Mathematician shares experiences as a woman in STEM, immigration story

Researcher Pamela Harris has written over 30 publications, taught at West Point Military Academy and is on-track to become a tenured professor of mathematics at Williams College. Most interestingly, however, Harris moved to the United States when she was 12 as an undocumented immigrant. 

Harris shared her story with the Geneseo campus on Thursday Jan. 25 in a lecture titled “The Lonely Reality of an American Dreamer.” She visited Geneseo to lecture and teach an applied mathematics class for Math Research Weekend. Yet Harris’s story as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is particularly relevant, considering current negotiations about immigration policies.  

Harris opened the lecture by talking about her hometown in Guadalajara Jalisco, Mexico. Even as a child, Harris felt destined to travel. 

“Whenever I thought of the wonderful things you could do as an adult, it was travel and seeing the world and meeting new people,” Harris said. 

Harris’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight, but returned to Mexico shortly thereafter. When Harris was 12, they immigrated again—this time permanently moving to Milwaukee, Wis. Her family completed this move by obtaining a temporary visa and simply never returning to Mexico. 

While studying in the U.S., Harris’s main goal was to receive a college education. 

“Education was really important to my parents,” Harris said. “High school was unprecedented.”

Getting into and being able to pay for college as an undocumented immigrant is extremely challenging. The obstacles primarily manifest in the many forms of documentation necessary for admission and for financial aid. Harris, however, was determined not to let that stop her.

“I wanted to make my parents proud,” Harris said. “They have done so much—they gave up their families, their culture and their language to come to Milwaukee, Wis.—so my whole life, I have grown up with this responsibility to set the bar.”

 It was not until college that Harris discovered her love for mathematics. Since Harris married a U.S. citizen, she was able to obtain legal citizenship and then continue to attend college. 

Eventually, Harris earned her doctorate from the University of Washington-Milwaukee. She taught at West Point Academy for four years after earning her degree. 

“I loved that job,” Harris said. “It was a job that allowed me to do service for the country that adopted me … I’ve never felt such pride.” 

From there, Harris moved to Williams College to teach mathematics and serves as a mentor to other women of color who want to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics—fields that are usually dominated by white men. 

Harris closed her speech by offering advice on how the college can help Dreamers. She said that it is important to create a welcoming environment, offer resources, provide peer-to-peer support and build staff capacity and knowledge of relevant issues. 

 Many students who attended Harris’s talk were hoping to learn about the challenges and rewards of being a woman in color in this field.

“I have personal experience with undocumented immigrants, so I wanted to learn more about the experience, especially going into the same field that I’m going in to,” applied mathematics major sophomore James Canning said. 

Overall, students learned a lot from Harris’s presentation that they can utilize in their every day lives. Lessons highlighted the importance of equality.

“I learned that everyone has a chance for equal opportunity and an equal chance to improve the world, and we should offer that to them—we shouldn’t be exclusive,” physics and mathematics double major sophomore Lydia Fillhart said. 

Harris’s lecture served as an important reminder that when talking about undocumented immigrants, it is a discussion that centers on people who have hopes, dreams and the potential to do great things. Harris’s research and success in mathematics offers a prime example of this kind of value and endurance.u