Jennifer Switkes in her office. She recently won the Mathematical Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award, also known as the Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching. (Maya Hood / The Poly Post)

Professor brings out the joy in math

Jennifer Switkes wants to share the joys of math.

A professor of mathematics and associate chair for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Switkes received a Mathematical Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award, also known as the Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching, this year. It serves as a reflection of the enthusiasm she puts into teaching.

Originally from Canada but growing up in Northern California, she said she did a lot of math because she always enjoyed it. While taking middle-school algebra, she said she realized she had a taste for problem-solving and the creativity involved in math. 

“A lot of people don’t think of math as being creative, but it actually is,” Switkes said. 

Jennifer Switkes in her office. She recently won the Mathematical Association of America’s Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo
Award, also known as the Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching. (Maya Hood / The Poly Post)

When she started thinking about college, she had a compelling desire to major in math and always knew that she wanted to be a teacher.

At Harvey Mudd College, Switkes double majored in math and physics. She thought that she wanted to teach high school, so she entered a program called Teach for Pomona that used to be run by Cal Poly Pomona. 

Through this program, she took teaching credential classes and took on a job at a middle school for science.

At 21 years old, she took a science teaching position rather than math for one semester and felt that she completely failed at teaching middle-school science. 

With no teaching credentials or training in class management, she knew she wasn’t ready for the job. After the semester was over, she decided it was in her best interest to resign. 

She decided to go back to school and got her master’s degree and doctoral degree in math at Claremont Graduate University. Meanwhile, she was a part-time lecturer at Citrus Community College.

“I was very scared to teach because I was afraid that I still wouldn’t have what it takes to do it, but I loved it,” Switkes said. 

From that moment, she knew that teaching college students would be her career. 

But as it happens, life took her in an unexpected turn, and her father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and died suddenly. 

She described that moment in her life as a “before and after” time in her life — she measured the moments in her life before and after the loss of her father. 

She said realized that she needed to take the next step in her life, so she got a one-year teaching position at the University of Redlands. Shortly after, she was offered a teaching gig at CPP.

Berit Givens, chair for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who has known Switkes for more than 15 years, said she enjoys working with her. 

“She approaches all of her work with a great deal of integrity, honesty and compassion,” Givens said. “I count on her to give me good advice when I’m trying to make difficult decisions.” 

She tries to engage students through interactive lessons that help them improve their math skills, all while emphasizing collaborative thinking. 

“I don’t view it as just myself doing the math on the board,” Switkes said. “I’m the scribe, but it’s my students and me together thinking about the math.” 

In most of the courses she teaches, she has a project component where students can work together. It’s not just about answering homework questions but exploring things students are interested in exploring.

Over time, the spark had developed within her to take a sabbatical in Uganda and teach there.

In 2013, she went on a sabbatical in Uganda for four and a half months and taught a course called “Differential Equations” at Makerere University. 

She had been to Uganda several times before on mission trips with her church, so she had already fallen in love with Uganda — both the people and the country. 

Within her travels to Uganda, she said she’s learned a lot about the people and the trials they’ve had to face. 

Many of the students she taught grew up in villages without electricity or running water in their homes.

“It’s incredible for one country to go through both of those things,” Switkes said. 

“The people are courageous and survivors and not just survivors but overcomers. So, I love Uganda.” 

She said this in reference to the trauma of the atrocities of Joseph Kony, who led a guerrilla group in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s that committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In 2015, she partnered with the Prison Education Project (PEP) founded by Renford Reese, which involves hundreds of students and some faculty members volunteering at different correctional facilities, and taught a calculus class for two weeks at Luzira Prison in Uganda.

“Prisoners don’t get many visitors, so being able to let them know that we see them as human beings just like us and that we care about them and that their lives still have hope and a future,” Switkes said. 

She believes that we all are not that different from prisoners, that under different circumstances we all could’ve ended up where they are, and under different circumstances, they could’ve ended up where we are.

She also volunteers with PEP in the U.S. at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

“I’m careful with issues like shame or praise,” Switkes added. “I don’t want to single out any individual prisoner.” 

She said she understands that sometimes doing academic math can get frustrating, so sometimes with students, when the level of frustration begins to rise, she feels that it’s her job to gently lower the level again, to maintain calm and peace.

She’s passionate about teaching at CPP especially, because a lot of the students are first-generation college students. 

“I love the opportunity to help students achieve their goals and dreams and also to think about goals and dreams they didn’t know [were a possibility] like graduate school,” Switkes said. “So, I love getting to mentor students, helping students dream bigger and be able to go forward with that dream.”

When it comes to teaching, she said she values the importance of understanding what students are saying and making sure there isn’t a disconnect.

Esteban Escobar is a second-year math major, who is also a transfer student and he said Professor Switkes was the best thing that happened to him.

“She actually helped me get into an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program at the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley by writing me a strong letter of recommendation,” Escobar said. “She taught me to have confidence in myself and my mathematical abilities.” 

Although she said she doesn’t feel like she’s special, many agree that Jennifer Switkes is one of the greatest mathematical professors at the university, and her humility shines through when she acknowledges that she is one example of the many dedicated professors on campus. 

“I will mentor anybody,” she said. “My door is open. I’ll do my best to mentor anybody that I meet.”

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