By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Research may show that female students of all ages perform just as well—and often outperform—their male peers in science and mathematics. But the cold, hard truth remains that women are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up half of the total college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce, despite their proven intellectual ability. 

What researchers have also proven is that peer mentoring is an effective way to cultivate students’ sense of belonging and increase retention of women in STEM. To put this concept into action, assistant professors of mathematics Allison Lewis and Joy Zhou launched Lafayette’s Kovalevsky Society in fall 2019—a mentorship program designed to encourage and empower female-identifying and non-binary students pursuing STEM careers. And while it only just wrapped up its first academic year, the program has already gained traction among students. 

“The program intends to give our female-identifying [and non-binary] math and math economics majors a space in which they feel they belong,” Lewis says. “Lafayette has a 50-50 balance in terms of males and females in our math majors, but that’s not going to be the case when they go out into the real world. So, anything we can do now to bolster their sense of confidence, help them network, and find people they can talk to and feel comfortable with before they start to encounter this sort of prejudice, the better off they are.” 

math mentorship program participants stand together

Front row (left to right): Beth Anne Castellano ’22, Anna Zittle ’22, Gabrielle Galletta ’21, Rebecca Harris ’21. Back row (left to right): Prof. Joy Zhou, Elene Karangozishvili ’21, Kristen Steudel ’22, Tina Huang ’22, Aditi Desai ’20, Prof. Allison Lewis

Named after Russian mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya—the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in mathematics, renowned for her significant contributions to the field—the Kovalevsky Society was conceived when Lewis and Zhou attended a lecture sponsored by the College’s Inclusive STEM initiative in fall 2018. After hearing Nilanjana Dasgupta of University of Massachusetts in Amherst speak about the benefits of peer mentorship programs in helping young women feel a greater sense of belonging, confidence, and motivation in male-dominated fields, the professors were inspired and eager to introduce the idea to the Lafayette campus.

“Allison and I were sitting next to each other, listening to this talk, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’” Zhou says. “We were really excited to help students build support systems so that they know, when they experience challenges, they are not alone.” 

After Lewis and Zhou secured a grant through the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) with the help of the mathematics department and offices of Alumni Relations and Development, Lafayette’s Kovalevsky Society was successfully launched last September. The response from students and alumni was overwhelmingly positive, with 35 students participating in the program as mentees, and 47 alumni as mentors.

“We had a huge turnout from alumni participants,” Lewis says. “We were expecting only to have enough alumni mentors to pair with our junior and senior mentees, but we actually had more than enough to pair with every single student, which was fantastic.” 

The program took a two-pronged approach to mentorship: First, students were matched up one-on-one with an alum mentor based on their career interests, with help from Alumni Relations and Gateway Career Center. For the second component, students were placed in “mentoring clusters,” or small peer groups that consisted of both math and math economics majors of every level, from first-years to seniors. Students met once a month with both their group and individual mentors (virtually in spring, due to COVID-19 restrictions) to discuss graduate programs, career options and opportunities, challenges that can be encountered while navigating STEM industries as women, general questions about life as an undergrad student, and more.

“Lafayette students are high achievers, so my mentee and I focus on whole-self wellness rather than just academic wellness,” says alumni mentor Joanna Platt ’08, who received a degree in mathematics and now works as a life coach. “She’s very smart and she’s doing her thing, and I’m her cheerleader on the sideline. We talk a lot about making decisions, not overthinking things, balancing everything, and enjoying life—because college is supposed to be fun. It supports her just knowing that there are people with similar life experiences who care about her and can offer guidance, encouragement, and validation.”

Platt explains that what drew her to the program was the opportunity to not only support current Lafayette students, but also maintain close ties with her alma mater.

“I’m happy I’m getting to share some wisdom with Lafayette students, and it’s also nice to be connected back to campus,” she says. “When I was a student, I was headstrong, and it probably would have been helpful to have somebody who wasn’t a parent to bounce ideas off of and talk to about my college experience. One conversation can change the whole trajectory of your life. Talking to current students helps me reflect on my own life experience—so I’m giving, but I’m also getting a lot out of it too.” 

Students were equally excited about serving as resources for their peers, and knowing that the guidance of their alumni mentors was readily available whenever they needed it. 

“I attended an all-girls high school, so I really appreciate the importance of spaces for students who aren’t men to connect and be vulnerable with one another,” says Katie Gonick ’20, mathematics and policy studies double major who participates in Kovalevsky Society as a peer group leader and mentee. “Sometimes, all you need is someone to nod their head when you are talking about a struggle of any size, and I am happy to be that person for others.

“I’ve also found a kindred spirit in my alum mentor, Beth Wehler ’09,” Gonick continues. “She’s been a great resource for me in navigating job applications, COVID-19-related uncertainty, and of course, empathy about the difficulty of my coursework. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking everyone is understanding every concept perfectly and that you’re alone in failure, and I think having these opportunities to speak candidly about our difficulties is really important to the retention of students in STEM fields. Support directly leads to success.” 

Platt’s mentee, mathematics major Beth Anne Castellano ’22—who served as a peer group leader and hopes to be even more involved with the program’s expansion next year—shares that her experience in Kovalevsky Society helped reinforce her aspiration to obtain a doctoral degree and pursue a career as a math professor. 

“In the past, I certainly questioned whether my presence would be valued in mathematics or any STEM field, but connecting with female peers who share the same passions and are amazing role models has immensely bolstered my confidence,” she says. “Hearing from alumni definitely helped me see myself pursuing that path and gave me a sense of how to best take advantage of the resources available to me at Lafayette.”

In addition to facilitating mentoring sessions, Kovalevsky Society also organized several special events for students throughout the year, such as alumni panels, a career workshop, and an end-of-fall-semester celebration, during which students gathered to eat pizza, watch a movie, play math games, and distribute T-shirts. And even though some of their end-of-year activities had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, like their trip to the Museum of Math in New York City, they were still able to find creative ways to cap off their year virtually.

“We did a remote workshop in April [led by Platt] that helped students figure out what they want to do after graduation, and it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for us,” says Lewis. “Before, I was trying to reach out to alumni who live in New York or New Jersey because they were the only ones who could actually get here and talk to the kids. And now having to do things remotely made us realize that we can run remote workshops more often, and our alums who are scattered all over the world can still participate and connect with the students.” 

Being that the program’s funding has been renewed for another year by the MAA, Lewis and Zhou are now busy planning some exciting new additions for Kovalevsky Society for the 2020-2021 academic year, including an outreach event during which Lafayette students can enjoy fun math-related activities with children at a local elementary school and help teach them basic math skills. 

“Eventually we’d like to take that to another level so that our students could get an opportunity to mentor younger K-12 students,” Lewis says. “That hasn’t been put in place yet, but hopefully next year that will become part of the deal so students can gain leadership skills through their own mentoring. It would be a great way for them to give to the community and show that there is indeed a place for women in math, and it doesn’t have to be a male-dominated field anymore.” 

Categorized in: Academic News, Alumni, Careers, Faculty and Staff, Featured News, Innovative Teaching and Learning, Mathematics, News and Features, STEM, Students

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