September 3, 2022

The Three Words That Matter Most to Inaugural Fellowship Recipient: Pay It Forward

INAUGURAL FELLOWSHIP RECIPIENT: Interfield doctoral student Sunny Le is the first recipient of an Engelberg Fellowship in the Mathematical Sciences

Growing up in Saigon, Sunny Le learned a discouraging lesson in school.

Math, her teachers informed her, and other STEM-related subjects were meant for boys to study; less technical subjects like history or literature were better suited for girls.

That rigid outlook left Le with a negative view of her own abilities in math.

“I honestly thought I was bad at math for a long time,” she said. “Our teachers had an attitude that ‘men can do everything, but girls can’t. They aren’t made for math.’ They didn’t encourage me.”

Just imagine what those teachers would think today of Le, who serves as a full-time lecturer in mathematics at Cal State Fullerton while completing an interfield doctorate in the fields of mathematics and education. Since coming to the U.S. as a teenager, Le has definitely challenged that stereotype back home.

Le is following in the footsteps of another individual who challenged stereotypes and blazed trails for women in mathematics in academia: Ora Engelberg Percus.

Last year, her son Allon Percus, who is a mathematics professor in CGU’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), established the Engelberg Fellowships in the Mathematical Sciences in her honor.

A faculty committee selected Le as the inaugural recipient of the award, which bestows $25,000 on a continuing doctoral student in mathematics. The fellowship was established by Percus to recognize excellence in the mathematical sciences, with particular consideration for underrepresented and nontraditional groups.

When she learned she’d been chosen, Le said she was completely stunned.

“I was not expecting this at all,” she said. “I was so surprised, and so honored and excited, too.”

For Ali Nadim, former IMS director who served on the selection committee, Le embodies the spirit and mission of the fellowship.

“Sunny is such an inspiring individual, and her determination to succeed in mathematics made our committee realize that she was the ideal choice for the fellowship’s first recipient,” he said.

CHANGING STUDENTS’ LIVES: The Engelberg Fellowships in Mathematical Sciences pay tribute to the research achievements of Ora Engelberg Percus (pictured here), the mother of CGU faculty member Professor Allon Percus.

Saving Time and Money

The fellowship award helps ease the financial load of recipients as they work on their degrees.

In Le’s case, that load is significant. She and her husband Kenny—who is also an IMS doctoral student—are juggling double tuition costs while working and raising their three young children.

To make ends meet, Le said she has been taking on several external and internal projects funded with grants at Cal State Fullerton. With her receipt of the award, she can let those projects go and “just focus on my teaching and finishing my degree. I’m so happy. I can’t believe I’m so close to finishing!”

Thanks to the award, Le said she will also be able to set another personal goal: To complete her PhD by the time her oldest daughter, Angel, 14, becomes a junior in high school. She wants to be able to devote more time to helping Angel as she prepares for her own college career.

Le says it’s an ambitious goal, but she’s confident she can do it.

Finding a Family in the IMS

Le left Vietnam at 15 on a student exchange program that took her to Ithaca, New York. As she studied in an AP Calculus class in high school there, she realized something: Her teachers back in Vietnam were wrong. Women can be good at math.

From there, she enrolled in Olney Central College in Illinois and recalls being stunned when she entered a math classroom there for the first time. Standing at the front of the classroom was her teacher: a woman.

‘The students and faculty of the institute

really treat each other like a family.’

“Something clicked in me when I saw her,” she recalled. “Having a role model who was a woman was very inspiring. It was life-changing for me.”

Another powerful and life-changing influence on her was her first meeting with John Angus when Le was looking at doctoral programs.

At that point, she said she’d been away from student life for ten years. She’d completed her master’s in mathematics and was teaching in Cal State Fullerton’s program while raising her children. Returning to school for a doctorate scared her; but she was inspired by many of her Fullerton colleagues who’d attended CGU and were enthusiastic about studying math here.

When she met Angus, she understood why.

She said Angus was so welcoming and encouraging to her. He told her not to be afraid.

“He told me, ‘you can do this,’ and I thought, if Professor Angus believes in me and he hardly knows me, why don’t I believe in myself?”

IMS Professor John Angus

“The students and faculty of the institute really treat each other like a family,” she said. “The dynamic in other math departments is so completely different.”

Today, as an interfield student, Le is focusing her research on machine learning and statistical techniques to analyze education data. She hopes that this approach will lead to new discoveries about the lives and circumstances of today’s students so that better educational policies are put in place.

Paying It Forward

Le’s passion for teaching is matched only by her passion for helping others.

She and her husband’s dream is to eventually return to Vietnam and to build a large orphanage where they can provide children with more opportunities.

When it comes to education in Vietnam, she said society is heavily divided into the Haves and the Have Nots.

“There are so many children with unfortunate lives who can’t afford an education,” she said. “It’s very simple the way things are treated there. If you don’t have money, you don’t get an education. That’s it. But I really want to change that. One day I want to do in my own small way what Ora Engelberg Percus did with her career: inspire people. My dream is to make a difference in people’s lives the way she has made a difference in mine.”