Making the most of it

How one senior in college is learning life lessons in a GE class

My name is Kristina. I’m 21, a senior in college, and currently taking Math 20. And, to my surprise, I am actually learning a lot more than algebra.

Math has never been my thing, and it’s a commonly known fact about me among those who know me well. Despite my dad’s lifelong career as a numbers guy (he was a mathlete in high school and has a masters in finance), genetics did not bless me with a brain built for solving for x. Assign me an essay, I’ll probably nail it. Ask me to factor a polynomial, I’ll probably cry.

So it was no surprise that when I finally took my math placement test, after putting it off until the last possible moment, I bombed it. In my defense, I hadn’t taken a math class since my junior year of high school. But in honesty, even if I had just taken a math class yesterday, I probably still wouldn’t have done so hot.

For those who are unaware, Math 20 is the second-lowest math class available at UW-Eau Claire, second only to Math 10. It also goes by the name “Intermediate Algebra.” Or in my case, “the prerequisite class that doesn’t count toward my math requirement.”

One night, I was complaining to one of my more math-inclined friends about taking this class. “It’s wasting my time,” “I’m not good at math, so why bother,” “Why am I forced to take this class in the first place,” were among the common themes of the conversation. I was very content feeling sorry for myself until he looked at me with a very stern face and told me to get a grip.

He told me there is a greater reason for the math requirement than simply to torture the mathematically inept and appease the university’s title as a “liberal arts college.” Not only does taking math make you more well-rounded as a student, it also teaches you to look at problems in different ways. If you typically think about problems in a more “right-brained” manner, taking math is a good exercise in thinking about situations more analytically.

At first I was annoyed. Taking math could actually subconsciously help me to look at things in a different way? Yeah, right. I proceeded to pout my way through the rest of the conversation, ending it with a solid, “My brain just doesn’t do math, okay?” But as I have gotten further into the semester, I’m realizing he may be right.

Doing my math homework is a workout for my brain. It’s exhausting, it takes forever and it really pushes me outside my limits. But while working on the same problem for ten minutes can be really frustrating, the feeling when you finally figure it out is so rewarding. Yes, Dad – if you’re reading this, I really did just say that.

The more practice I have gotten reading word problems, the better I have gotten at sorting out what information is important and what is not. This has translated into being able to sit down with an interview transcript for a story and pick out the parts that are important more easily than ever before. Math 20 is helping me be a better journalist.

Long story short: am I about to abandon my journalism major and take up math? No, definitely not. But as much as I dislike it and still am not very good at it, my friend was right – pushing yourself to take classes and learn things outside your comfort zone can really teach you something. Even if factoring a polynomial still makes me want to cry.