BEING the first student from her high school to achieve nine grade ones in one sitting of the CSEC examinations, 22-year-old Janelle Walker is held in high esteem at her alma mater, Camperdown High. And when she impressed again by gaining grade ones in biology, chemistry and mathematics at the CAPE level, the accolades flowed in for the girl considered a math whiz.
Today, Walker has completed her Bachelor of Science degree in mathematical sciences with a minor in environmental science, magna cum laude at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York; completed the 2016 Harvard summer programme for biostatistics and computational biology; and has been accepted to a PhD programme this coming fall, with only her Bachelor’s and other qualifications.
She tells All Woman that she intends to use mathematics to make a difference locally, and decided to journey back to Camperdown High this semester to teach mathematics as a volunteer to students who are weak in the subject, as she knows how intimidating the subject can appear.
Walker recalls that as a child she had a liking for math as her father had taught her the subject, but for some reason, while in grade four she could not grasp the concept of long division.
“I knew how to divide, but the way it was being taught in school was not very comprehensive. Looking back now, I understand that sometimes it’s not the course that’s difficult; I realised had I not had a dad who taught us differently, I would have been turned off from the subject — like what happened to many of my friends. So if this can be communicated to students differently, we would have a larger population actually embracing math and not being turned off at an early age,” she explained.
She says she’s engaged in an intervention math programme at Camperdown, and is trying to look at it as a microscopic experiment.
“We’re trying to see how it affects students on a micro scale as opposed to the macro scale. This way you see the problem head-on,” she explained.
Walker pointed out that she inspires students to embrace mathematics by explaining the purpose of each mathematical problem and teaching it within a context that they can relate to and understand.
“A common issue students have is trying to figure out why they need to find ‘X’, so I find that explaining to them the reason and not just telling them to find it helps. Also, students can relate to currency. So when you teach the equations and problems using money, something they can relate to, I find that they understand better,” she said.
She added that she also includes parents in her classes and marathons, so the students feel more comfortable approaching the subject.
Born in Kingston, Walker spent most of her life in the inner-city community of Franklyn Town.
“Being at Harvard I [understood that I was a student coming from the ghetto blessed with this opportunity], and I wanted students from my alma mater to experience the same opportunities and understand that they too could experience this,” she said.
“I [wanted to] help those who are about to fail. So I’m at Camperdown from Mondays to Saturdays, and I [was there] over the Easter weekend. It’s showing the students that people are willing to put their lives on hold for them. I enjoy volunteering in this way and I wish more young people would do it, as too much emphasis is placed on money so that people neglect what is valuable in life.”
She added: “When I hear students say, ‘Miss, now I have hope and I believe I can do it’, it is satisfying.”
Among her many accomplishments, Walker served as deputy head girl at Camperdown; modelled with Pulse; was a finalist for the 2016 Jamaica Rhodes Scholarship; was accepted into the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Summer Programme at Berkeley; was a Dean’s List Awardee for 2013-2016; and President’s List Awardee (on the Dean’s list four consecutive semesters earning a 4.0 GPA in at least one semester) at Medgar Evers College.
“It’s not where you go, it’s what you do there,” she said, addressing the issue of her school choices and placements.
“I took that mindset and it fuelled my drive. When I decided to go to Medgar Evers College, people said, ‘Don’t go there because it’s located in Crown Heights,’ which people say is a bad area. People also look at Camperdown as a school in a bad area. But that experience at Camperdown, being the first to gain nine ones, was a driving force for everything in my life,” she said, adding that she is a product of an amazing support system inclusive of her family, friends, mentors, advisors, teachers and professors.
She lives by the philosophy, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’, and has one piece of advice for young people: “Go for it, it doesn’t matter how many times you hear ‘no’.”
For the future, Walker sees herself studying and practising a math-related discipline over the next five to six years.