Learning in Budapest: Student Pursues Teaching Passion Abroad

Sophia Hui PO '19 is back from a math study abroad program that she helped design. (Thummim Mekuria • The Student Life)

When Sophia Hui PO ’19 left for her study abroad program in fall 2017, she wasn’t sure if the Pomona College Study Abroad Office would approve the program. But even if it meant taking a leave of absence from Pomona, Hui was intent on attending the Budapest Semester in Mathematics Education program [BSME].

“I knew I wanted to study abroad in general, but once I came across this program, there was no way I was going to do anything else,” Hui said.

Hui first heard about the program from Erica Flapan, Pomona’s Lingurn H. Burkhead Professor of Mathematics. Flapan is Pomona’s liaison to the well-known Budapest Semester in Mathematics program [BSM], a program related to BSME.

Unlike BSM, BSME is specifically focused on math education, although students can take BSM classes as well. According to the BSME website, “BSME is specifically intended for those who are not only passionate about mathematics, but also the teaching of mathematics.”

For Hui, a math major with a longstanding interest in teaching, this program was the perfect fit, as well as a unique opportunity to learn about how math is taught outside of the United States.

Last fall, Hui petitioned the study abroad office to approve her program, although she was unsure whether the office would approve a program with a slightly pre-professional angle. However, while Hui was in Budapest, Pomona’s Director of Study Abroad Nicole Desjardins Gowdy visited the BSM and BSME programs and later pitched the BSME program to the study abroad committee, which approved the program.

Gowdy said that the math department’s support for the program, as well as Hui’s positive review, contributed to the study abroad committee’s decision to make BSME an approved Pomona study abroad program. In addition, the Study Abroad Office determined that the courses were not too pre-professional in that they focused not only on specific skills but also on theory and reflection.

The program was “in many ways ideal,” as it captured student interest while centering on the academic experience, Gowdy said.

Hui’s courses included a research seminar focused on the gender gap in mathematics in Hungary as well as a practicum in which students visited a different high school each week to observe classes. At the end of the semester, BSME students taught a lesson at one of the Hungarian high schools.

Hui said that the practicum was where she “really got the cultural aspect of the study abroad program.”

Gowdy also cited the experiential component of BSME as one of the things that makes the program unique.

“It’s really taking math as the lens and as the vehicle to learn about the culture, to learn about some of the differences in approaches to math, and some of the differences in problem solving and creativity in general,” Gowdy said.

According to Hui, BSME students are exposed to the “Hungarian method” of learning math, which prioritizes critical thinking skills over computational problems and asks students to “apply concepts you’ve learned from all across mathematics to solve this one problem.”

“I think it’s a really creative way to learn mathematics, and you just learn so many skills you can take away into your other pure or applied math classes,” Hui said.

In addition, Hui said that she left BSME with more confidence in her teaching abilities and a new desire to pursue teaching immediately after graduation, rather than waiting a few years until she had more experience.

Hui’s Budapest teaching experience is especially valuable given that opportunities to study education are few and far between at the Claremont Colleges.

Although Hui took an education-focused class at Claremont Graduate University, she doesn’t know of many education courses at the 5Cs, nor does she often hear about post-grad opportunities in education.

“I feel like I hear more about grad schools, consulting, going into tech, especially in the math department,” Hui said.

Like Hui, Allison Kirkegaard PO ’19 has found creative ways to pursue her interest in education. In addition to taking a course at CGU, she studied the impact of Confucianism on education in China as part of her Middlebury study abroad program last fall.

However, Kirkegaard, a math and cognitive science double major, also said she would like to see more education-focused courses at the 5Cs, as well as more guidance from Pomona’s Career Development Office for pursuing careers in education.

For now, education-oriented students have at least one new opportunity available: BSME, the only Pomona approved study abroad program with a specific focus on education and the second approved program with a math focus.

Hui emphasized that BSME can appeal to students with a wide range of interests.

“You don’t need to want to be a teacher to do this program,” Hui said. “If you’re just interested in how they teach math or how you can learn math differently, and if you’re interested in the broader field of mathematics education, then it’s the program for you.”