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Mallory Torres Villa

College: City College
Awards: Math for America Fellowship, 2012

Problem Solver

As a freshman, Mallory Torres Villa joined City College's soccer team and quickly became team captain, a post she held for three years until an injury benched her. "Maybe my coach saw leadership skills," she says.

Maybe that's also what the Math for America interviewer saw when she asked what Villa would do if she did not win the prestigious $100,000 fellowship. "I said, ‘Teaching math is what I want to do, regardless.'"

Villa (City College, BS in mathematics with a concentration in secondary education, 2011) is one of four CUNY students to secure a 2012 MƒA Fellowship. This highly selective, five-year MƒA program is for students who commit to teaching math in New York City's public secondary schools. She joins her friends Yekaterina Garmash and Michael McDonald (City College 2012) and Umussahar "Sahar" Khatri (Queens College 2012). They are among the 22 New York City Math for America Fellows.

MƒA provides a full scholarship for a master's degree in secondary mathematics education at City College of New York, which replaces New York University and Bard College as its host school. Other incoming MƒA students earned degrees at Boston, Bucknell, Northwestern, SUNY-Stony Brook and Wesleyan Universities, Carleton College and the College of William & Mary, among other schools.

MƒA, a privately funded nonprofit that operates in seven U.S. cities, switched to City College because it wanted a partnership with a public university in New York. MƒA has said it was impressed with City College's math and math education faculty and secondary math education program.

MƒA and CUNY are designing a three-semester master's program that is tailored to mathematically sophisticated students. MƒA fellows will complete their degree during year one of the five-year fellowship. The program's goal is to provide a clinical training experience to prepare MƒA fellows for the rigors of the New York City classroom.

But more than a specialized master's program separates Math for America from other organizations that encourage people to go into public school teaching. In New York, MƒA fellows receive a $30,000 stipend in the first year and $70,000 paid over the next four years, when fellows teach full-time and earn a teacher's salary.

This hefty stipend is an incentive for fellows to stick it out through the difficult first years of teaching, when attrition of inexperienced teachers is highest. MƒA also provides its fellows with mentoring and professional development during the five fellowship years; studies have shown that the lack of support is a key factor in decisions to quit teaching.

Villa, a native of Colombia, moved with her family to New Rochelle when she was 2½ and attended public schools there. Her undergraduate program, which included extensive classroom experience, allowed her state certification to teach in grades 7 through 12.

"I really want to work with kids, especially since so many of them don't like math," Villa says. "So many have had bad experiences, which may come from elementary teachers who don't have a concentration in math who had bad experiences themselves. The traditional way of teaching math also tends to be a problem: ‘Here is the procedure, here is the answer, and there's no way around it.'"

The traditional approach isn't entirely wrong, she says, but a teacher who has a thorough grounding in math and can show students how math relates to their lives may stand a chance. "Students don't realize how much they use math in statistics, in science, in physics and engineering," she says.

Flexibility and keying into students are essential for a teacher's success. "You try to reach every student in class in a different way," she says. "You differentiate your lessons, with more challenging problems for some students and easier ones for others. It takes a lot of years and practice and knowing your students, because every classroom is going to be different."

Tests, she says, are "necessary to pass, but it's more important to look at where students started and where they ended up. You can't put a number to kids' understanding; you need to see progress."

A bureaucratic glitch prevented her from gaining her state certification when she graduated in 2011. But that may have been a fortunate error, because McDonald and Garmash told her about MƒA and urged her to apply with them. "Being accepted together is amazing," she says.

Meanwhile, she was recovering from surgery to repair the tear in her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which had ended her soccer playing in the summer before her senior year.

To fill her time and earn money, she worked as a dorm counselor at Eastern Soccer Academy, where a brother attended a summer camp. That led to a coaching job at Backyard Sports, which brings sports into the lives of children who have disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism. "This is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had," she says. "I have been working with them since September 2011 and will definitely continue as long as I can."

During the 2012 spring academic semester, Villa took two master's-level electives at City College that MƒA accepted for credit. One was in technology and education; the other was a content and pedagogy course in middle-school mathematics. "It's been a lot of fun," she says.

She also has been talking with college head soccer coach Don Manfria. After losing seasons under a different coach, he had steered Villa's squad to its first CUNYAC championship in her junior year. "The girls on the team became extremely close and became much more of a family than a team," she says. "I miss playing with them."

There may be a glimmer of hope on that front. The team is open to full-time graduate students, and if Villa has time in her schedule, she would like to find her way back onto the playing field.

It's never too late for leadership.