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Math Professors Make Tenure and History for the College
Posted 03/08/2021 12:50PM

By Tiffany King

One of the noblest professions one can have is that of a teacher or educator. Being able to shape and build generations for the future requires a lot of dedication, sacrifice, service, and enthusiasm. Faculty at the College of Coastal Georgia are no different. Many contribute to their field while simultaneously sharing their enthusiasm for subject matters with students, and hope some will take what they've learned one step further. While there are many professional and personal milestones a faculty member can have, such as being published, achieving the status of tenure is a defining moment for many. Dr. Syvillia Averett and Dr. Courtenay Miller recently earned tenure at the College and joined the ranks of other tenured faculty. However, their achievement includes being the first two African American women to earn tenure since the College became a four-year institution in 2008. They took a moment to share what it means for them and what they learned about themselves during the process.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Syvillia Averett is a native of Columbus, Ohio. She attended The Ohio State University through a scholarship she received while in the sixth grade. The Young Scholars Program awards young students a scholarship to Ohio State if they maintain certain requirements through high school and graduate—which Averett was able to do. She was a first-generation college student. Her career in math almost didn't happen when she first thought of majoring in biology to become a doctor. However, when the well-known sentiment "major in what you like, not what makes money" sunk in, she decided to pursue what she enjoyed—math.

"I knew I wanted to teach math and thought I wanted to teach high school math. I then realized I didn't because teaching k12 is challenging. You're not only dealing with the needs of students, but also the challenges of their parents—however, I always wanted to teach," Averett said.

Ohio State is a research-focused institution, so math education is not a heavily emphasized program, Averett said. She decided to attend graduate school in order to have more time to figure out her career in math. Averett graduated from Ohio State in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, and went on to earn both a master's and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Iowa. Averett described the math graduate program at the University of Iowa as a model program for attracting minority students to doctorate programs in math and graduating many, if not all, in the program.

She came to the College in January 2016 after teaching in Wilberforce, Ohio for three years. Averett shared that she reached a point of capacity there and reached out to her mentor at the time, Dr. Victor Vega-Vazquez, who was then interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. She expressed to Vega-Vasquez how she felt and he eventually informed her about an opening at the College for a math professor.

"I told myself that if I moved again, I would move somewhere that didn't have snow and ice storms. Interestingly enough, I got an ice storm the first couple of years here, but not like the ones up north," she said. "I ended up moving here January 2016 and jumped right in."

Finding the Grand Story

Averett described the tenure process as an evaluation process ramped up fourfold. It involves a review conducted by the faculty member's department, department chair, dean, promotions and tenure committee comprised of tenured faculty across all disciplines, provost, college president, then the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Once approved after a long wait, one becomes what Averett calls a "forever colleague."

Part of the process is submitting an extensive portfolio of work based on four areas: teaching, service, scholarship, and professional development.

"Our primary role here is to teach and be effective in the classroom. You write an essay or narrative for each section and provide supporting documentation of what you've done," she said. "Depending on who the person is, the narratives can be long or short, but you are trying to tell your story in a way that the committees will understand. Your department knows you pretty well, but others don't. You have to tell your story and tell it well. Once you put the narratives together, you see what the grand story is for you."

In the process of putting her portfolio together, Averett realized how much teaching permeates all the other sections of the portfolio and that it's difficult to find a balance in doing everything. She also realized the amount of service she does and how it's often service that cannot be documented.

"We tend to give a lot of ourselves, and sometimes it can be too much. I learned a lot about boundaries. I looked at my portfolio and said, 'You did all this in three years?' Looking back, I can say, 'I did a lot of work, and did a lot of work in a lot of places.' For the next round, you try to find a little bit more focus for what you're doing," she said.

Having a Voice

When Averett learned that she earned tenure, she unfortunately couldn't celebrate the way she wanted. News of her tenure came amid the shift to online teaching due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the unusual circumstances of the time, Averett naturally avoids the spotlight, but her family and friends were very willing to celebrate on her behalf. She is appreciative of the benefits of tenure, such as the sense of job security and feeling like she now has a voice.

"When I was fresh out of grad school, I wasn't sure that I could say things or express my thoughts and contribute to conversations. You're always told that you have to stay kind of quiet because you don't have tenure and your tenure depends on how people see you," Averett said. "I decided when I left my last institution that while I won't be loud, I'm going to ask the questions I need to ask. I didn't want to feel that way in a position again. A lot of the relief of tenure comes with the feeling of now you really have a voice."

What she also appreciates about earning tenure is the feeling of acceptance by her peers.

"The people that have seen things and have been here, for them to look at me and say 'That is someone I want to work with' is valuable. That kind of acceptance is cool. They're saying 'We want you to be our forever colleague,'" she said.

On being one of two African American women to achieve tenure since the College became a four-year institution, Averett said she understands the trailblazing aspect of it, but is saddened by the idea that there still needed to be a "first." She hopes that the College and society as a whole will soon run out of "first" designations. However, she is thrilled to earn tenure and that it didn't take long for the College to reach this moment.

An Instant Connection

Director of STEM and Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Courtenay Miller is originally from Louisville, Kentucky. Miller earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kentucky and earned her doctorate in mathematics education from the University of Louisville. She also worked as a secondary math teacher for 14 years while pursuing her Ph.D. Miller started at the College in 2014. She was looking for a change and told her family that she wanted to live in the South. With her daughter enrolled in college, she thought it was a good time to move to Coastal Georgia.


"I wanted to find the beach and find the ocean. I was 27 when I saw the beach for the first time in my life, so I wanted to be near the water," Miller said.

At the time, Miller was looking for math educator positions, and there was an availability at the College. She visited the College's website to learn more and made an instant connection with a photo of students she saw on the site.

"I did a Google search and when the College came up, it was a nice picture. It wasn't a beach picture, but it was of students. There was something about it—I just connected with it," she said.

Miller kept a drawer of artifacts on everything she's done at the College. In organizing her portfolio—which was approximately 600 pages—she realized how much she infused her passion for helping under-served communities with her work.

"I have a very strong passion for children. Everything I do, from service-learning to being Director of STEM, I try to impact the community in some type of way," Miller said. "When I was the advisor of the Mathematics and Engineering Club, we collected snacks and took them down to the Roosevelt Lawrence Community Center."

Being awarded tenure still has not sunk in yet for Miller. Right after she learned about her achievement, she had to care for her mother, who was injured with a broken femur. It was the early stages of the pandemic and Miller was locked in her mother's rehabilitation center, as many medical facilities tried to understand how to best care for their patients. After leaving the center, she returned to Brunswick and had to immediately switch to online instruction. Miller felt like her opportunity to really celebrate has passed, but she is proud to add another achievement to her list of "firsts." She prides herself on being the first of many things, she said. Her lists of firsts include being the first African American valedictorian of her high school, first valedictorian of her church, first in her family to earn a doctorate, and the first to chair a virtual conference for the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics.

"One thing that I love at Coastal Georgia is the students. I'd love for the African American students to see me as a model, so they can aspire to be great at whatever they do. It makes me feel good that they are seeing me and my colleague," she said. "Sometimes it can be intimidating to pursue an advance degree and all your professors don't look like you, talk like you, empathize, or sympathize with you."

At one point in time, Miller didn't think earning tenure was a possibility. When she went up for pre-tenure, she was very anxious about the process and thought she wasn't going to get pre-tenure—but she did.

"I was in my colleague's office and cried. I never really thought I would get tenure from that experience, so to actually get it is surreal. I don't think it's clicked yet because I still have work to do, but it is a blessing—a true blessing" Miller said.

The Work is Worth It

Being a faculty member at any institution is hard work, but Averett and Miller have both seen the reward. Averett hopes that the students she interacts with realize that mathematics doesn't belong to anyone—it belongs to the universe. Anyone who wants to do math, can do math, and anyone can do math education and thrive successfully, she said.

"What I hope is that we come to a place where that is the norm—to where everyone can feel like they can do math, and will do math well for whatever needs they have. I hope students see Dr. Miller and myself and say that these women who come from different beginnings and different paths ended up at this place for a reason," Averett said. "We ended up doing this at the same time for a reason. We are here to ensure that their future and access to our subjects looks a little different than it was for us when we came through. Hopefully, their path is a little cleaner, a little simpler because we came through first."

Averett's proudest moments are when her students succeed and achieve their goals.

For Miller, teaching future math educators brings her immense joy.

"If I'm teaching them to effectively and efficiently teach the babies, then it's rewarding. It's rewarding when I see their confidence," Miller said. "A lot of future math teachers deal with mathematics anxiety, so I immediately start working on their confidence and celebrate their victories and epiphanies about math. If they successfully teach the babies and do it with excitement, then my job is all worth it."

Now that Averett and Miller are tenured faculty the work continues. In addition to her teaching duties, Miller has taken on more leadership roles. She is on the nominations and elections committee of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, leads STEM Collaborate on campus, and is a member of the President's Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. Averett continues to find innovative ways to teach students, participates in faculty learning communities, serves on committees, and works with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. They both continue to encourage students to not only succeed in math, but flourish in their career aspirations.

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