers to solve problems.

 

What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

I am most proud to be a teacher! In high school, me and my friend Chiquita tutored and read to elementary school students on Monday and Wednesday mornings. During swim season, I would leave from practice at 7:30am and go directly to the elementary school. Sometimes I would get tired and Chiquita would say, “Come on, now!” We kept each other focused. During my senior year of high school, I was also my trigonometry teacher’s assistant. I received this opportunity because I had enrolled in AP Calculus a year early, so I finished all of the math courses my school offered the year before. I would use my free period the other three days of the week to tutor trigonometry. The more I think about it, teaching had become a part of how I started my weekdays. I also grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, so I spent every Saturday morning teaching about the Bible. By the time I was 16, I had learned how to work and talk with a diverse set of my peers, as well as complete strangers. So much of what people are talking about today is the importance of mentoring and teaching each other. I am most proud to know that my early life experiences gave me a solid foundation.

 

What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

I am learning about the power of telling our stories and I am working to be more vulnerable, which Audre Lorde’s writing reminds me is an accomplishment in itself. At the exact time I was finishing up my PhD in 2014, I received some of the worst news ever: I was diagnosed with cancer and they found a tumor in the middle of my nasal passage. I went through treatment and have been doing fine health wise, but I believe most people hold rather narrow beliefs about the individual cancer experience. For me, it has been the most difficult mental battle in my life. I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to get better at balancing my mental and emotional health and that I have been able to keep pushing forward despite the condition. I am so grateful for life.

 

Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

My family did not have much when I was growing up, and I remember my big sister setting an example for the rest of us. She would encourage me to get perfect grades in mathematics with Mrs. Whitener and physics with Mrs. Dunlap, two of her former teachers. She also made sure I joined all of the “smart people” clubs – like the National Honor Society and Beta Club. There was only one other Black student ranked in the top ten with me back in high school, and she was bad—in the sense that she super smart and always on top of her school work! I remember us being in physics with Ms. Dunlap and she would just fly through our calculations in lab. I would hate on her out of jealousy sometimes, but in class we really supported and pushed one another; we also ran hurdles on the track team together. This nice balance of support and competition really ensured both of our success. To stay inspired, find you some peers and a community of folks who, in the spirit of celebration and competition, will always keep you moving forward…but remember, comparison is the thief of joy. We should only be competing with ourselves while also celebrating the success of everyone around us!