July issueMathematics is embedded in the DNA of Nkechi Madonna Adeleine Agwu. Her father, Jacob Agwu, was an economist and her mother, Europa Wilson Agwu, was a mathematics teacher. Daughter Nkechi is now in her 15th year as a mathematics professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches everything from algebra to calculus. Yet she felt no pressure from her parents to pursue a career in math education, she says. “They simply encouraged me to obtain a good education,” she says.

At a very young age, Agwu saw first-hand the value of a solid education. In 1967, civil war erupted in Nigeria, forcing Europa Agwu to flee with five-year-old Nkechi and her siblings to Sierra Leone, where her own mother lived. They arrived in Sierra Leone only to discover that the grandmother’s house had burned down. Since Europa was the only one in the family with an education, it became her responsibility to find work and provide a new home for her family. “I saw how vital education was to advancing one’s circumstances,” Agwu says.

The Biafran War, as the civil war in Nigeria was called, lasted approximately two years and claimed hundreds of lives. Agwu and her family returned to Nigeria after the war ended and the country began to experience greater stability. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Nigeria and then migrated to the United States, where she received a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in mathematics education from Syracuse University, with a minor in gender studies and multicultural education.

Today, Agwu loves to boast that she can “claim three countries as her home: Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the United States.”

Women and girls agenda
Agwu is president of the New York City branch of the American Association of University Women, a position she has held since July 2009. Founded in 1881, the parent association is a leading voice in the promotion of education and equity for women and girls. The New York City branch is housed in an historical building on 37th Street. As its president, Agwu leads its efforts in advancing the mission of AAUW through advocacy, research and education. She describes her agenda for the branch: “I especially want to ensure that the New York City branch reflects the value promise of the AAUW as an organization that breaks through educational and economic barriers so that all women will have a fair chance.” 

Under her watch, the chapter has initiated a number of programs precisely to equip women and girls with skills to help them break through those barriers. There’s a mathematics and computer literacy program that is aimed not only at high-school and college students, but also at adults interested in developing their math and computer skills. A bimonthly financial literacy and pay equity program, organized in collaboration with AXA Advisors, provides information on national pay-equity policy issues and financial advice for women at various stages of life. “The objective is to give women the power to protect and enhance their assets and move closer to attaining their financial goals,” Agwu says.

A third program, in partnership with Save Africa Concerts Foundation, focuses on health and wellness programs. It features a bimonthly educational workshop series geared toward HIV/AIDS awareness, education and testing, as well as other health issues prevalent in minority communities.

STEM challenge  
Agwu and the AAUW are part of a much publicized effort to increase female participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to a report from the Congressional Commission on the “Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology,” there are four points at which girls and women seem to lose interest in the STEM fields: the beginning of middle school; late high school; college and graduate school; and during their professional careers. In response to this and other reports, AAUW NYC for the last seven years has co-sponsored an annual “Explore Your Opportunities” conference with its Westchester and Manhattan counterparts for seventh-grade girls. The 2010 event, held in March at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y., sought to pique the girls’ interest in STEM careers and encourage them to begin preparing for their future.

“Becoming aware of opportunities in the STEM fields helps girls to learn how they can make positive contributions to society,” Agwu says. The conference shows middle-school girls that the STEM fields are not limited to pocket protectors and glaring computer screens. Careers can include discovering life-saving cures for diseases, creating skin-care products that put an end to skin inflammations such as eczema, or developing technology to have widespread self-parking cars on the road. The possibilities are only limited by their choices.

Agwu has several words of advice on how best to implement President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign as it relates to expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls. Launching a campaign is great, she says, but implementing it and ensuring that the underrepresented groups receive a fair chance to take advantage of the opportunity is key if it is to be successful. She emphasizes the following:

Adequate funding. Funding should be properly distributed, which means bringing all stakeholders to the policy table. Bringing those who advocate for the underrepresented will ensure that their voices are heard and that the issues that are vital to the success of a program in their community are taken into proper consideration when resources are being allocated.

Increase awareness. Disseminate information about how and where to access the funds and resources needed to enter the STEM fields. This can include the use of community organizations, schools and the Internet.
Diversity of programs. Funds and resources should serve programs that address every aspect of the pipeline in STEM education — formal and informal, early childhood, elementary, middle school, high school, college, postgraduate, etc. — and the needs of those participating in the program. 

Rebuilding the economy
The National Center for Women & Information Technology estimates that by 2016, 1.5 million computer specialist jobs will exist in the United States, but universities will only produce 53 percent of the graduates needed to fill these positions. This year alone, 25 percent of U.S. scientists and engineers will reach retirement age. The two statistics add up to a shortage of American scientists and technologists, which threatens the country’s ability to effectively compete on a global level.

America has two options, Agwu says: “Grow our own [or] continue to import.” Attracting and preparing an adequate number of Americans to fill STEM positions by far is the better choice and one way to rebuild the economy, she notes. Women make up one half of the population but they remain an untapped resource. “If more women, Black-Americans and other underrepresented groups are made aware of the multiple opportunities in STEM, properly educated and given a fair chance to advance, they could be a solution to bringing America back.”    

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