Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Nataliya Yufa of the Cambridge Math Circle. Blue background and shadow were added to the right of this image via digital retouching. (Photo: Alma Barak)

The first thing you notice about Nataliya Yufa is her laugh, loud and infectious. The second thing is the origami structures she builds constantly, piecing them together like sections of a quilt.

“It’s for the kids,” she explained. Yufa is director of the Cambridge Math Circle, a nonprofit that teaches children, especially those underrepresented in fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, how to think like mathematicians. She uses the folded paper structures to teach her students geometry, 2D and 3D shapes, as well as fine motor skills. “We hear from families how much their kids enjoy our stuff and how it changes how they feel about themselves,” Yufa said. “That, to me, is kind of the gold standard.”

Growing up in Kyiv, Ukraine, when it was controlled by the Soviet Union, Yufa found her skill in math to be the one thing no one could take away. Many other school subjects felt like dead ends in that era: Every Monday for current events, students were expected to come to school with a selection of what amounted to press releases from Soviet papers; history was made up of lessons that the USSR would never fall; even the storybooks that Yufa read included long sections of Communist propaganda.

When she was younger, she liked to play soccer, but was quickly taught that the sport wasn’t meant for girls. Math wasn’t approved of either, but unlike with soccer, which required teammates, no one could control what went on in Yufa’s mind. Boris Shkolnik, her teacher from fifth to eighth grade, was the first to introduce her to the field’s beauty. As a little girl, Yufa would stay up late into the night trying to figure out challenging puzzles from class, then bound excitedly to school the next day to teach her classmates.

“It was this twin thing of figuring out something that seemed until a moment earlier impossible, and then being able to help somebody to see it too that was so powerful,” Yufa said. “It inspired me to become a teacher.”

Struggles in Ukraine

When Yufa turned 12, the USSR collapsed. It felt earth-shattering, unbelievable.

Whereas before there’d been job guarantees, and staples such as bread and butter were provided to all, now there was no such assurance. Millions lost their jobs, and Yufa’s family and thousands of others had to line up for hours to get food. Inflation was rampant in the collapsed economy, with prices increasing by 50 percent or more overnight, Yufa recalled.

At the same time, there was an influx of international goods that had been banned. Cars, for example, had been a rarity under the USSR but were suddenly available from abroad, creating immense demand. The number of private vehicles rose faster than traffic police or laws could catch, and the result was nonstop collisions. Yufa’s mother was a casualty; she was struck by a car and died when Yufa was 13.

It had always been hard to be Jewish in Kyiv. Compounded with this deep loss and money struggles, it became suddenly much more difficult. “It was clear that the discrimination and antisemitism were not going away,” Yufa said. “You were forever marked as the other.”

Yufa’s father had to study remotely because the local university’s Jewish quota was filled. She had to read books aloud in class that included Jewish slurs, and she heard common Ukrainian street rhymes filled with hate: “If you turn on the faucet and there is no water, it means the kikes drank it. If you turn on the faucet and there is water, that means a kike peed in there.” The antisemitism became a fear ingrained within Yufa and her community. She knew that when somebody needed to be blamed for something, it would be the Jews. “You were always ready for the other shoe to drop,” she said.

Implementing lessons

A Cambridge Math Circle student makes a breakthrough June 30 at camp held on the Harvard campus. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

Coming to New York at 14 felt like a fever dream. For the first time, instead of being “the Jewish girl,” Yufa was “the Russian.” New York was filled with bright lights Ukrainian cities couldn’t afford and stores with no hourslong waits. “It was paradise,” Yufa said.

Every utopia has its dark side. Yufa’s father spoke no English, which made finding jobs hard, and he went from head of a Ukrainian research lab with two doctorates to an immigrant construction worker and newspaper deliverer. Yufa, now a high schooler, couldn’t participate in activities that weren’t free.

Yufa flourished in America despite her family’s poverty. She ended up majoring in math and physics at MIT for her undergraduate degree; while getting a graduate degree in nanotechnology at the University of Chicago, she also studied educational inequity between wealthy and low-income districts. Yufa went on to work in a variety of educational posts, from a Texan Company called Reasoning Mind to being a building substitute at the Cambridge Street Upper School.

She ran a math circle in Texas for Reasoning Mind; the idea reemerged after her return to Cambridge. Yufa and Mira Bernstein, a former director of the Canada/USA Mathcamp, launched the Cambridge Math Circle in January 2018. They were intent on increasing diversity in the field. The restrictions of her childhood poverty motivated Yufa to make Cambridge Math Circle activities free for all in most cases, and free for low-income families in all cases. Math Circle doesn’t measure income for most classes, but Yufa estimated that more than 30 percent of kids in the program are low-income.

After only a half-dozen years, the results are impressive. About 48 percent of students are girls, 30 percent are African American and 10 percent are Latinx, and class difficulty levels have to be ratcheted up every year, Yufa said – students are joining younger and younger, increasing the skill levels of each class as they advance to upper grades.

“I remember kids when they were younger would cry because they couldn’t solve a problem. It was the first time that they came across a problem that they couldn’t solve right away, and it was brutal for them to understand that such problems exist,” Yufa said. “I see these kids a few years later, and they’re so comfortable with discomfort. They know that they’ve just got to try some things and that they have the tools to do so. It makes it really special being able to see these kids grow up.”