William Vélez

William Vélez, director of the UA Undergraduate Math Majors Advising Center, grew up in South Tucson, where his mother served as vice mayor of the small city. While growing up, he discovered math, and eventually earned a master's degree and a doctorate. Now, he helps minority students see the value of studying math. The center recently received the 2011 American Math Society Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. For more information, go to math.arizona.edu/ugprogram/mcenter.

What's the purpose of the Math Center?

It's really quite amazing, really, because most math departments don't have this kind of structure that focuses department resources toward its math majors. Initially, there was a concern that we needed to keep track of what the math majors were doing, have a structure to support these math majors along their career paths, and have a place for math majors to go when they had questions. It wasn't so much the idea of increasing the number of math majors, but more to help the math majors succeed in their career paths. When I took over the job in 2004, I felt we needed to prepare a more mathematically literate population. By having students take more mathematics and choosing math as a major, we create a group of students prepared to address the country's pressing technical needs.

What is your background in math?

I grew up in South Tucson. My mother was vice mayor of South Tucson for 14 years. I did all of my degrees here at the UA. I majored in math. Then I went to Vietnam in the Navy, and came back in 1970 to go to graduate school. ... When I earned my Ph.D., I didn't want to be a teacher. I went to work for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, working on atomic-weapons systems. I used my mathematics to address a military-industrial problem. This flavored my attitudes toward mathematics being important for students' training.

Why did you come back home?

(The job in New Mexico) was great fun, but I just couldn't stand being cooped up in an office, and I missed the teaching part. I came back in 1977, and I was very fortunate to be offered a position at this university. Departments don't usually hire their own Ph.D.s, but I was hired as an assistant professor, and then I was promoted. Ten years ago, I was given the honor of university distinguished professor because of the work I was doing to increase minority participation in mathematics. In 1999, I was given a presidential mentoring award by Bill Clinton because of my outreach activities.

What's special about the recent award given to the Math Center?

This award to the center is specifically to recognize our success in increasing the number of majors. Since I took over, the Math Center has managed to double the number of math majors. Today, we now have 620 math majors.

Why is it important to you to also increase the number of minority students in math?

I'm the only Chicano mathematician in the department, although there are two other Latino faculty. I noticed we were graduating a minority math major once every other year. I thought this was just an absolutely horrible situation for the minority population in the state of Arizona, and I began my efforts. ... I'm one of the founding members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (www.sacnas.org). ... Minority populations are not gaining access to the important and lucrative careers in science, engineering and math, and we need to be part of that.

How has math improved your life?

I'm a very fortunate person. I grew up in South Tucson. My father died when I was 9, and we were very poor and rarely made ends meet. But here I am. I have this rather important position at the UA. I lecture, and I travel.

Your work isn't solely focused on minority students.

No, all students. In my first year, we saw a 50 percent increase for math majors using techniques I've used in recruiting minority students. Also, 21 percent of our majors are minorities, and a third are female. And you ought to see our female math majors: They are amazing. They are going to grad school at places like Princeton and MIT. But I took this job out of a concern that the work I accomplished in recruiting more minority students would retire with me when I finally retired. This was an opportunity to institutionalize my concerns for mathematics and minorities.