# Susan Schwartz Wildstrom: Making Mathematics Welcoming to All

Susan Schwartz Wildstrom, a longtime AMS supporter and member of the Fiske Society, inspired generations of students to discover mathematics during her 50-year career as a high school math teacher. Susan talked with us about her rocky start with calculus, her memories of teaching, and why she is making a gift in her will to the AMS. Learn more about the Fiske Society and charitable estate planning.

## Why did you decide to include the AMS in your estate plan?

When I was making my will some years ago, I decided that I should put a few bequests in for the organizations that have meant a lot to me over the years. The AMS was one of those groups.

## You are a longtime AMS member and have served as a volunteer. How and when did you come to get involved in the AMS?

I became a member a long time ago, but was not really active. The gift was put into my will before I took an active role. My more active involvement started when my students were invited to participate in Who Wants to Be a Mathematician (a past AMS mathematics competition for high school students). And then for a number of years I developed and oversaw the AMS booth activity at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Another particularly meaningful involvement for me was when Catherine Roberts called and asked me to join the Committee for the Campaign for the Next Generation. I have always steered away from fundraising involvement but there was something about that campaign got me from the first moment. In fact, I told Catherine when I accepted, I said you had me at "hello". It was at that point that my activity increased after the campaign ended.

## What do you value about the AMS?

I've been very glad to see AMS's increased focus on nurturing early talent. When I first joined, I believed that the AMS really didn't have anything to offer me or my students. I saw it as the organization for research- oriented professional mathematicians with PhDs. With the Epsilon Fund, the Next Generation Fund initiative, and the continuing development of programs to encourage young mathematicians and mathematicians from underrepresented groups, I've come to value the AMS's outreach efforts.

## Can you describe an instance when you benefited from having an AMS membership?

I've come to value my friendships with AMS members and have occasionally helped my students connect with mathematicians who have guided them in their studies and careers.

## How has the AMS helped you as a member of the mathematics community?

The AMS has helped me be a member of the mathematics community by inviting me to be involved. Despite my not being a mathematician, I've found a welcoming community of mathematical friends and I cherish them.

## What fund or area did you direct your gift to the AMS and what led to this choice?

When I made the gift, it was just to the AMS. I need to update my will and will be increasing the amount of my bequest and will probably then designate it to the Fund in my late husband's name, Stephen Wildstrom. That fund is part of the Next Generation Fund.

## Where did you grow up and how did your interest in mathematics develop?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, until I was ten. And then my family moved to a suburb of Cleveland called Parma Heights, where I remained through my high school years. I'm pretty sure that I already loved math in elementary school, but I knew that I wanted to become a high school math teacher already in eighth grade, when I had a wonderful teacher whose name was Thomas Oneto as an algebra teacher. That feeling intensified in later years when my when another of my teachers, Walter Schlemmer, continued to challenge me and my classmates in our advanced courses. I was also president of the Math Club, and I took math competitions whenever they were offered.

## Did mathematics coordinate with or compete with other interests?

My interest in math was always strong, and although I had a lot of other high school activities, including editing the high school yearbook, taking advanced courses in all subjects and singing in Glee Club, they never overrode my math interests. I was lucky to attend two National Science Foundation summer programs that were focused on math.

## What studies in mathematics did you pursue?

In college, I majored in math, but I made a terrible mistake when I started. I signed up for the hardest calculus sequence, not knowing that all of my other classmates had already had a full year of BC calculus and had done well on the AP exam. My own experience had been very different. My school didn't offer a calculus course, even though I and two other women classmates were ready for it. The school attempted to meet our needs by ordering a programed learning calculus course, which we all took. Sadly, I took the AP exam at the end of my senior year where I scored either a one or a two, but not anything that suggested I knew any calculus. And then here I was in this theoretical proof-based calculus course that was being offered at college. My classmates already knew all the computational methods, and I knew very few of them. So the summer after my freshman year, I spent the whole summer teaching myself calculus so that I could continue.

## What led to you becoming a math teacher?

As I mentioned, I had always intended to become a high school math teacher. I was lucky to have in college a wonderful abstract algebra professor. His name was Eugene Krauss, and many of my mannerisms and teaching approaches were patterned after what I had learned and seen when he was teaching me. I also had a man named Art Coxford for teaching methods at Michigan. I never liked calculus in college due to my traumatic experience at the start, and it was actually a good twenty years into my teaching career before I taught calculus as a course in the high school. Ironically, in 1998, I was the teacher at my school who developed and then taught for another twenty years a multivariable course for our strongest students who were finishing BC calculus before they entered their senior year.

## What are some favorite stories from your teaching career?

Although most of my career, I taught super honors courses to the brightest of students. There were a few times when I had taught courses to kids who didn't think they were good at math. And I remember a student in one of those classes saying that I was the best math teacher ever because I had made them understand the math. The real reason that they were being successful was that this particular course was called Algebra One. Part one was being taught more slowly to give students a chance to actually grasp the material. In the advanced courses that I taught for about 40 of my 50 years, I was working with strong students who were interested in understanding the underlying mathematics. So some of my best experiences were the occasions where they caught on so well to what we were studying, that they were able to share nonstandard approaches to solving the problems and give much more breadth to the course. I'm proud too of the fact that not that a not insignificant number of my former students have selected careers in which math is central. One former student in particular, Scott Kominers, is a mathematical economist at the Harvard Business School. During his senior year of undergraduate studies, he won the Morgan Prize, and he often presents now at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. And he writes columns online about math and poses puzzles in math.

## What was the most rewarding part of your career?

The most rewarding part of my career was knowing that I was making math enjoyable, interesting and accessible to my students. It always meant a lot to me to be sure that my students were able to be successful if they were willing to put in the effort.

## Are any members of your family involved in mathematics and how?

Both of my sons have mathematical careers. In addition, my late husband, Stephen, who was not mathematically trained, had a deep interest in math and he read math books on his own. He trailed me to math conferences and even sometimes left his own professional conferences to join me at mine. In particular, the Joint Mathematics Meetings, that was because he enjoyed the presentations so much and he loved the company of the mathematicians. Our son Jonathan is a researcher in quantum computing at IBM and our son Jake is a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville. Jake's specialty is graph theory and mathematical fiber arts.

## Now that you are retired, how does mathematics feature in your life now?

Truth be told, I really haven't done that much. I think about starting a local math circle, but I haven't done that yet. I offered to help local students too, if they need help studying for test. I occasionally look at the submissions for math competitions. Mostly it's the fact that I still like to attend JMM and other math conferences. In fact, I'm going to Halifax to the Bridges conference, which is art and mathematics.

## What do you wish to see in mathematics for the future, and what role would you like to see the AMS play in that?

I hope that AMS will continue to reach out to encourage and welcome mathematicians, young and old at all levels. Another mathematical organization that I'm active with seeks to discover mathematically talented children from underrepresented groups and to get them excited about math through summer programs and year-round enrichment.

## How has your interest in mathematics impacted your life?

I was so fortunate to know early on what I wanted to do and then to find mentors who encouraged me. I truly enjoyed every single day of my teaching career and I believe that my happiness and my career allowed me to share my enthusiasm with my students, encouraging them as well.

## How can mathematics help save the world?

Mathematics continues to help the world through making new technologies practical and available.