Why I Majored in Mathematics

Zoë Batterman ’24

I viewed declaring a major practically. By declaring a major in a subject area, I would have to commit to taking a majority of specialized courses in that area. My first order of business for choosing a major was to determine those subjects that could sustain my attention for three years. In particular, which subject would I enjoy even during its most tedious parts?

My first year was marked by the pandemic and was completely virtual. The online experience allowed programs such as Professor Shahriar Shahriari and Professor Ghassan Sarkis' 1-2-1 Math—a summer program aimed to build community and prepare first-year students for college by working on intensive math problems in small groups— to flourish. I participated in 1-2-1 math with 130 incoming Pomona first-years and was encouraged to take my first college math course Math060: Linear Algebra. The course gave me the confidence to seriously consider a major in mathematics.

Whereas I previously thought of mathematics as a foreign and inaccessible discipline, the collaboration and support shown in Pomona's Mathematics Department demonstrated otherwise. For each course, the instructor would hire a mentor—an undergraduate who previously took the course—to facilitate collaboration, encourage discussion, and answer questions. Through these mentor sessions, I met fellow undergraduates, learned from the older students of their paths at Pomona, and engaged with the material.

The more pure mathematics courses I took, the more I was hooked. I became privy to a world of logical understanding and discovery that no other discipline could offer.

My experience conducting research my sophomore year only supported my desire to pursue mathematics. I approached Professor Konrad Aguilar during the fall of my second year about conducting a research project involving both algebra and analysis. I worked with him one-on-one for two hours a week and on my own for up to six hours, seeking to construct a notion of C*-algebra convergence. I was fundamentally attracted to the self-direction and freedom inherent in conducting research in mathematics. In particular, I could work with Professor Aguilar to tailor my project to suit my ambition and level, and I had the freedom to ask and pursue questions without the hassle of managing expensive equipment or appeasing a lab Principal Investigator (PI). What sealed the deal was that Pomona is an undergraduate-serving institution which removed the need for me to compete with graduate students for the professor's attention.

All of these factors crescendoed towards the ultimate decision: declaring a mathematics major.

Ari Benveniste ’25

I entered college largely without direction. In high school, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to try many different subjects and I was exposed to lots of different material. I wanted to continue exploring and experimenting in diverse fields, not tying myself down to one discipline. I was especially curious about Pomona’s emphasis on collaborative learning. I wanted an environment where students worked and relied on each other, focused on a joint project or concept. This environment creates an electric atmosphere. I was looking for this buzz, this sense of community, in my classes.

My academic advisor, a professor in the Math Department, encouraged me to take an analysis class since I had taken several courses in high school and needed only three more to complete a math minor. I had enjoyed math in the past but did not find it personally resonant. In my calculus classes, I liked the problem-solving aspects of applying different tools to approach different questions, but I felt detached at the same time. I thought of math as a solitary subject, done alone with a pencil and a textbook. I approached my math classes my first year with an open mind but without sky-high expectations.

I couldn’t have been more off track. At Pomona, math at the undergraduate level is nothing like I expected. For starters, the material was unrecognizable, both in content and in character. Rather than methodically solving equations and looking for a single number solution (rounded to three decimal places of course...), I was writing mathematical proofs that are not unlike an argumentative essay in a history or English class. And the concepts I was exploring were no longer just methods one, two, and three to solve XYZ equation. Instead, they were novel spaces and objects within these new universes of abstract algebra and analysis, governed by disparate rules and containing distinctive properties. This was material both foreign and inspiring.

Even more significantly, the Math Department is extremely supportive and community focused. Work is done collaboratively in outside-of-class tutorial sessions, where a student mentor who has taken the class offers help, advice, and hints for a weekly problem set. These sessions are the core instructional method. You can walk into the math building at any time and see one being hosted. Here, students work together to solve problems. Everyone is passing around notes, writing on boards, helping peers understand challenging concepts, all under the guidance of a Pomona student who is invested in their mentees’ success. The material in many classes is difficult, and online resources are often unavailable, inaccessible, or unhelpful, including ChatGPT (trust me, we’ve tried). Mentor sessions ensure that students are not struggling alone, but rather problem solving in community. By the end of every math class, I feel bonded with my peers, and I have become friends, or at least friendly, with everyone in the department.

Professors too are uniquely accessible, hosting office hours that have a similar atmosphere to mentor sessions. They genuinely care about their students’ success and go out of their way to ensure you get what you need out of class. In my own experience, they have offered research opportunities, one-on-one mentorship, and independent study coursework. Professors have hosted impromptu office hours or answered Slacks and emails at all hours of the night to help me prepare for a test or answer a tough question. Support is always available.

I think for many people, me included, when they think of math they imagine tests, long homework, and tears at the dining room table. This couldn’t be farther from my experience at Pomona. Math is the ultimate liberal arts major. It forces me to think deeply and rigorously about material that expands my horizons. It is challenging and pushes me but is consistently rewarding. And, most significantly, it encourages discussion, collaboration, and compassion. Getting involved in the Math Department has been one of the most gratifying parts of my time in college. I encourage you, no matter how strongly you believe you are “not a math person” to try a class. This department would welcome you as a part of it.