MCS welcomes its first associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion
“Mathematics has always been a space where I’ve felt valued, safe and comfortable,” said Michael Young. But he also remembers moments when people were surprised at or had low expectations for his performance.
That feeling of belonging, Young learned, is pivotal to not just being in a space but thriving in it — whether that space is math, another STEM field or a community in general. For Young, the feeling of knowing he belonged in mathematics first surfaced when he was a graduate student in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, though the feeling certainly didn’t come all at once.
Young first stepped foot on Carnegie Mellon’s campus the summer after his junior year of college, coming all the way from the University of Florida to attend CMU’s Summer Undergraduate Applied Mathematics Institute (SUAMI). It was here that he met fellow alumnus Aris Winger, now an assistant professor of mathematics at Georgia Gwinnett College.
A Ph.D. student at the time, Winger, who was also introduced to CMU through the SUAMI program, had later shown Young around after he had been accepted as an incoming master’s student. Wanting a peek outside of academics, Young was curious what his life would be like culturally and socially if he uprooted himself to move to Pittsburgh.
After official department recruitment activities ended for the day, Winger would take Young around the city, introducing him to different neighborhoods and people and what his life would look like here.
Mostly Young wanted to know that he’d be supported both personally and academically at CMU and Winger showed him how that was possible.
Choosing to come to CMU wasn’t the only big decision Young had to make. As he neared the end of his undergraduate career, he initially only applied to master’s programs. “It was really me stalling to get a job,” he said. But then he received an unexcepted phone call from Mathematical Sciences Professor Bill Hrusa.
“This phone call is burned in my memory. He wanted to change my application from the master’s program to the Ph.D. program,” said Young, noting that it was the beginning of a two-year back and forth between the pair.
“For those two years I was adamant that a Ph.D. was not what I was supposed to be doing in life, and he was adamant that if that’s what I wanted to do in life, then everything was there, and I just needed to do it.”
Young admits that those first two years were rough. “I wanted to quit a lot of the times.” And then he remembers one final conversation with Hrusa. “He said to me ‘we wouldn’t have brought you here if we didn’t think you could do this.’
“That he believed in me, that the faculty believed in me and that there were things possible that I may not even have considered to be possible meant a lot to me. That was a big part of me wanting to stay and a big part of me completing my degree and thriving,” said Young.
As a Ph.D. student, Young also leaned into the support of his advisors, James Cummings and John Mackey, both of whom shared their lives with him outside science, a small but not insignificant factor in affirming Young’s own identity and belonging in academia.
Young recalls joining Mackey and his fellow teaching assistants for frisbee games and barbeques; playing football and basketball with Mackey and his kids; running and lifting weights together at 6 a.m. while talking about research.
“I needed to know that when I’m not being a scientist and an academic, I can still thrive, and he gave me tons of opportunities to do those types of things off-campus.
“It was meaningful that it was a faculty member doing that because I didn’t have to leave my identity off campus and just be the student that they were expecting to see. I was allowed to be my entire identity,” explained Young.
“I define equity and inclusion as building an environment so that people can be themselves and be successful at the same time.”
Pushing Forward Equity
Much of what Young got from CMU, he’s tried to return to others, on both an individual and a larger level.
When Young joined the faculty at Iowa State University in 2014, he did his part to pay forward the encouragement and support to push students further than they dreamed possible. Following in Hrusa’s footsteps, Young would call accepted students and speak to them personally. He also made sure current graduate students knew their worth.
But thinking back to his own experience, Young believes the foundation for getting students, and in particular students of color, to this point has to start much earlier.
“When I tell people I’m a mathematician, they almost always say ‘I hate math,’ or ‘I was never good at math.’ My philosophy is that people don’t actually hate math — they hate their math experiences.”
These reactions, he says, are tied to inequities — to people not being able to bring their identities inside the classroom.
“When I ask people, who ruined math for you, they always have a name.”
Helping students overcome these barriers is not just a passion but a mission for Young.
In 2014, he teamed back up with Mackey on a large, multi-institution grant at CMU. Through the grant, Young worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools to help educators understand how race, culture and identity enter a classroom and how to acknowledge and mitigate the inequity that can arise in that environment. The experience set Young on a new path of addressing race and inequity in educational spaces.
“I define equity and inclusion as building an environment so that people can be themselves and be successful at the same time,” he said.
For Young that has meant creating spaces where young people of color can feel comfortable with their identity and presence in math and other STEM fields. A large part of that is making sure that students are not just seen and heard but are supported holistically in their pursuits.
To that end, Young founded the national networking organization the Center for Minorities in the Mathematical Sciences and co-founded the Mathematics Enrichment through Diversity and Learning (MEDAL) organization with Winger. MEDAL provides diversity training and professional development to teachers and faculty as well as tutoring and mentoring services through the United Negro College Fund’s STEM Scholar Program and through CMU’s Tartan Scholars Program.
He also began returning to CMU as an instructor for SUAMI and the university’s Summer Academy for Math and Sciences to nurture underrepresented high school and undergraduate students’ interest in STEM.
And in 2019 the governor of Iowa appointed Young to serve on her administration’s STEM Council. Through the council, he recommended how to incorporate diversity and equity across the state’s educational system and workforce.
Most recently, Young has started developing a mentoring framework that touches on five areas of advising: academic, social, financial, physical and mental. He identified these areas through a qualitative research study that interviewed current and recently graduated students of color in mathematics Ph.D. programs. “We came up with these categories because those are where the students have needs,” noted Young, thinking back to his own needs that mirrored these very categories when he arrived at CMU.
At Iowa State University, he created the Mathematicians of Color Alliance that helps to recruit, retain and support students while following these mentoring areas.
From Faculty to Administrator
Another transition in Young’s career came during a yearlong leadership academy program through IAspire. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the program develops and trains the next generation of underrepresented leaders in STEM higher education administration.
During the program, he began seeing a lot of university administration positions geared towards diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) popping up all over the country.
But one posting in particular caught his attention.
Young will officially return to his alma mater this year as the Mellon College of Science’s first associate dean for DEI.
“Michael joining us as associate dean for DEI is a turning point for the college,” said Glen de Vries Dean Rebecca Doerge. “With his leadership, we are forging an invested, long-term commitment to build and foster a more inclusive, diverse community that recognizes our own biases and is willing to take measurable actions to understand and change them.”
Young is excited to first get to know students, faculty and staff so he can better understand and advocate for their needs.
“I want to find ways for students to have a better experience, for the faculty to become more diverse and for the community to become more engaged with MCS,” said Young.
The long-term goal, he notes, is to create opportunities for making things more diverse and equitable through changes that are relatively small but have large impact.
“I think about the positive effect that people like Bill Hrusa had on me, for over 20 years now. His taking the time to speak to me and see me, that didn’t cost anything,” Young adds.
Whether it be comments in the classroom, the way funding is distributed or a policy change, Young believes that small actions can compound to much larger actions — and the effect can either be positive or negative.
“My job is to help people figure out the difference.”
■ Emily Payne