Brooke B, Kenya, Mathematics
When I became enamored with my Advanced Integral Calculus class in the fall of 2013, it terrified me. I knew I was smart, but I wasn’t a mathematician. I cared too much about the world to be a math nerd, I thought. I could not waste my time staring at numbers. They meant nothing. I went home that summer and shared my dilemma with a select few, explaining that while I dreamed of numbers at night, I wanted to create change with impact larger than the solution to a math equation. Without skipping a beat, an older female mentor told me to continue. Math, she said, would teach me problem solving.
Math problems taught me how to fail. They taught me that there is always more than one way to get to the solution. They taught me how much sweeter success is if you’ve struggled and that it is much more fun to be challenged than to finish with ease. Math classes taught me that my voice will not always be heard, that I must stand up for myself, and that not everyone is treated equally. So when a boy in class erased a math problem that had taken me tens of minutes to solve, claiming it was wrong, when really every single chalk number was correct, I began to realize I would spend the rest of my life proving him wrong. Math taught me to be a feminist.
It is not easy to be two contradicting things: small but strong, silly but smart, good at math but a woman. I have learned to embody these things; I have lived them. Being a woman is one of my greatest sources of pride, and empowering women around me is my favorite extracurricular activity. I have talked to women about why they hate their bodies and why they want to love them. I have called a rape crisis hotline when a friend didn’t know what to do or where to go. I have phone banked for the first female presidential candidate from a major party. I have read books and written poems about why it is unfair that I am judged, first and foremost, on my looks and not my brain. I have navigated the convoluted and unfair process of reporting a sexual assault in a developing country. I try, every day, to fight for feminism. Because why should gender determine whether or not I can solve a math problem?
My social fascination with gender evolved into an academic interest, and I began to take Sociology courses that allowed me to explore additional aspects of equality. Reproductive Health and Politics, a senior seminar that I braved through sophomore year, taught me to reframe the way I think about choice and consider the many social barriers to healthcare. Public health, I discovered, is multifaceted and interdisciplinary. Its complexity and ability to have extensive impact engulfed me. It was during that seminar that I decided to spend the fall of my junior year in India through a Duke University public health program. In India, I saw first-hand that so many health issues are caused by social determinants rather than lack of medical technologies. We must identify barriers to care before implementing change. India, a country some would consider a public health disaster itself, taught me that the field is frustrating, that the realities are sad, and that it is important to listen to every voice – each individual statistic – when considering change.
Since then, I have dedicated summers to understanding and fundraising for obstetric fistula, evenings to volunteering for Planned Parenthood, and semesters to writing research papers about cultural interpretations of vaccinations. The more I learned, the more I craved getting involved.
So, yes, from math I learned numbers – how to deal with them, how to organize them, how to place them into beautifully shaped graphs or ugly looking equations – but I also learned life. Numbers are small, but they are mighty. Little things can come together and create big things. Big things can change the world.