Katie Leiva submitted this post about her Mom:
Miriam came to the US from Cuba in the 1950’s. She was only 13, but because she was tall for her age, she was put in high school classes: math, English, history, etc. When she tells her story, she lights up to remember that when she walked into math class she saw that the board was in Spanish! (Math being the universal language!) She went on to become a professor of Computer Science, Math and Math Education and was later identified to be the first hispanic woman in the US to get a PhD in Math and Math Ed.
I think this story is significant in that it demonstrates the barriers women faced: When she applied to grad school at UNC, she was initially denied admission. When she went to meet the director of graduate studies to ask why she had been denied, he said, “Well, the only reason women go to grad school is because they didn’t find a husband in undergrad!” (She had already met my dad years before, for the record.) She endeared herself to a Russian professor there who took her under his wing and she finished her Master’s degree. Her first job was as a high school math teacher, and she was barely older than her students. Then she got a position at UNCC, where she taught for over 30 years.
While at UNCC, she finished her Ph.D. in Math and Math Education via a distance learning program at a university in Ohio – nearly unheard of at the time. She had to spend time there over the summers, but she completed much of her coursework and research while working and running a household, tag-teaming with Dad (teaching nights so that she could be with us during the day, and still putting a beautiful meal on the table before heading to the university!) Also, her two aunts were living with us at the time and my dad’s parents were living a block away. She was part of the “sandwich generation” long before anyone ever coined the term! My brother and I were in middle school when she completed her Ph.D. I cannot begin to imagine how she did it, not only because of all her responsibilities, but also because this was at a time before the internet, before computers were a household item, when notes were written on 3×5 cards and her dissertation was TYPED (yes, on a typewriter!)
She has received numerous awards, written several textbooks (Houghton-Mifflin) that are used in many states throughout the US, and helped to write state and national standards for math. She founded the non-profit group, TODOS, which aims to support math teachers of English language learners (with a focus on Spanish-speaking children.)
She has 2 children and 2 grandchildren (4 if you count my step kids). Alejandro is 10 and Sophia is 7. They have probably helped her figure out her iPhone now and again, but they spend all their time together learning, or talking about learning!
Miriam wanted to add:
I could not have done it without the love and support of my mother and 2 aunts, who never went beyond 6th grade but who encouraged me to get ahead.
This is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with strong commitment, family support and a brilliant mind. I am proud to be her brother!
I’ll add the importance of Miriam’s sense of humor! Miriam, your line that you somehow cluelessly missed the message that you were supposed to just stay home and have babies, so you got a PhD, always gets a laugh of recognition! Hope you’re well, old soul. –Marianne Knowles, formerly of Great Source.
Congratulations on your lifetime achievements and beautiful family. I am very proud to be your cousin.
Beautiful article Katie. As a mother of three children myself, I cannot fathom how she did it! But where there’s a will, there’s a Miriam. She has been a strong role model to so many of us in the neighborhood, community, and in the schools and Church with you and Fernando. Miriam is an amazing woman who has encouraged and inspired so many throughout her life. I am so proud and blessed to have her as a part of my life.
Kim Menhinick-Cochran ’22