Michael Young honored with Martin Luther King, Jr. Advancing One Community Award

Michael Young, assistant professor of mathematics, was honored by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion on Jan. 18 with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Advancing One Community Award.

The award recognizes students, faculty, staff, or campus organizations who have demonstrated commitment to the principles and goals of Martin Luther King, Jr: to create an inclusive multicultural community through nonviolent actions.

"Through his work as a highly productive researcher and his personal commitment to helping students succeed, Dr. Young continues to improve the campus climate for underrepresented groups on campus, in Iowa, and throughout the nation," said Beate Schmittmann.

Young started the Mathematicians of Color Alliance (MOCA) after seeing a need at Iowa State for a support system for underrepresented students.

"I wanted to provide something that I think would have been beneficial to me when I was a student," Young said. "There were no other students with a similar background to me in terms of type of undergraduate institution I attended, race, region of the country, or mathematical experience."

Through MOCA, Iowa State has become a more welcoming and supportive place for underrepresented students in mathematics. MOCA has given students funding to attend conferences, held study sessions for qualifying exams, and provided mentoring and networking opportunities by bringing mathematicians of color from various universities to present at Iowa State. The group also recruits students of color to Iowa State by hosting a Math Solve-a-thon event and reaching out to students of color majoring in mathematics at other schools during national conferences and events.

Young is frequently sought out by underrepresented graduate students as a mentor. He has the second largest number of graduate students among the faculty in the Mathematics Department including two students who are African American, two students who are Latinx, and a student with a visual impairment.

Young's influence extends beyond Iowa State to affect students across the nation. Through an NSF-funded project, DEBT-M (Designing for Equity By Thinking in and about Mathematics), he has worked with the Pittsburgh Public School District to improve the learning environment for students of color. In the district, 80% of the students are black while 75% of the teachers are white. Young and his collaborators trained teachers to bridge the cultural divide. Through recognition of the challenges and open conversation about race teachers and students can connect on a meaningful level, opening the door for improved learning.

In a second NSF-funded project, Building on Strengths, Young is leading a team to develop the Mathematician Affiliates of Color Network, a nationwide network of professionals and academics in mathematics. The mathematicians in the network will serve as mentors to middle and high school students and work with teachers in local school districts to help prepare underrepresented students for college mathematics courses. Here in Ames, members of MOCA will serve as mentors in the Ames School District.

Young is a highly productive researcher in mathematics who sees mathematics as a social activity, a language that brings people together. His many areas of involvement to make mathematics education more accessible for underrepresented students demonstrates his commitment to that philosophy and his alignment with the community building principles of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"This award is not about the work that I have done," Young said. "It is about the people that I have done the work for, the students in MOCA and every voiceless and marginalized student sitting in our mathematics classrooms."