Plenary Speaker Profile (2002)
William Yslas Velez
Professor of Mathematics
University of Arizona
Increasing the Number of Mathematics Majors

For the last ten or fifteen years I have been focusing a great deal of energy on increasing the number of minority mathematics majors in our department. In the late 1980's we graduated perhaps one minority undergraduate mathematics major every two years. We now have 300 mathematics majors in the department, of whom about 50 are minority students.

My efforts begin with minority students enrolled in our traditional three-semester calculus course. The department now allocates a small amount of funds to hire a student assistant to help me contact minority students enrolled in these courses. The student assistant sets up twenty-minute appointments. During this twenty-minute appointment I go over the student's schedule, discuss career plans, talk about the importance of resumes and internships. And one more thing. If a student comes into my office enrolled in calculus and the student does not have a major declared, I make that student into a mathematics major on the spot! This can be shocking experience for a student.

I would like to point out that my work with students has nothing to do with the fact that they are minority students. I have tried to convince our faculty that we should be as aggressive with all of our calculus students. Also, these proactive approaches may be successful in encouraging students to study mathematics whether or not they do indeed become majors.

William Yslas Vélez was born in Tucson, Arizona and grew up in the "nurturing embrace" of the Spanish-speaking part of the town in a home in which "education was heavily emphasized" by his Mexican born parents.

Vélez earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from The University of Arizona, completing his doctoral degree in mathematics in 1975. He has been a faculty member of the Department of Mathematics at The University of Arizona since 1977. His mathematical research interests have been in number theory and algebra. He has held positions at various military labs, applying mathematics to solve problems that have arisen in military communication systems. As a Program Officer at the National Science Foundation, Vélez directed the Algebra and Number Theory Program. Vélez was awarded the National Science Foundation Director's Equal Opportunity Achievement Award in 1993, and a White House President's Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1997.

Vélez is a Founding Member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and served as President of this organization from 1994-96. His most recent efforts have been directed to increasing the opportunities for Hispanic students in mathematics based careers. From 1994-99 he served as the Director of the NSF funded Southwest Regional Institute in Mathematical Sciences, an institute dedicated to the integration of research and education.