'I Got Here For a Reason': Using Mathematics For Social Justice

Two women write equations on a window.
Oluwadamilola Oguntuyo ‘26 (left) and visiting instructor scribble equations on a glass window.

How one first-year student overcame imposter syndrome and found a home in STEM. 

Oluwadamilola Oguntuyo ‘26 searched for a room on Brown University’s campus that housed the first day of a science conference focused on establishing data to address social justice.

As she walked through the hallway, she noticed people close to her age. But when the Delaware native entered the conference room, she immediately felt out of place.

“Everyone looked grown,” Oguntuyo said. “I was, like, dang, they are all professors, scientists, mathematicians. That was pretty intimidating. I just finished my first year and I was put in a room with such great people with Ph.D.s, masters, everything.”

As a woman of color majoring in computer science and mathematics —  fields dominated by white men — it’s a sentiment she knew too well, often described as imposter syndrome. Oguntuyo now felt like an outsider because of her age.

However, those professors, scientists and mathematicians in the room knew she belonged, specifically, Holy Cross visiting instructor Kiara Sanchez ‘18. 

A woman smiling looking straight ahead
Oluwadamilola Oguntuyo ‘26 plans to use her research to help create a more equitable environment at Holy Cross.

In the classroom as Oguntuyo’s teacher, Sanchez saw her student’s potential in Calculus 1 and 2 courses. As a mentor for summer research, Sanchez witnessed Oguntuyo’s initiative in recognizing an issue and looking toward science to solve it. She saw Oguntuyo’s passion for learning and envisioned a future in science for Oguntuyo where she could thrive.

Together, they embarked on a summer 2023 research project examining why underrepresented populations leave science, technology, engineering and math programs. When the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) summer conference involved connecting data to social justice, Sanchez knew Oguntuyo should not only attend but also contribute.

“She learned that she can do things even if she hasn’t seen people where she’s from in those roles; that’s what I’m most proud of,” Sanchez said. 

She learned that she can do things even if she hasn’t seen people where she’s from in those roles; that’s what I’m most proud of.

Kiara Sanchez, Holy Cross visiting instructor

For the event’s five days, Oguntuyo attended the conference with about 40 others, all who were all older and many — if not all — holding a master’s degree or Ph.D. Still, with only one year of college under her belt, Oguntuyo began to feel like she belonged.

“[Sanchez] told me I got here for a reason. I wasn’t less than anyone. I just had to put in the effort and work,” Oguntuyo said. “She’s someone I can really relate to. If there was a word that meant more than a mentor, I would use it to describe her. She wants what’s best for me.”

Oguntuyo recognized the opportunity of sitting in a room with other great minds focused on addressing an issue she felt passionate about. She absorbed every ounce of information possible, listening, learning and contributing to the conversations.

At the end of the conference, as the youngest person in the room, she stood at the front and made a presentation.

“I remember my anxiety being through the roof, but I did it and I did well,” Oguntuyo said. “Professor Sanchez is the best. She knows what to say at the right time. She told me ‘You’ve got this.’”

A closeup of a woman looking to the left
Oluwadamilola Oguntuyo ‘26 referred to visiting professor Kiara Sanchez as more than a role model.
A woman holding a marker with equations in front of her
Holy Cross visiting instructor Kiara Sanchez scribbles equations on a window.

The conference concluded with Sanchez writing an op-ed in the Providence Journal about the health inequities faced within the city. The working group she was part of found that for every 133 Spanish-speaking residents in Providence, there was only one Spanish-speaking doctor.

The group's work isn’t complete. They hope their research will lead to a mobile app that will help connect Spanish-speaking patients with doctors and staff. They also hope awareness generated by their research will attract more Spanish speakers within the healthcare system.

“To empower the very people from the very community that me and my family are from, that is what really drives me and keeps going,” said Sanchez, a Providence native.

Oguntuyo is following the lead of the attendees she met at the ICERM conference. As a sophomore, Oguntuyo is continuing her research. With a grant from the College’s J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World, she’s diving deeper into the question of why members of historically marginalized communities leave STEM fields in college.

The topic has piqued the interest of faculty at Holy Cross. Many are waiting for Oguntuyo’s findings to create a more inclusive atmosphere on campus.

“I’ve always been someone who is for others,” Oguntuyo said. “I was able to persist in STEM, but it’s sad people have switched because of a lot of difficulties. What I’m doing may not help all at once, but even if it’s just that 1%, that 2% — if it makes people’s lives better — then the research is worth it.”