Testimonios: Dr. Ryan R. Moruzzi, Jr.

Dr. Ryan R. Moruzzi, Jr.; Illustration created by Ana Valle.

My Story Begins with my Mother Irene

My mathematical path was influenced by my parents, especially my mom, Irene. My mom’s dad and my grandpa, Raul Yzaguirre, was in his early twenties when he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that affected his ability to walk and breathe. Doctors told him he would not live long, and that he would never walk again, forcing him on disability. He used a wheelchair for most of my mom’s early life, so from a young age, she helped care for him.

Throughout my mom’s childhood, my grandpa frequented various hospitals, and when not in the hospital, my mom would help care for him with his endless daily medication, setting alarms for him at night so he could wake up and take them. The associated financial and emotional struggles of caring for my grandpa impacted my mom in a way that made her conscious of the stress her parents were going through, and therefore, she always pushed herself to do well in school.

My mom was one of six kids, and throughout high school, she balanced caring for my grandpa, working, and studying. She gave her paychecks to her parents, and overall she helped out in whatever way she could. My grandpa always told my mom, aunts, and uncles to do their best in getting their education, and when my mom heard him say this, she knew she had to do her best.

After high school, my mom first attended San Bernardino Valley College, a community college in San Bernardino, CA. Part way through, not finishing at Valley College, she switched to a program at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, CA, to become a licensed vocational nurse. My grandpa told her she would make a great nurse because of how she would always take care of others, especially helping him with his various tasks throughout the day. She had a discouraging experience during an internship where she was told that she would never make it as a nurse, that being a nurse was not for her, because she was not doing some tasks correctly. This was damaging enough to make her drop out of the program. She did not feel the confidence to continue. She did not complete this program, and she did not return to school. It turns out, her academic journey was very similar to and influenced my own.

Irene standing with her mom, Frances Yzaguirre, when I was first born.

K–12 Academic Experiences

My K–12 journey was injected with mathematical confidence early on, brought about by circumstance, and questioned at every step of the way, which was not unlike my mom’s own experience while in school. My schooling was done through the Rialto Unified school district in Rialto, CA. Rialto Unified was and still is, a Title I school district. [1] While I was in elementary school, my mom realized that I enjoyed things that challenged me intellectually; she sought to discuss how the school could push me academically. Because of her persistence, various opportunities arose, including being placed in a program for gifted and talented students, which helped me grow my confidence in school at a young age.

Figuring a puzzle in elementary school.

After elementary school , I attended Jehue Middle School. Jehue focused on STEM and college tracks through GEAR-UP. [2] I recall visiting local colleges, such as California State University, San Bernardino, and participating in other programs to broaden college readiness. Though my parents didn’t graduate from college, I was consistently getting the message of attending college from both my school and home. At the time, the conversation was centered on getting a bachelor’s degree, not really graduate school. In fact, throughout my undergraduate career, I was still unaware of the opportunities for graduate education.

At Jehue, I started to gain more confidence in mathematics. Towards the beginning of my sixth-grade math class, we were covering addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of fractions. We had already discussed these topics in the previous grade, so I did not understand why we were discussing it again. Maybe my boredom in the class stemmed from the curriculum, or maybe my teacher did not recognize or realize students in that area could/can be challenged and pushed more than how they were. My mom was conscious and worried about keeping me challenged.

My friends and I (third from the left) posing with creative hats.

During this time, my grandma was working towards her associate’s degree at San Bernardino Valley College. I note that my grandma did not graduate high school. She stopped going to school while in middle school. She married my grandpa at the age of 14 and spent her life caring for others, including her six kids. In the 1990s, she decided she wanted to get her General Educational Development (GED), [3] and eventually her associate’s degree; she wanted to prove she could complete a college degree. One of the last classes my grandma needed for her associate’s degree was her math class, college algebra. She had felt incapable in math, and struggled. My mom said I could help since I was good at math, and I looked at her workbook. I remember looking at this old workbook that was in typeset font with problems such as:

Distribute and simplify y2z4(yz+2y2–3z) + 4y2z5.

Reading through some of the book, I figured the problem was just a matter of following some rules or guidelines.

After helping my grandma, my mom approached my middle school counselor, Mr. Ed, with the work I was doing. The discussion was centered on how to further challenge me. They decided to pursue moving me up to the next grade in only math. Along with my mom, Mr. Ed became one of my biggest advocates. He wholeheartedly supported the move for me, and with my mom, they further advocated for me in discussions with other teachers and administrators.

Jehue eighth-grade honor roll.

To prove I was capable of doing mathematics at the next grade level, I was taken aside into a room by two math teachers: one male and one female. For some reason, I remember the male teacher being more stern and interrogative, while the female teacher, was more inquisitive. I was given a test in a classroom, then asked to explain my reasoning on various questions. After the diagnostic test, they did figure that it was me doing the math, and I had the “correct” thinking with the problems and the only remaining discussion was on the logistics to accommodate me in the next grade level. Luckily, at the middle school, it was easy enough to bump me up to pre-algebra, which was the seventh-grade mathematics class.

In the pre-algebra class, I was pointed out for being the sixth-grader. The teacher would often call on me as though I should have answers to all of the math questions. The teacher acted like I should be able to do anything thrown at me. I would answer the best I could, and this further helped me develop confidence in my mathematical abilities. Even when I got some part of the answer wrong or if I had to think more about the problem, I still answered. I was viewed by my peers as the one to ask math questions to. This also boosted my confidence since I saw myself as being further along in mathematics than my peers. I now realize that through the move from sixth-grade math to seventh-grade pre-algebra, I gained the confidence that would later propel me to choosing to be a math major.

In my eighth-grade year, I had my last class of the day, geometry, at the high school that was about half a mile down the street from the middle school. Every day, after my fifth class, I would spend fifteen minutes in Mr. Ed’s office, talking with him. He would check in with me about my classes and how things were going. I would then leave the middle school and make the walk. I was emboldened with the responsibility of making that trip every day, walking onto a high school campus before my peers. In a recent conversation with Mr. Ed, with whom I still keep contact, I found out that he would drive in his car and watch me on that walk every day; he made sure I would make it to the campus. I was shocked to find this out! I always thought I was on my own. When I found this bit of information out, withheld for so long, it made me well up with emotions. I still have trouble putting my feelings into words: thankfulness, pride, endearment, self valuation, belonging, cheerfulness. I found this out at a time when I was pondering what things along my path encouraged me to pursue a PhD math program, and that single circumstance of me walking and feeling empowered aided in that.

Throughout my early school education, Mr. Ed was an advocate that helped propel me towards becoming a mathematician. Along with my mom, his voicing support for me to move ahead in math, even taking the time to watch me walk to the high school, was work to ensure I was being challenged in mathematics. I don’t know if I would have chosen math without his and my mom’s support. After I left Jehue to attend high school, the middle school created a geometry class for students who were ready for such a challenge. I feel proud that, because of what I was able to do in mathematics, other students were being challenged and encouraged to tackle more advanced mathematics at a younger age.

Journey towards an Undergraduate Math Major

My undergraduate experiences parallel my mom’s, with the difference being the choice I made after a discouraging encounter with a professor. Growing up, I saw my parents struggle financially and, like my mom, this struggle made me conscious of the importance of my successes in school. Although my parents were proud of my every step and achievement, they could not give me guidance on navigating college. GEAR-UP and other programs helped in this regard by introducing me to colleges and by keeping the message of attending college visible.

Leaving high school, I applied to various schools and got accepted to two. I chose to attend Cal Poly Pomona because of my desire to be an architect, which I credit to growing up with imaginative play and building different structures out of Legos. Also, since I was comfortable with mathematics, a math-based career felt natural.

From the onset of college, I had to adjust and adapt. When I received my acceptance letter to Cal Poly, I learned I was accepted into the program of electrical engineering. This was my second choice since we had to choose more than one potential major in our application. I did not know that architecture at Cal Poly was an impacted major, meaning that I had to not only apply to Cal Poly, but also to their specific program. Therefore, I decided to stick with engineering because it was still math-based, and it gave me an opportunity to make good money, even though I must admit I did not exactly know what electrical engineers did.

In my first year of undergraduate education, I enjoyed and did well in my classes, riding a natural wave of classes and homework. In the fall semester of my second year, I took a digital logic class with a lab where we built various electrical circuits. In this class is where, similar to my mom, I had a horrible discouraging academic experience that greatly impacted my academic trajectory. A difference here was that I had the confidence to fall back into another subject, and that confidence stemmed from my mom and my K–12 experiences in mathematics. In the engineering lab, we were supposed to collect and put various resistors and capacitors together to successfully build circuits each week. I was left to my own devices to figure things out. I would spend hours and hours before and after class trying to figure out how to build the circuit we were supposed to build. I would ask the professor, but he would scoff at me and tell me I should be able to figure it out on my own. The grade centered on completion of the labs, and going into the fourth week, it was clear that I was not able to do them on my own. With no guidance, I would fail the course.

When I had that negative experience, I believed I did not have the skills or capability to become an engineer, and I needed to change my major. Not knowing what other major to switch to, coupled with the fact that I wanted to graduate in four years, I switched over to being a math major, which was not viewed as an “easy” major. I had confidence in math, and that confidence came from my mom advocating for me in those early years and other early experiences. This made me think about what would have happened for her if she had confidence in some other area, or had someone to advocate on her behalf. Switching to a math major meant I got some push back from some of my family because I decided I would teach high school math; at the time it was all I knew that one could do with a math degree.

My grandma and me at Cal Poly graduation.

As a math major, I went through my classes with a closed mindset. I would push through knowing the end goal was to go off and start teaching high school. My desire to become a teacher was reinforced through my work as a math tutor in GEAR-UP at La Puente high school in Hacienda Heights, CA, and as a math tutor for Sylvan learning center in Rialto, CA working with underserved K–5 students. I enjoyed being able to help students with their perceived struggles and also being a mentor for them, planting the seeds of attending college.

In my own math education, there were definitely classes in the major that I struggled in, including both real analysis and abstract algebra. Both real analysis I and II were difficult for me. I never really felt as though I understood the concepts, and the professor never seemed concerned. But, in abstract algebra, there was an instance that steered me towards more of a comfort with algebra as a topic of interest. In the fall of my third year at Cal Poly, my first abstract algebra class was poorly run and I did not come out of that class with much knowledge, leaving me unprepared for the next course in the sequence. I also rarely attended professors’ office hours, and I was worried about taking abstract algebra II (rings and fields). I sought out advice from the professor teaching that class, Dr. Robin Wilson. He reassured me that everything would be good, and he said that I did not need a great background of groups to be successful with rings and fields. That little moment of affirmation kept me on track. Throughout his course, he reignited my interest and confidence in algebra, which later led me to studying representation theory in graduate school, though I didn’t know it then.

Journey towards Graduate Mathematics

Leaving Cal Poly as a math major, I had one goal in mind—getting my teaching certificate. I moved to Michigan with my wife (then fiancée) and was on track to attend the University of Michigan’s School of Education. I was planning to complete a bachelor’s degree in education along with gaining a certificate, which was naive on my part because I only needed my teaching certificate. I was unaware that the government’s grants, such as the Pell grant, only help you fund one degree. Not having money for out-of-state tuition to become a high school teacher and still not knowing what to do as a math major, I quickly pivoted to pursue a master’s in the mathematics program at Eastern Michigan University. I was still leaning towards teaching, yet the graduate students at Eastern Michigan only graded or worked in the tutoring lab on campus. Through various discussions with the interim chair, Dr. Carla Tayeh, a fellow graduate student and I were able to pilot a program enabling graduate students to teach lower-division math classes. This was the first instance where I advocated for myself, and I got a taste of teaching at the collegiate level.

I already felt comfortable teaching, and doing so in college was affirming my growing thoughts of staying in the college classroom. This was another moment that could have steered me away from a path towards becoming a professor. If Dr. Tayeh had rejected my opinions of allowing graduate students to teach rather than grade or tutor, then I am not sure I would have been steadfast on teaching at the college level. The openness and willingness of Dr. Tayeh to take a chance on me was another moment of affirmation along my mathematical journey.

Based on these experiences, I began to research what it would take for me to become a professor at a four-year institution; I did not know much about doctorate degrees. I applied to four schools, three mathematics programs, and one mathematics education program, all in Southern California. I also applied to teach as a part-time instructor at various community colleges. Our plan was to move back to Southern California. Either I would attend graduate school, or teach at a couple schools. I received three rejection notices. With our move back to California and still no word from the fourth school, I did not think too much of it; my mind had already switched to trying to find work. Then, in May of 2013, I got a call from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) asking if I was still interested in their graduate program. That said, I started graduate school fall of 2013, not exactly knowing what I was heading into.

When I got to graduate school, the struggle got real. I felt woefully underprepared for all of my classes. I remember thinking I was not able to do it because I did not put in the time before as an undergraduate or as a master’s student. I realized I was in classes with people who did much more studying than I did. This realization turned fruitful because I quickly formed study groups with them and became a better student. The more I struggled and thought about the material, the deeper my understanding became; I realized the struggle was good and advantageous. Previously, I rode that wave from the attention I received in sixth grade, believing I was always “good” at math. Failing my first graduate exams in algebra and topology, others in my cohort seemed to be in the same boat as I was, and this was a saving fact. I realized we were all going through this process of learning, and supported each other throughout it; another moment of affirmation. Without this support and friendship, I would not have lasted long in the program. The community that was built early on definitely supported my successes, and still supports my successes today.

Throughout graduate school, I relied on my cohort for support with classes and began to find my way as an academic. In my third year of graduate school, post-qualifying exams (comprehensives), I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my advisor
Dr. Vyjayanthi Chari that steered me down the path I am on now. I am not sure if she knows the impact that conversation had on me. It was at a 2016 conference at the University of North Texas. At the conference dinner, she and I began talking about jobs that students want after leaving graduate school. She posed various questions to me, sorting through her own thoughts, and made me think about what job I would want. For example, she asked (paraphrasing) “Why are students getting or not getting certain jobs when they graduate?”. We had a PhD candidate graduating from North Texas that spring sitting with us who had accepted a tenure-track job offer at a four-year institution, and Dr. Chari asked the student what steps they took to get their job. The message from the student was involvement: she was involved in organizing conferences, seminars, attending various conferences, etc. The follow-up question to me from Dr. Chari was “Why or why aren’t our students doing such things?”, with a follow-up comment, “The job market is a difficult thing to navigate.” I thought much about that conversation and about exactly what job I would want leaving graduate school. Specifically, I thought: what was my end goal? I always enjoyed teaching, and working with undergraduates, so I knew I wanted to be at a four-year institution with a focus on teaching. I also wanted to become a professor at a four-year institution to continue to mentor students and hopefully be a source of inspiration for others that may question themselves as they complete their studies. From that conversation with Dr. Chari, I sought out ways to set myself apart from other job applicants, looking for opportunities to develop professionally towards that goal, not just through mathematics. I had always been interested in teaching and outreach, and that conversation with Dr. Chari empowered me to seek out such opportunities, unlocking a door that had been previously invisible.

The spring of my third year of graduate school was when I first started to get involved, and began to more actively advocate for myself. I got involved in various activities inside and outside the department at UCR, such as joining math club and attending various conferences and workshops that were offered; always intently looking for different opportunities. I never sought out such things as an undergraduate or in my master’s program, but as a PhD candidate, I finally realized I was more capable and turned proactive instead of passive. I passionately pursued things I was interested in. I formed a reading course for undergraduate students in Lie theory, which was not done before in the department. I led work with the math department to organize a math circle type program in the Rialto Unified school district. I also led work with others to organize a seminar on equity and inclusion for math graduate students and faculty. These activities helped me take steps towards my end goal of becoming a professor at a four year institution. They also challenged my thinking about how to unlock students’ potential. How can we empower and support students to pursue things that will help them reach their end goal? How can we, directly or indirectly, positively play a role in a student’s path?

My Family

My mom, Irene and grandma, Frances.

Part of my testimonio and journey through academia is about my family. Having kids in graduate school was a decision that my spouse and I came to and wanted. I was met with resistance from some, receiving questions like, “Why now? Are you going to be able to keep up?” Some thought that if we had children I would not finish my doctoral degree. Those questions and comments fueled me even more to prove to others that it can be done, though there were, and still are, private moments I question myself. Those moments of creeping self-doubt would then be backed by a thought of, “Why should the profession be void of life’s experiences?” Yes, it takes extra work on my part, and it takes support from my spouse, my mom, my grandma, and others in my family. Part of the Hispanic culture, at least for me, has meant receiving unquestioned support from those around me, and that support continued throughout graduate school, still continuing today.

My dad, Ryan Sr, me, and mom, Irene.

Being passionate about what I do, teaching and studying mathematics, made it easier to balance life and work. I gained the appreciation for the time I have to work and the time I have for my family. The tug-of-war between work and life is never-ending, always causing moments of stress through many moments of joy. Overall, the experience has been enlightening and rewarding.

L to R: Ryan III, Ryan, Jr, Bree, Reid.

Concluding Remarks

I didn’t take a traditional path to be a professor. In fact, my path towards the professoriate was laced with instances of advocacy and affirmation. My parents did their absolute best in steering my siblings and me with the resources they had. The choices my mom made in her early post-secondary career, leaving college and not finishing, turned into support and motivation for me on my academic journey. My mom’s lived experiences turned into her supporting me by ensuring I had access and confidence in academics, speaking up to teachers to challenge me in school, and advocating for me and instilling a sense of self-belief. I was also motivated by her experiences which gave me a deep desire to make my parents proud, get to the finish line of college, and prove to others that I can do it. That support and motivation eventually pushed me to successfully pursue a doctorate in mathematics. Outside of that, programming in my K–12 schools was also crucial in supporting my thoughts of continuing education beyond high school. That is to say, one way towards supporting more Latinx/Hispanic people in mathematics is to be an advocate and provide support in multiple ways; small things can make a huge impact on a trajectory of a student, for better or for worse. This is what I carry with me throughout all my work. You never know what instance may positively influence someone on their path, and it is my hope that the instances I have shared in my testimonio will positively influence you on your path.

[1] The U.S. department of education defines Title I as providing financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.
[2] Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs was designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.
[3] The General Educational Development tests are a group of subject examinations which when completed are equivalent to the U.S. high school diploma.

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