By Tiffany Whitfield

Shania Sanderson did not hesitate to choose mathematics as her major at Old Dominion University, and when she graduated on May 7, 2022, at the Chartway Arena, she broke countless stereotypes as she walked across the stage. As a first-generation student she had to overcome major hurdles, but she had the self-discipline to apply her mind to being the first in her family to earn a degree. Through research, student organizations and joining a sorority, Sanderson's life transformed at ODU.

Prior to graduating from Green Run Collegiate IB Charter School in Virginia Beach, VA, Sanderson was emancipated, and has been legally independent since the age of 17. "The one parent that I did have was not supportive in anything that I did at the time, and I found myself moving into my dorm room freshman year without family," said Sanderson. "It was kind of weird seeing how happy everyone else was about being away from home, and I was just happy to have a place called home for the time being."

Settling in at ODU as a first-generation student came with obstacles. "As I progressed in my studies, I really had to find places and resources for things like emotional, financial, and mental support as I often found myself alone when dealing with situations," said Sanderson. "Sometimes I wish I knew more about what I was getting into, but in the end, I understood, since I was in high school, that the way to give myself successful options in life was through furthering my education."

Selecting her major was a natural choice for Sanderson. "I chose mathematics as my major because I have been passionate about the application and the nature behind mathematics," said Sanderson. "As an analytical thinker, I work well with grasping concepts, and it comes to me almost like second nature."

She furthered her pursuit of advancing her education as a math major by applying and being accepted to the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program hosted by Illinois State University. She found out about this REU because of an email from ODU's MonarchTeach program, which is an educational track designed to help students become educators in the classrooms after graduation. Because Sanderson wants to teach math professionally, she took full advantage of the REU.

During the summer of 2021, the REU was held virtually due to COVID restrictions. This REU was unique in that the cohorts were comprised of pre-secondary and post-secondary educators. Sanderson and the other REU math researchers were required to serve as instructors and facilitators at a math camp for 14 high school students from Oakland, California to Chicago, Illinois that lasted only five days. "We were working on a few unexplored problems in this area then split into research groups based on different interests in problems," said Sanderson. "I worked with two other individuals on the spectrum problem for the decomposition of a complete 4-uniform hypergraph into a 4-colorable 3-cycle."

In the smaller sized working group, Sanderson and her fellow researchers worked diligently with the high school students to help them solve problems. "We had no idea what the answer to the problem was, but we had to teach them the basic and advanced concepts of graph theory in order to approach the problem," said Sanderson. "Within two days, the students picked up the material and were working on solutions to the problem, and it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen in my life."

The students had to document their reflections each day and every student showed progress. "Some shared how they lacked confidence in their mathematical abilities in the beginning, and how they had done a complete 180 by the end," said Sanderson. "I was so proud of the students I had mentored as it represented very well that all students have the ability to learn higher levels of mathematics." Sanderson and the other researchers implemented the skills they learned from conducting research and were able to translate them into a virtual classroom setting.

We as participants also had to give presentations on our hypergraph research and complete a paper with a mathematical proof, fundamental lemma, and our specific case findings to be accepted for publishing," said Sanderson. "From math camp to the research itself, it was such an amazing experience and I got to work with some of the most amazing mathematicians and graph theorists, as well as some passionate future and current teachers." She cannot wait until their work is published.

After the REU, Sanderson began chasing more opportunities. During her last two semesters, she did research with one of her professors, Dr. Sarah Ferguson, MonarchTeach master teacher, ODU's Darden college of education. Ferguson and Sanderson are working on potentially publishing a project-based learning lesson. Also, Sanderson was able to work with Dr. Songling Shan, assistant professor at ISU, on a conjecture in antimagic labeling. "I hope this experience continues to open doors for me as a mathematician and future educator as I am extremely passionate about both," said Sanderson.

From research to being involved on-campus at ODU, Sanderon's confidence has soared. She was a member of the College of Sciences Student Advisory Board for three years and served as a tutor for the Math and Science Resources Center and supplemental instructional leader. During her sophomore year she became a member of the Rho Nu chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. As a member of Zeta Phi Beta, a national Pan-Hellenic Black-Greek sorority, she served as second vice president and signature event committee chair. During her senior year she received the Zeta of the Year award from the sponsoring graduate chapter, Beta Theta Zeta in Norfolk, VA.

Sanderson seized opportunities for growth and development. "My degree has afforded me options to go into multiple fields of interest, and I have been offered a position in the data analytics field and multiple positions in education," said Sanderson. She has been accepted into ODU's Computational Applied Mathematics (MS) program and will return in the fall to continue her education. "I am hoping to work on my professional development as a Mathematician and Data Analyst to potentially secure a job with the government," said Sanderson. "I also plan on continuing my education until I obtain my Ph.D. in Computational Applied Mathematics."