Why I Majored in Mathematics

Sireesh Vinnakota ’21

Even before we learn to walk, we begin pondering notions of mathematics in our daily lives. Right beside our memories of “hide and seek” and picture books are foundational steps of learning how to count and splitting snacks into equal parts to share. As we age, these ideas become more sophisticated along with us. Concepts of distance and inequality provide a basis for physics while optimization allows us to better understand budgets and “best” choices. This is all to say that though it may feel like a bunch of courses, mathematics is rather a point of view from which we may marvel at the wonders of our world.

For me, math has always been incredibly challenging- an experience that had more than once discouraged me from pursuing it any further. Though occasionally I enjoyed doing certain problems, I was not in any sense the best at it. At the time, that was a sufficient indicator to put it down and keep searching for other academic passions. When I enrolled at Pomona as a transfer student, I had meticulously planned out my undergraduate career as an economics and politics double major, with little wiggle room for anything else. During my first semester in Claremont, I used some of that extra time to enroll in linear algebra and multivariable calculus, two courses that are central not only to the mathematics major, but to the vast majority of disciplines. What I found was that, here at Pomona, mathematics is less a study motivated by personal accomplishment and more a family of individuals dedicated to challenging each other and succeeding together. It was not long before I began to fall in love with the majesty of it all. My classes became close-knit study circles that drew on the strengths of each member to better our collective understanding, tackling incredible problems in the process.

As I spent an increasing share of my free time in the palace that is Millikan Laboratory, the home of our Math Department, I began to marvel at the inclusivity of our department. Spanning four tracks (general, statistics, pure and applied), the major provides courses to all who wish to pursue math, regardless of background. Professors’ offices are almost perpetually open, providing guidance and friendly encouragement for weekly problem sets. Every evening, mentors who have taken a course in previous semesters offer two-hour sessions dedicated to collaboration in digesting course material and understanding homework. Together, the department operates as a paragon of inclusivity, proving time and time again that mathematics is a study for everyone, not just the best. Following the year of courses in abstract algebra and analysis, I declared my major in pure mathematics, finally convincing myself that, at the end of the day, the things we do are purely out of a love of the game and all the different applications it can have. This new perspective had opened doors in every direction, as I even conducted research in economics and game theory once again.

I chose to major in mathematics because, right from learning to count as a kid, it has been such a central part of understanding the world.

Danny Ta ’22

I’ve always felt that mathematics encompassed all aspects of our lives. This is especially true since math majors go on to pursue several different career paths following their undergraduate careers. As someone who never really knew what they wanted to do following college, this was a big appeal for me. Though I’ve always had a great time in math classes, it wasn’t until high school that I truly started to enjoy math and saw myself studying it in college. The math courses I took at my high school helped me learn the fundamentals, but they weren’t the most interesting nor challenging. During freshman year I applied and got into the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS), a college access program for underrepresented students. For the next three summers I would be living on Pomona College’s campus and taking courses taught by Pomona College faculty. One of these courses was math and I still remember how initially daunting it was to be exposed to problems I didn’t normally see in my high school math courses. These were often problems that made me think outside the box as opposed to following some basic formulas. Though it was extremely challenging at first, I had a lot of support from my fellow peers in the program as well as my great teaching assistants who were Pomona students themselves. By my third and last summer of PAYS, I grew more confident in math and became intrigued by what the field had to offer after having several conversations with Pomona math majors. During my first semester of college, I decided to enroll in linear algebra, a course I had never heard of before college but was highly recommended to me by my Orientation Adventure leader. To this day, linear algebra has been one of the most rigorous courses I’ve ever taken. I struggled immensely but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. Struggling through Linear Algebra helped me improve my study habits, allowed me to meet some great people, and exposed me to the collaborative learning environment at Pomona College. After taking the class, I was intrigued enough to continue taking more math classes and eventually decided to declare my major.

What I enjoy most about math at Pomona College is the fact that I never feel alone in my struggles. Every math class I’ve taken has truly felt like a team effort. Mentor sessions have played a vital role in my success in these difficult math classes. These are weekly study sessions led by students who have taken the course in a previous semester. Working on homework together with my classmates during mentor sessions helped me get through the rigor of my classes.  I was blessed to have some great mentors in the math department that always made me feel welcomed and comfortable in these weekly mentor sessions. Additionally, I loved how my professors were always available and willing to answer any questions I had. With these support systems, I was able to gain more confidence in myself as a math student despite not having a strong math background before starting college.

Following my first year of college I had the great opportunity of working for the same program that brought me to Pomona College in the first place. As a teaching assistant for PAYS, I got to work with talented high school students throughout the summer program. Part of my role was leading daily study sessions where PAYS scholars worked together on their homework which usually consisted of very challenging math problems that were designed by Pomona College math faculty. These study sessions were practically modeled off Pomona's mentor sessions in which students were encouraged to collaborate with one another and seek help if needed. I even got to design and teach my own elective class that combined my two passions of mathematics and soccer.

I worked for PAYS again following my sophomore year, though this time, there was an added challenge as the program was virtual for the first time. As a residential program, PAYS going online brought on several difficulties. The rigor of the mathematics curriculum for PAYS scholars did not change, and so as a teaching assistant, it was up to us to provide as much support to students as possible. It required us to think about teaching mathematics in a different way as we were unable to support our students using traditional, in-person methods. Working for PAYS has allowed me to gain valuable experience in teaching, something I had never seriously considered before college. Regardless of my career path following college, I’m confident that the skills I learned through math at Pomona and my work experience with PAYS will be extremely useful and beneficial.