First I'll talk about my credentials since they are directly related to my service. Second, I will tell an inspirational math story. Third, I give a brief bio, description of one of my major struggles, what education means to me, and an explanation of what I want to do with my life (also related to my service). Finally, if you want to picture who wrote all this, click at the end!
Credentials-Education Consultant for the Chicago Public Schools (designed curricula for several courses)
-Reviewed NASA educational materials
-Proofread economic models for Booth School of Business
-Taught elementary and middle school teachers mathematics under University of Chicago's VIGRE program twice-Taught upper level honors high school math courses
-ISACS New Teacher Institute Certified
I have privately tutored students ranging from middle school through masters degree programs. College classes I've tutored include single/multivariable, and business calculus (this student went from failing his first midterm to getting an A for the course), and real analysis. Middle through high school students for whom I've tutored have taken more elementary mathematics, and some physics.
I placed out of Calculus with a 5 on the AP Calculus BC Exam, got 5's on the Chemistry and Physics C exams, and in my first year received A's on all three of the standard second year Analysis in R^n courses (essentially an extension of calculus into multiple dimensions, as well as an introduction to Topology in R^n). I have also investigated areas of mathematics not taught in any standard courses, both under the University of Chicago's VIGRE program and by doing two directed readings (Noneuclidean Geometry and Axiomatic Set Theory). Before coming to the University of Chicago, I attended the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics (OSSM), a boarding school (minimum of 60 hours of homework outside of classes per week). I have perfect math ACT and SAT scores.
Inspirational Math Story
When I first arrived at the University of Chicago, I was trying to place into an honors level 2nd year course: "Honors Analysis in R^n". To put it into perspective, this course at the undergraduate level is more rigorous than some PhD level Analysis in R^n courses at other universities. On the math placement test, I scored high enough to take the nonhonors Analysis course. I was pleased and disappointed at the same time. I decided I would go to both the honors and the nonhonors class and see which was more appropriate. The first day of Honors Analysis, all students who placed into regular analysis were issued another placement test. While waiting on the results, I kept attending both classes. The first few lectures of both courses were not that difficult, and I had actually seen the topics before. However, I was putting more effort into the honors course and neglecting the one I was actually enrolled in. When the honors test results came back, I scored 2%. The average was 10%, so I didn't get to stay. Bummer. By that time, I was completely neglecting the course that I was actually in, and I scored a 40% on the first midterm, when the mean was a 70%. Failing my first math course at U of C as a math major?! Not gonna happen! I started working really hard, not only to catch up, but to get ahead. I began spending 2 full days (10hrs/day) on every weekly problem set (1 day was enough for a B or a C), reading and rereading the text and class notes, going to every TA session, and so on. My homework scores gradually started rising, and I eventually became "the kid who answers the professor's questions in class". I got an A for the course.
By the way, I found out a year later from a student in the honors course that the standard deviation of the test scores was significantly larger than the mean (so the test scores were meaningless), and that because of this, the instructor ended up letting everyone who wanted in in. So it turned out that I could have stayed. But it wasn't such a bad thing, because all of that time I would have spent focusing on the honors math course I was able to spend on my other courses, maintaining that balance which was the point of my liberal arts education.
First, a bit about my academic trajectory, then a little about my personal struggle. I was born in San Diego, California, and lived there until I was 8. I was the first person to read comfortably in my class, and was a year young for my grade. (I was in college before I turned 18).
I moved to rural Oklahoma when I was 9. I had always read a fair amount, but I became interested in cosmology and astrophysics some time in the 9th or 10th grade and began reading everything on the subject I could get my hands on. This interest eventually transferred to metaphysics, epistemology, and mathematics. I discovered later, when I wrote about myself in my University of Chicago applications, that I was seeking certainty, trying to establish my worldview on a firm foundation and have a structured way of interpreting it. Some time between the ages of 4-6, after reflecting on an experience of awakening from a dream within a dream and being convinced for a few minutes that I was still dreaming and would "wake up" again, I had a moment of radical Cartesian skepticism. My whole worldview was called into question, to the point that I considered the possibility that my familiar body, experiences with inanimate matter and even relationships with people did not have the same ontological status I attributed them. I entertained the possibility that I could have a completely different form, in a completely different mode of existence, a completely different "awake state", perhaps another being dreaming a human existence. Of course that thought was just a moment punctuating, rather than at the forefront of, my everyday experience, and at that age I could not verbalize this thought, but it played such a large role in shaping who I am that it was the topic of the central essay in my application to the U of C.
I started moving heavily toward math in high school at OSSM, the boarding school I attended. One of my math teachers, Dr. Bucki, used an axiomatic approach to mathematics, starting with set theory and logic, which perfectly coincided with my search for a firm worldview. I was also interested in physics, as I could use it to make concrete predictions about how the physical world would evolve, and what the laws are describing it.
When I was admitted to the University of Chicago, I was naively and overambitiously set on majoring in math, physics and philosophy. This was theoretically possible! But there were so many options and new fields I was interested in but didn't have enough time for that it wasn't practical. Each quarter of my first year, I had a math, a physics, and a philosophy course, but later I decided to stick with math. Then one of the options for a core course was psychology, so I took that and realized that psychology not only dealt with some of the epistemological questions I was concerned with earlier, but is also interesting in its own right. (By the way, looking back, this background was perfect for tutoring.) Then with my math major almost complete, I decided that I didn't want to spend my life developing new theorems and doing abstract mathematics, but rather, applying existing mathematics to various problems we face in the world. I had also become increasingly interested in how the mind works. I took more psychology classes, including a sensation/perception class which led me to take the graduate level computational neuroscience sequence in my 4th year. At the time CNS seemed perfect for what I wanted to do. I was interested in the brain, and I wanted to use math and do something interdisciplinary (computational neuroscience uses all of the tools of science all in one big field: physics, biology, chemistry, computer programming, mathematics, psychology, you name it). But again, I decided that I didn't want to devote my life to this, for career reasons, not intellectual ones. That was one of the reasons I decided to pursue economics. I wanted the freedom to move between academia and the corporate. I had also had some financial struggles (explained next), and had gradually started using tools from economics (without having any formal acquaintance), and found that not only did I have a natural aptitude for business and economics, but also that the tools from economics can explain behavior (fitting with my interest in psychology). So I had found a new fascinating field. I audited graduate level economics and statistics courses after graduating and considered applying for the PhD program at the Booth School of Business, but eventually decided that although I value the time I spent in school, and I still actively learn new things, I do not want school to be my entire life. I've found that I won't necessarily be able to satisfy my intellectual curiosity in a university setting, and since being in one has all these concomitants that aren't related to the reason I am there, in some ways it is more of a distraction than it is the best way to get what I seek. I began working informally with some neuroscientists on a rather obscure yet notorious topic that was buried in the 1960's and has only started reemerging in academia ever so slowly since the mid 2000's (mystical experience and psychopharmacology).
Now, about my struggles. I came from a working class family with little educational background. I always excelled in public school and loved learning, but I was never really challenged, until one of my high school teachers noticed how bored I was and suggested I look into OSSM, the math-science boarding school 150 miles from home. So I did and ultimately applied and got accepted. Buying a graphing calculator (at least TI-83) was required of OSSM students. I got the TI-89 (several models above the minimum) with money I got from selling my cow, an investment that really paid off, as it helped me understand calculus and save a lot of time with symbolic manipulation, I used it when I proofread economic models for the Booth School professor, and because I still use that calculator to this day!
But anyway, I go through OSSM, and apply and get accepted to the University of Chicago (each a story in and of itself). The only hurdle left for me was financial; I was supposed to save a few thousand dollars over the summer to apply to school expenses. It's difficult for a 17 year old to find work in the summer in rural Oklahoma that pays more than $5/hour without having some kind of connections. The summer before Chicago, I worked at a Barbeque restaurant as a busboy/janitor. No tips, by the way. I hated it. I had to work weekend evenings until midnight, drive 30 minutes each way, and all things considered, my after-tax hourly wage, including travel time and gas money, was about $3 an hour. This is no exaggeration. Up until this point, I studied because I loved learning, and my doing well in school was largely a coincidence, as I was never pressured by my parents. But this was when I first became determined to be successful. I didn't want to be stuck working a job I hated, and I knew that since my parents weren't rich, getting a good education was the only sure way to avoid that.
I also worked for an electrician that summer, digging trenches in the hot, dry Oklahoma sun, and pulling wire (much of the electrical wiring in walls runs through metal tubes--guess how it gets through those tubes...) in a hot, stuffy, humid dentist office ceiling. The ceiling was so hot (around 115 F) and humid that just standing there was enough to make sweat roll off anyone. I also sold my mule for $400 to raise a minuscule amount for college. Again, none of this is exaggeration.
My parents told me that they would let me live with them and feed me and all if I stayed home and went to a local university, but my dream was to go to UChicago and study there, and I knew when I went that I would pretty much be financially on my own. I didn't fully realize how difficult that would end up being, until in March of my 3rd year I only had $200 in my bank account and had to pay for food, next month's rent, and books for spring quarter. I somehow had to come up with enough money to take care of food and rent for the coming months also, but at the same time study hard and do well in one of the most intense universities in the world. I lived off less than $300 a month in rent, and $200 a month in food (food isn't cheap in Hyde Park since most of the University population is fortunate enough to afford the high prices), so there wasn't really anywhere I could cut corners. I already had been cutting them too much: I didn't realize it, but I had lost about 10% of my body weight over a few months, from a lean 153 to a slightly emaciated-looking 138. I had even stopped going to the gym because I couldn't afford to have to eat more. My mental health was also starting to deteriorate from stress, malnutrition, and sleep-deprivation. And no jobs were available that paid more than $10 an hour after tax, so I'd have to greatly compromise the time I would spend studying (or sleeping) in order to stay afloat. In economics jargon, one might say that the opportunity cost of my time was higher than my wage rate (when ordinarily it's equal; Not good...). If I didn't find a way, I'd have to go back home and end the dream, or at least postpone it until I could afford to pay $40,000 to finish. It was like a boxing movie where the protagonist is down for the count: "7!...8!...9!...", barely conscious and exhausted, when all of a sudden the mysterious life force within revitalizes them and supplies the energy to finish strong. That was when I first started to become an entrepreneur. Not for the thrill or for the challenge, not for the things money could buy, but because in my mind there was no other option. Flourish or perish. I started a local moving service, which I operated for a few years. With the money I earned from that, I could take care of my financial situation. And graduate! I had made it.
Anyway, I've had many other significant struggles (arguably as significant as the financial struggle), but they're too personal to include here. I just wanted to include enough that you could get a little more sense of who I am, who I was, and some of what I've had to overcome.
Now, past me, into the bigger picture:
I remember hearing one of my friends complain "My parents only give me $600 a month! That barely covers rent! How the #u(|< am I supposed to get by on that? I'm at the University of Chicago--I don't have time for a job!". I was thinking: "Yeah, who has time for a job here? But if I had $600/month I'd be set and my GPA would be at least half a point higher...". Up until that point, I had no real sense of how many orders of magnitude the income distribution spans. It is mind-boggling to consider that so many individuals are limited not by their talent or motivation, but by the situation they were born into. Even moreso, that there are many people who don't even have the option of struggling for a chance at education, literally hundreds of millions of people. Even in the U.S., there are millions of people with hardly any (realistic) way out of the situations they were born into. I believe that Education (with a capital E) is one of the biggest equalizing forces and keys to improving the human condition. It will be easier to address many other world problems when we begin making quality education freely accessible. Humankind, I regret, is myopic in not making education for everyone a priority.
I hope someday, 10, 20, 50 years from now, to be able to help other financially limited individuals receive higher education in a significant way, here in America and elsewhere. I would also like to make interactive, adaptive, comprehensive math education software from basic math up to multivariate calculus and distribute it to everybody in the world, for free. If you know anyone who's interested (coders, educators, copyright lawyers, grant-writers, funders, and the like), or if you know any schools that could use curriculum development, please let me know. Also, if you know any especially impassioned and gifted but financially limited middle/high-schoolers, please connect us.