By Sean La
I recently finished writing my honours thesis for my Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics. I proved that a computational problem arising in evolutionary biology is NP-hard and APX-hard, i.e. very hard to solve (probably), which was pretty cool. Along with my proofs, I’m also required to write a page of acknowledgements, thanking the people who’ve helped me along the way.
This got me thinking: as much as mathematics is beautiful and powerful, it was not a theorem that left the biggest impact on me these last four years, but two simple acts of compassion and mentorship. So here is what I wrote, slightly abridged to leave out mentions of my family and my friends, who are all very much important people, but not the focus of this post.
Many people can describe a memory that demarks their life into two distinct time periods: before and after. It may be an accomplishment, such as an academic degree or a first job, or something solemn, like the passing of a relative. For me, this defining memory is something perhaps more nerdy. But it’s significant to me nonetheless.
My memory is actually the summer of 2016, when I worked with the two of you on your various research projects. Perhaps it was not obvious at the time, but prior to that research term, I struggled with self-confidence. I had a hard time believing that I would be able to contribute much, or amount to anything. I made many mistakes that summer. But you two, you were patient and kind, but most importantly, you showed me discipline and mentorship. Because of you two, I now truly believe in my own ideas and that I do have the means to instigate positive change. Not only academically, but in all parts of my life.
I came to university wanting to become a professor, to gain the skills necessary to not only free myself from the shackles of my socioeconomic context, but to help others do the same as well. These shackles which were brought on by colonialism, duress, greed, the desire of men to have overwhelming power over others.
Four years later, I’m no more sure of whether I’ll be able to accomplish this goal. But you, my mentors, you’ve taught me a lesson more valuable than any of the theorems or algorithms I learned in class:
It doesn’t matter.
You two gave me the gift of self-confidence, the knowledge and the drive to build a meaningful future for myself and others, regardless of whether academia has a place for me. This is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in university.
So thank you.