I was always alone in my endeavor to explore numbers and their intricate patterns. “Ew. Why choose something with so much math?” or “Don’t you want to do something less boring?” asked my friends or family each time I dared to divulge my intention to major in economics.
I began my academic career at UC Berkeley with this same ― almost instinctive ― distaste toward mathematics. I am definitely no applied math major who spends the majority of their academic career learning about multivariable calculus or abstract algebra, but an economics degree at UC Berkeley does come with its fair share of numerical analysis.
I grew apprehensive of my intended major as I scoured through syllabi of future courses that mentioned material I didn’t even begin to understand. I opened PDF after PDF that described course loads that would take up more than 15 hours of my week, filling my weekdays and weekends with new financial equations. The theorems, the formulas… I learned from my peers and parents that they were all something to be dreaded and feared because of their devastating levels of difficulty. I still remember staying up until the early hours of the morning, pencils interminably scratching across my very first problem set despite it only consisting of a few questions.
However, as I delved further into the determination of national income or the derivation of aggregate supply in my daily coursework, my curiosity only grew. Partial derivatives and financial equations make their home in my economics notebook, and while there are times when I feel fatigued by a seemingly endless array of numbers, I welcome the presence of math in my college coursework.
But it wasn’t the numbers or the equations themselves that ultimately transformed my perspective on math. Instead, it was my position as a child care provider at Santa Clarita Valley’s Single Mothers Outreach. This local nonprofit in my hometown empowers single parents and their children by providing them with support and resources. It even provides training programs to help low-income parents obtain stable jobs and master their personal finances.
“Don’t you want to do something less boring?”
In my role, I watched over the children as their parents attended these finance classes. In addition to entertaining them with countless games of tag or freeze-dance, I also educated them on the value behind a piggy bank and smart saving through short stories. After reading a tale about allowances or receiving gifts of money from relatives, I’d ask them to respond. “What would you do in this situation?” “What do you think the characters did well?”
This past summer, one ordinary interaction made me realize the real value behind the difficult financial figures that I struggled over in my economics problem sets.
As I finish our weekly story from the “Junior Discovers Spending” series, Ashlynn tugs my sleeve, asking for another juice box. She perches herself on the edge of the timeworn couch, her long black hair falls across her back and her piercing hazel eyes stand out against her darker skin. Ashlynn is one of the several children under my care, and on this particular night, she recounts her definitive ranking of Pixar movies, struggling between the placement of “Inside Out” versus “Up,” and tells me about the new dollhouse she plans to buy. She squeals with excitement about princess-themed tiny windows and doors, glowing with elation. I instinctively smile — her joy is infectious.
“I’m going to buy it with the money that you told me to set aside,” Ashlynn reveals, dancing around the couch.
My smile widens, amazed at this innocent announcement. Our weekly discussions on allowances and money responsibility had found their way into her everyday life.
Though I did my work hoping that it would truly make a difference, the potential effects of my actions had never seemed as concrete to me as when I looked into her smiling face. It was the programs Outreach provides ― the weekly readings that we shared ― that allowed her the confidence to make this decision.
Tomorrow, she would accompany her parents to the toy store and make her purchase with her saved money. Ten years from now, she might be making the down payment on her dream car after passing her driving test. Thirty years from now, she may be passing down the very same advice from our stories to her own children. Time will pass, and Ashlynn may not remember the Pixar movie she saw when she was 7 or even the child care provider who watched over her every Tuesday night in the community center’s rec room, but these small lessons that bring a grin to her face now will stay with her. Even as a 7-year-old, she is making decisions that are wise beyond her years.
It was never the numbers or formulas that drew me to math.
It was then that I finally understood how financial guidance from a young age might truly transform people’s economic situations. Though there is much beyond our control when it comes to financial security, we can reclaim the agency of what we accomplish with what resources we do have. Perhaps Ashlynn’s planned purchase may appear miniscule, but it exhibits the potential made possible by the spreading of financial insight. As an economics major, my studies in human behaviors and numbers have a similar potential of finding solutions to help improve people’s lives.
I will burn through my problem sets and midterms with the hopes of doing just that. I dream of gender wage equality, an end to cyclical unemployment, and universal financial security. I study in order to be part of the solution, mathematical or otherwise.
As my fellow economics students and I spend our weekday evenings incessantly laboring over the derivations in our problem sets or the extra computations in our exams, it can be easy to lose sight of why we pursue degrees in an analytical field. It was never the numbers or formulas that drew me to math. Instead, I fell in love with the good I can accomplish with these numbers. I remind myself that every day as I stare out the window of Evans Hall — from seven stories above, Doe Library looks just like a dollhouse.
Contact Brianna Brann at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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