A passion for helping and mentoring underrepresented STEM students led a UTA professor to receive the country’s highest honor for mentoring.
Minerva Cordero, mathematics professor and senior associate dean of the College of Science, was one of 12 recipients selected by President Joe Biden for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in February.
According to a White House statement, the award is the highest US honor for those who have mentored outside of the traditional classroom and encouraged members of underrepresented communities in academic and professional development for future STEM work. The winners received $10,000 and a certificate signed by the President.
“This [presidential award] It just opens doors and creates a bigger platform for me to share my passion for mentoring,” said Cordero.
Cordero’s work includes lecturing, conducting mathematical research, and coordinating undergraduate education. She believes there is a lack of diversity in the STEM student body and strives to increase the participation of minority students.
She is currently working with PhD students and helping the faculty with their research.
“[Mentoring is] It’s innate, my nature, to help people,” Cordero said. “It’s not necessarily part of my job description, but it’s one of the parts I enjoy most about mentoring because I really see that there’s a great need for compassion for everyone.”
Ariel Leslie, a senior metrics and data analyst at Lockheed Martin, was a participant in the University of Texas’ System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Bridge to Doctorate Program prior to earning her doctorate in mathematics. Leslie said Cordero supported her throughout the scholarship.
Leslie, an African American in STEM, said having someone from a double minority like herself be willing to lead her as a student spoke volumes.
“She was really standing in a place that she didn’t have to, but she chose to be,” she said.
She applies the knowledge she’s gained as she takes on more responsibility each day, Leslie said.
“[Cordero’s] definitely helped me to be honest with myself but then also to learn to remember my studies and to know that I deserve this place so let me go in,” she said. “I learned that just by watching them.”
Jianzhong Su, mathematics professor and chair holder, nominated Cordero for the award.
She is one of the most respected professors at UTA and has done well in her endeavors in mentoring, teaching, research and community service, Su said.
Cordero has done a tremendous amount of work mentoring students from underrepresented minority groups, helping them complete their degrees and build successful career paths, he said.
Su said Cordero understands the challenges that students face when learning math and she has been very committed to helping students overcome these hurdles.
Cordero said she gets excited when her students see their potential and apply their mentorship as they move from mentee to mentor.
She recalled her own first mentor, a professor, who encouraged her to pursue postgraduate plans as a student. She comes from a Puerto Rican background where financial resources were insufficient for her schooling, and her mentor helped her apply for scholarships and graduate schools.
Codero didn’t think she would get a PhD. She was a first-generation college student and no one in her family was enrolled in a PhD program.
“That’s something I hadn’t thought of,” she said. “But this professor opened my eyes to this possibility. And I understood that your words and actions can have such an impact on your student’s life.”
Cordero said she wants to continue the mentoring and hopes others will join her and see the value of mentoring as it is key to student success, especially for students from diverse backgrounds.
For her, diversity means bringing people with different backgrounds and life experiences to the table where everyone’s voice has equal weight and is heard and valued.
“I just hope that I will serve as an inspiration to other faculty here at UT Arlington and in the math community in general, in science [community] to learn more about the value of mentoring and how you can do it,” Cordero said.