To the teachers of undergraduate mathematics—
We younger undergraduate students desperately need your guidance. If you read no further, at least you will have heard our plea. We are lost, confused, and unfulfilled. We are discouraged by the people around us and ignored by the people we admire. We have dreams of mathematical achievement but no map to help us reach what we treasure most. We need you (even if you don’t necessarily need us).
By no fault of your own, we timid group of freshmen and sophomores wander from course to course learning about the various applications of mathematics, trying to find our place among the engineers and scientists. Amidst the circuitry and solutions, we are thrilled when we see integrands and derivatives in their complex equations, but are crushed when the revered physics professors tells us that “only mathematicians care about the equations themselves”.
We freshmen and sophomores listen attentively to our peers gush about their dreams of being vets or doctors or nutritionists or journalists. We eagerly want to share our aspirations as well, yet we are met with incredulity and disgust. “I was HORRIBLE at math!”, “Ugh, I hate math!”, “Oh. That’s interesting. Anyway, what else do you do?” We wonder to ourselves, “Where is my community?”, “Who can I share my passion with?”
Even in our own element, we are told to do the assigned problems and read the prescribed chapters to get a good grade. We sit among our fellow math majors, each of us isolated in our effort to just pass the class. We are given previews of projects, ideas yet to come, and theorems proved by our predecessors. We drudge through other people’s ideas and breakthroughs with no encouragement or motivation to pave our own way.
We look ahead to our junior and senior years with fear and anticipation. We can’t wait until we get to begin to create “our own math” and start to set ourselves apart from other STEM students. The only problem is that underneath our excitement there is the anxiety that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t ready, that nothing we do will be of any value to the mathematical community—or the world.
We know you have research to do, conferences and meetings to attend, grants to write, and upperclassmen to advise, but please—I beg you—take time out of your day to look us in the eyes and tell us we will solve problems no one has before. Tell us that the average freshman or sophomore couldn’t achieve what we do or even dream about it. Inspire us to learn all that we haven’t learned but help us realize we have come so far already. We tell ourselves these things every day, but we’re ready to hear it coming from you.