Testimonios: Dr. Jessica M. Deshler

Family and Identity

My mother, Clara, was the third of four siblings and the first in her family to go to college. She enrolled at the University of Albuquerque (no longer in existence) right after high school, earned her associate’s degree in nursing and began working immediately. My father was from Texas, worked for the National Weather Service, and had been working for a short while in New Mexico. Soon after they married, they relocated to Northern Texas in the middle of ‘tornado alley’ where there was much work for the National Weather Service to do. The first few years there included my birth, a terrible tornado that leveled most of our city and a motorcycle accident that left my father with a traumatic brain injury. After his accident and subsequent rehabilitation, he was unable to go back to work, and moved in with his parents while my mother and I returned to New Mexico. I spent my childhood traveling back and forth between the two states to visit both sides of my family.

Dr. Jessica Deshler; Illustration created by Ana Valle.

Most people don’t realize I’m Hispanic when they meet me—I am white passing, I don’t speak with an accent, my maiden name is Scottish and my married name is German. My father was white, and though I identify with my mother’s side of the family, I pass as white and am therefore not the target of direct racism and acknowledge the privilege that this has afforded me during my life. Despite the privilege that comes with fair skin, it can also bring struggles of not quite fitting in or feeling like you can’t quite claim your heritage because of how you look. Being mixed-race and white passing is a frustrating state to live in, but I like to believe it has helped equip me with tools to understand and interrogate issues of identity and culture.

Education and Falling in Love with Mathematics

Growing up in Albuquerque I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and the rest of my mother’s large family, who taught me how to speak Spanish. My mother worked hard as a nurse and instilled in me a strong work ethic that I maintain to this day. She was involved in my schooling: from helping with homework to being an active member of the PTA [1] throughout my education. School was always important to her, and she ensured I took it seriously and excelled. In middle school, I had an opportunity to take a class once a week from a visiting instructor. This course introduced a small group of students to some mathematical ideas we had not seen before (I specifically remember learning about functions and how we could label variables with whatever name or symbol we wanted. It was mesmerizing!). This was the first time I recall ever learning something about mathematics that was just fun.

Me with my Grandparents, Tranquilino and Adelicia Martinez, who were also my Godparents on the day of my baptism in 1977, Albuquerque, NM.

I continued to join science clubs and enjoy mathematics and science courses throughout middle and high school. During my freshman year I was placed into a mathematics course with an amazing teacher, Mr. Martin Paco, who I was lucky to have for more classes later. He showed us, mainly through his goofiness, how much he cared about us learning the content. He walked around during exams answering questions, while also writing hints on flash cards and taping them to his back so we could see them as he walked around. He cared more about us learning than he did about how well we performed. I had one of his classes before lunch one year and recall many days that I skipped lunch because some concept or skill we were learning eluded me and I spent my lunch hour struggling through the mathematics in his classroom with classmates and with his help. The frustration was real, but so was the satisfaction of acquiring the skill or understanding the concept. When I took an Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus course from him later in school, he used to hold study groups at his home with his family. His wife prepared food, his kids were running around, and he helped us study for the AP exam. This has always been one of my most memorable high school experiences and arguably, he is the teacher that set me on a course of mathematical exploration throughout my life. The support he gave me worked and I became the first female student from my high school to score a perfect 5 on the Calculus AB AP exam.

I was a sophomore in high school when I realized how much I loved the struggle of mathematics, and the seemingly clear ‘answer’ at the end of a problem. I understand now the great complexity of mathematics, but in my early years I was attracted to what felt like the binary nature of getting a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to a problem. Despite this love of mathematics, I was encouraged to consider pursuing an engineering program in college. I even spent a semester during high school doing a student internship with a graduate student in civil engineering. It seemed that engineering would be a lucrative career and that appealed to others. Luckily for me, I’m stubborn and the work of that particular student was joyless enough to convince me that mathematics was the right path for me. I also knew that going to a college out of state was not an option for financial reasons. I ended up enrolling in the school my family wanted me to attend—New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech). At New Mexico Tech, about an hour south of Albuquerque in Socorro, New Mexico, I took as many mathematics courses as I could. While I felt comfortable in most of my mathematics courses, some were very difficult, and some of the professors were intimidating (even if they weren’t trying to be). To this day, there are professors from my undergraduate institution that make me stop in my tracks when I see them at conferences. I learned a lot from my professors, much of it during office hours and tutoring sessions, not just in the classroom. As a senior I had to choose a sequence of courses to take and I chose courses on differential equations. I fell in love with differential equations during that year and continued to study them in graduate school.

Me with my mother Clara Garcia, ca. 1987.

I finished the requirements for my bachelor’s degree in mathematics a semester early because I took some general education courses in the summers. Since I was finishing degree requirements early, my university informed me that my scholarship would end in that final semester so I would graduate in three and one-half years. While this was an achievement to be proud of, it left me unsure of my next step. I was graduating college in December and hadn’t made plans. During the previous year, though, my department needed undergraduates to lead calculus labs and tutor in the learning center. I was hired as an undergraduate Teaching Assistant (TA) and taught a calculus lab for freshman. I absolutely fell in love with teaching that year and began to think about a future in academia. I had never had any interest in teaching in the public school system, but teaching calculus was amazing (though I’m sure I actually taught very little in that lab). I decided I would pursue graduate school and hoped my experience as a TA would help me get into a program and funded as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. I had decided to get both a master’s degree and a PhD from a single institution with a notion that I could get to know the faculty while working on the master’s before agreeing to work with an advisor on PhD research. The department where I earned my bachelor’s degree did not have a PhD program at that time, so I knew I would have to go elsewhere. I also knew that staying close to home was still the frugal option and so enrolled at the University of New Mexico in my home city for graduate school.

I started graduate school in January and was greatly prepared for courses in differential equations, but greatly unprepared for courses in other fields. I was also unprepared for the drastic difference in expected workload between undergraduate and graduate courses. I don’t recall if my undergraduate professors ever tried to talk to me about graduate school and the expected workload and performance, but certainly my family couldn’t prepare me for it. They did support me, though. My first semester was rough, I joined a cohort of students who were halfway through their first year, I didn’t have an orientation because they didn’t do that for the Spring semester, and I had no exposure to numerical analysis at the undergraduate level, but was enrolled in a graduate level numerical analysis course. I ended up dropping below full-time status that semester as I dropped the numerical analysis course I knew I would not pass. However, I used the following summer to study and prepare myself for the next fall and became diligent in my study hours and in figuring out how to be a graduate student and do well in courses.

What I learned throughout all of my years in school was that nobody would know what was best for me as well I would.That nobody could know my experiences and my background just by looking at me.

Work-life Balance and Moving Slowly

I started my graduate program directly out of my undergraduate program, and two years later when I was completing my master’s degree, I decided to get married and start a family. I knew I wanted to have (lots of) children. I was not willing to wait until I was out of school because I knew that would take years. I had heard stories from faculty members who waited until they were in a tenure-track job, then waited until they earned tenure, then promotion,… and then it was too late to start a family, or it was difficult to do so. I had always wanted a large family. I made a decision early on that my family would be my focus and school would have to work around that. This was the beginning of putting my family and personal needs above my research and academic needs, or at least at the same level.

I was initially drawn to applied mathematics, and my first exposure to research was in this field, working with mathematics and engineering faculty members on research we conducted in a fluids lab on campus. We studied a particular type of fluid flow through experimental set-ups and numerical simulations. We did this for a year or so, then this project provided a tremendous opportunity in the form of a summer internship running the numerical simulations at a national laboratory using their software and computing facilities. While this was a great chance to get to know what industry research is like, it was also a chance for me to realize that working in a cubicle on a computer all day was not the environment where I would thrive. After the internship, and some more time spent collecting data in the lab, my advisor left my department for a position at another school. He had two doctoral students at the time—a single man with no strong ties to the city and me. At this time, I was already married with a couple of kids. The other student went with our advisor to his new institution and continued to work with him while I stayed in my hometown and floundered a bit. I stopped working in the program full time, I stayed home with my kids for a couple of semesters while I figured out if a PhD was really what I wanted. Eventually, I decided to meet with the graduate program director to determine my options. I probably should have done this sooner, but didn’t know that this person was a resource for me.

At the time my advisor left, I was pregnant. While I knew that starting a family would slow down my degree progress, I also knew it was the right decision for me. The opinion that graduate school was the right time for starting a family was not shared by everyone around me. The graduate program director made it very clear to me during that meeting that he did not believe I should be pursuing a PhD while having children. (I wrote an article about this experience that many people seemed to be able to relate to. [2]) This interaction fueled me forward to completing my degree through choosing a different advisor and new research project. This time, I decided I wanted to know more about teaching and learning. A faculty member in my department, Dr. Kristin Umland, had just changed her research area from mathematics to mathematics education and she agreed to supervise me to write my dissertation.

I firmly believe I completed my degree just to spite faculty members who shared the opinion that I shouldn’t be there, that the dissertation should be all consuming and the only thing on which I should spend time and energy. I’ve carried the drive I needed to complete the degree into my role as a faculty member. Not only do I still focus on family and integrate both my personal and professional lives as much as possible (my kids have been to LOTS of conferences in lots of cool places, and even lived overseas for a year so I could work there), but I also use my position to act as a role model for students. Graduate students still struggle sometimes with deciding whether they can have families while in school. I try to support them as best I can, and I am now more able to do so since I oversee the graduate program and all graduate students in my department. I am particularly focused on supporting women in mathematics and whatever choices they might make about their personal lives, in whatever ways I can. I ended up choosing a dissertation advisor during the end of my time in my PhD program who could relate to my personal circumstances. She had children slightly older than mine, and our research sessions sometimes included her children keeping my children entertained so we could work. I will be forever grateful for the work she did with me when we were both relatively new to mathematics education, and the work she did after I graduated as an advocate for me and for mathematics education. In my case, in particular, a faculty member in my (former) graduate department decided (after my graduation) that he did not believe mathematics faculty members should supervise dissertations in mathematics education and attempted to have my degree withdrawn by the university. Luckily for me, my advisor fought on my behalf and only relayed the story to me after it had been resolved.

Me with my grandfather, Tranquilino Martinez, at my PhD graduation in 2008.

Besides having children, I had other family commitments that occasionally took me away from research. My husband had to have a major operation while I was in school so I had to take a semester of medical leave to care for him. I also struggled academically sometimes. I already mentioned having to drop a course I wasn’t ready for, but I also didn’t pass all of my preliminary exams the first time I took them. These are only a few of the setbacks I encountered while in my program. I use them as examples of how real life can cause you to need to adjust your expectations. For me, these slowed down my success, but they did not stop it. Through all of these experiences I realized I needed to make decisions that were best for me, not for others, and that nobody would know what that was except for me. After receiving my degree, I took a faculty position nearly 2,000 miles from home. That part of my journey is a common one that students considering academia need to be ready for—you go where the jobs are. In my case, the job was great, but it was very far from family. I anticipate relocating closer to home when the time feels right, but for now I will stay where I am for my children’s sake.

Research and Service

I have been fortunate to be able to pursue research in fields that inspire me. In particular, my experiences in graduate school have led me to believe that positive experiences in teaching and mentoring while in graduate school have a lasting impact on the future careers of mathematics graduate students. Together, my advisor and I navigated our way through the muddy waters of doing research in a field in which nobody else in our department worked and it turned out to be the best decision—it led me to my career in research in undergraduate mathematics education (RUME). I study the teaching and learning of mathematics at the college level.

I primarily study graduate students and their experiences. I love to work with them as they progress through their graduate programs and gain teaching experience and examine how their teaching practices and philosophies change over time. Professional development of this group, the next generation of mathematics faculty members, has become increasingly important as our students and our teaching environments change over time and I’ve been fortunate to be part of a group of people across the country studying this population and finding ways to support them and their students. I study how graduate students progress in their teaching philosophies and teaching practices as they participate in various teaching and mentoring experiences.

My kids in 2015 at the Liberty Bridge in Budapest, Hungary.

I am increasingly interested in the professional world of mathematics and the structural barriers it contains that work against the success of underrepresented mathematicians, including women mathematicians. I’ve studied programs that support women faculty members in mathematics, curriculum that provides opportunities for women in classrooms to have agency in their learning environments and programs we’ve built to support underrepresented students in calculus. I helped implement an Emerging Scholars Program (modeled off the work of Uri Treisman [3]) in our calculus sequence and have spent the last few years examining which aspects of the program help build community among our underrepresented calculus students and support their persistence in STEM. My current institution, West Virginia University (WVU), is a predominantly white institution (PWI) located in Appalachia and is a drastically different cultural environment than those of the Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) that I attended as a student. Similar to how being white passing has required me to acquire a different set of skills, so has working in a PWI that has a very low percentage of underrepresented students. Developing programs to support marginalized students in this environment requires thinking differently about recruitment, logistics, and implementation. I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring funding to the university from professional societies and federal agencies to support some of this work.

Most of my research has been collaborative, which is fairly common in education work. I enjoy working with other researchers in mathematics education, but also those who study academic development, social sciences, education in other science disciplines and those who study the K–12 system. Collaborative work is an amazing way to learn about the world around you and to learn from others. I have been lucky to find ways to integrate my research areas into my service, teaching and administrative work. I currently serve as the Graduate Program Director and Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) coordinator in my department, overseeing the advising and progress of approximately 50 full-time graduate students, the development of the graduate program and the professional growth of approximately 30 GTAs. I see myself as a role model, advocate and resource for women in mathematics. Besides serving on department committees, I have served as a faculty associate for the WVU Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, as a Provost’s Fellow in the Office of Graduate Education and on my university’s Council for Women’s Concerns. However, one of my greatest professional achievements has to be when I was selected as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to spend a year providing professional development to mathematics doctoral students in Hungary. I have recently been promoted to Full Professor within my department.I am only the third woman to achieve this rank in my department’s history, and the first Hispanic faculty member to do so. I see my job as one of making the process better for those who come after me, and for opening doors and creating spaces of safety and equity for those who are not always welcomed into mathematics.

Personal Advice

My kids in Berlin, Germany in front of the Brandenburg Gate, March 2016 during the Berlin Seminar (annual European Fulbright event).

As noted, I have four children who are always the ‘WHY’ for anything I’m doing. They are why I work hard, why I play hard, the reason I take care of business. It has been a joy watching them grow up and become their own people. They call West Virginia home, and have had a vastly different childhood than I did, but I hope they grow up believing it was a good one. When I was on sabbatical as a Fulbright Scholar in Hungary, my kids not only spent a year living abroad but had the chance to travel, as travel within Europe is inexpensive. We have visited places we had only read about in books previously. The pictures of my kids show them in amazing places around the world. These opportunities only happened because I didn’t give up when I hit obstacles, and I have realized that if I never try (to get research published, to get projects funded, to apply to programs like Fulbright), then I will never succeed at them. I no longer wait for ‘sure bets’, I pursue what I want and know that eventually, some of it will happen. I seek out people who are doing the work I want to do, and having the experiences I want to have, and get advice. Do the same. You don’t have to do this alone. Find people to be your support network. Don’t give up, seek out mentors, ask for help, and find your own path, in your own time.


[1] PTA is the acronym for Parent-Teacher Association.
[2] J. Deshler (2017). Mixing Babies and Graduate School, MAA Focus, Vol. 37, No.1. digitaleditions.walsworthprintgroup.com/publication/?m=7656&i=392392&p=0&ver=html5
[3] Uri Treisman is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, professor of mathematics, and professor of public affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is known for starting the Emerging Scholars Program, which works to ensure that all students, regardless of their life circumstances, have access to an excellent education. This program has been replicated in universities throughout the United States.


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