"How Oakton Community College Is Changing My Life"

Tracy Knotek, Oakton Community College
2011 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest Winner

In autumn 2008, as the busy mother to a newborn and a toddler, I enrolled in Elementary Algebra armed with two things: a plan to become a biology teacher, and serious doubt that I could successfully balance school and familial responsibilities.

Today I am taking Calculus III and now plan to teach mathematics. From the start, Oakton has changed and challenged me in ways I could not have imagined, and I am grateful.

Oakton Community College student Tracy Knotek is the winner of ICCTA's 2011 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest.

At first, the change was subtle; I was pleasantly surprised by how well I did in my first class. I had not taken a math class since 1986. My first career as a clinical social worker required no math skills beyond completing my expense vouchers. But to teach biology I needed to know college algebra, so I forged ahead.

In spring 2009, I entered the mentoring program at Oakton's Center for Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CP-STEM). I hoped a mentor would help me manage my anxiety about being a returning student making a major career change. The program encourages us to participate in STEM-related activities, so with my children as helpers, I participated in the Ecology Club's workdays.

This hands-on experience in restoration ecology coincided nicely with what I was learning in Dr. Terry Trobec's biology class: We learned about ecosystems, evolution and speciation. The coincidence of intriguing topics, excellent teaching, and my own maturation ignited my ardent desire to excel. It was a new feeling for me, and a great one. When the Honors Program informed me that Dr. Trobec recommended me for admission, I was proud that the respect I felt for him was mutual.

With growing pride in my work and burgeoning fascination with mathematics, I attended another STEM activity, a talk by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Leon Lederman. He outlined his belief that mathematics and physics are the foundation of the science and technology pyramid. He advocates that they be taught first, so that students may more fully understand biology, chemistry, and related disciplines.

As I listened to Dr. Lederman, I nearly jumped out of my seat with enthusiasm and joy. By that time, I was secretly in love with math, and was eager to go public with my intent: I want to learn how to teach mathematics. I want to tell anyone who will listen that math isn't scary, that the process of solving problems can be so engrossing that it becomes meditative and calming. I am more patient and focused because I study math.

If not for the CP-STEM mentoring program, I would not have participated in these activities. I would not have my wonderful mentor, Professor Jennifer Strehler. She is highly empathic regarding work/life balance, and she recently convinced me to apply for a National Science Foundation grant for the fall.

So thank you, Oakton Community College, for catalyzing deep and lasting changes in my life and supporting my growth at every step. I already know how much I will miss you when I'm gone.