Innerviews: Fulbright Scholarship new feather in math professor’s cap

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Fulbright scholar Sonya Armstrong, professor of mathematics at West Virginia State University, proudly wears the T-shirt given to her after using the scholarship to teach for six months in Slovakia. The shirt was a gift from an exchange student she hosted prior to her Slovakian trip.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
“One of the most significant parts of my trip was my visit to Auschwitz. Now, every time I hear about building walls, I want to throw up.”
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Profoundly affected by a visit to Auschwitz during her travels as a Fulbright Scholar, Sonya Armstrong was photographed with a plaque honoring victims of the Holocaust.
Math professor Sylvia Armstrong smiles now at the picture of her with the typewriter she used in high school.
In 2004, Sonya Armstrong won a national award for teaching excellence. The plaque hangs prominently in a campus office crowded with math books and memorabilia.
A vintage snapshot shows Sylvia Armstrong on a church tour to Boston in 1974.
This photo commemorates Sylvia Armstrong’s appearance in a ballet recital with her daughter, Janelle, despite recovering from a knee injury.
During her six-month trip to Slovakia, Sonya Armstrong had an opportunity to dress in the native garb.
A visit to Berlin was among the highlights of Sonya Armstrong’s travel adventures during breaks from teaching as a Fulbright Scholar in Slovakia.

In July, Sonya Armstrong returned to campus with a huge feather in her academic cap.

A doctoral professor of math and computer science at West Virginia State, she spent six months teaching in Slovakia as a Fulbright Scholar. Faculty feathers don’t get much bigger than a Fulbright.

She chaired the math department at State from 2005 to 2013. Awards and certificates fill her crowded office in Wallace Hall, including a national award for teaching excellence. A lengthy bio touts her professional contributions – grants, publications, presentations, boards, organizations.

But nothing shines brighter in her commendable career than the coveted Fulbright and her experiences in Slovakia.

To those who discouraged her based on gender or color, her achievements represent a resounding I-told-you-so. To those who mentored her, she offers gratitude for the confidence that propelled her.

Personal concerns -- autism awareness, the NAACP and ACLU -- say plenty about the mindset of advocacy that inspires her off-campus involvements.

Reared in Jamaica and Manhattan, she was teaching in Rochester, New York, when a friend newly hired at State implored her to apply. West Virginia? Not exactly utopia for a confirmed city slicker. Then she arrived for a visit, discovered the Town Center Mall and knew she’d found her new professional home.

Behind that highly educated mathematical mind lies the heart of an inveterate shopper.

“I grew up some in Jamaica and some in New York City.

“I always had an affinity for mathematics. Growing up, we had to have lights out and I would have a little flashlight and put it under the bed and try to study with that. Math was my best subject.

“I wanted to be a physician. Another time, I wanted to be a Navy nurse. I would read Cherry Ames books. They said I could major in anything to go on to medical school. So I majored in math and decided to stick with it. The commitment to go into medicine was too great.

“I did my undergraduate work at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. I got a job in Baltimore as a teacher and went for my master’s at Johns Hopkins University.

“I worked as an aerospace engineer for Westinghouse. But every time I had to get a higher security clearance, my family thought it was just too scary.

“I always had a 10-year goal that I wanted to be a college professor. My tenure was coming up and I hadn’t been doing anything toward it. I decided it was time to look at it. It came almost miraculously.

“My faith in God is very strong and important to me. I had gone to a retreat and someone was talking about how God told me this and God told me that. I thought, how do you know? In math, you are always questioning things.

“One of the clergy wondered about my questioning look. I said, ‘How do you know God is saying that?’ He said, ‘You can tell.’ He said we would spend the next three days working on it and then see if God reveals what he has in store for you.

“At the end, I was near some water and they were putting pebbles in, and he said, ‘As soon as these ripples come around, just say it.’ I said, ‘I want to be a professor.’ He asked what that would that take. I said I’d have to give up my job and go back to school. So I gave up my job and decided to go back.

“The big thing was, I got a message from St. John Fisher university saying they wanted to talk to me about the things we discussed there in the office. I called back. They said, ‘This is about a program that we talked about a few weeks ago where you can go back and get your Ph.D. and work for us.’ I had not been there a few weeks ago. What was he talking about? People said I shouldn’t question a gift too much.

“I wondered if someone had taken my curriculum vitae and taken my identity. He looked at my file and discovered I had been there a year before. It was a sign I was on the right track.

“I did some adjunct work at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I guess when they see a black person, they wonder why you are there. This professor met me and said, ‘I understand we have an institution in common. Johns Hopkins. He said he got his master’s degree there. I asked where he got his undergraduate degree. He said City University of New York. I said, ‘Oh, now we have two institutions in common. Where did you get your Ph.D.?’ He said, ‘The University of Rochester.’ I said, ‘Soon we will have three institutions in common and I will come right here and follow in your footsteps.’

“He said, ‘Highly unlikely.’ I said, ‘How dare you say that? You ruin our black students. They hear you say things like that and they believe it. But you don’t know me, so you can’t be saying things like that to me.’

“He said he didn’t mean it and he tried to help me. Later I sent letter to say I did get my Ph.D. I haven’t sent out anything yet to say that I have since gotten a Fulbright Scholarship.

“Through my life, there have been times when I have heard ‘highly unlikelys.’ It simply spurs you.

“I came to State in 1999, 17 years ago. I had a friend who was coming to State, Dr. Anne Marie Evans in history. She called and said to call Dr. Barbara Oden. I thought, ‘Oh m God, West Virginia?’ I was still in Rochester. But she kept pressing me to call.

“So I called and sent my resume. Maybe two months later, an opening came up, and Dr. Oden said to come so they could get a look at me.

“They were taking me places to impress me. I asked if they had a mall here. They took me to Town Center Mall, and that sold me. I couldn’t imagine what I could do living here without a mall. I’m a shopping person.

“Taking me back to the airport, Dr. Oden asked what I thought about them. I told her if I could get faculty housing, I could come. Her face lit up.

“It was a good move. I’ve worked hard and God has blessed me with good role models like Anne Marie Evans. She mentored me. Even though she was younger, she had been in academics all her life. She was like my big sister.

“Dr. Ron Baker was the chair who hired me. He encouraged me, even when I was thinking about a Fulbright.

“I went to Slovakia in January and came back in July. I’d had some exchange students. I was met at the airport by one of them. She introduced me to Slovakia. I didn’t know much about it.

“A webinar I listened to said that I could apply to Slovakia. They needed you to have an invitation from a university there. My exchange student sent me the names of universities and I sent my CV and asked if they had anything I could work with.

“I selected the University of Matej Bell in Banska Bystrica, the sister city to Charleston. I thought it would help the sister city relationship.

“I had a class that spoke English, but I had to learn some Slovak, enough to order meals, basic communication.

“It’s a wonderful country. The people are friendly but a little reserved. If they don’t speak English, they are shy. But they never pass without saying good morning. I traveled to six other countries, all the bordering countries except Ukraine.

“One of the most significant parts of my trip is my visit to Auschwitz. It was very painful and powerful. Now, every time I hear about building walls, I want to throw up.

“People who are leaders or want to be leaders should take a trip there so we do not ever allow something like that to happen again. We cannot be building walls to destroy people.

“Once you are a Fulbright, you are a Fulbright forever. You aren’t there only to do your research or teaching. You are like a cultural ambassador, bringing information about your university, the state, the country.

“I would meet the mayors. The first thing they wanted to know was what people were thinking about in America and if we know America is the greatest country.

“In eastern Europe, they are very much afraid of Mr. Trump. They are looking for America to set the example and we are falling back on that.

“The people at the university in Slovakia were very pleased to have a Fulbright person. It was great for both universities.

“I am a member of the Women’s Club of Charleston. I probably diversified their membership. And I am vice president of the ACLU of Charleston. It’s not necessarily being a liberal, it’s looking out for people, the good of all.

“For the past five or so years, I’ve been working to bring awareness to autism through Blazing Trails in Nigeria.

“I have my daughter, a researcher. My son was a junior at UC and there was an accident on the interstate and he was killed on Oct. 24, 2007.

“I have one brother. He died while I was in Slovakia. I had to come visit him, to see him before he died. It has occurred to me that we have quite a lot of international faculty around and they have lost loved ones while they are here and are not able to go back right away.

“I would like to have a foundation of some sort so that international faculty or students could get some funding to go visit their relatives when they are sick. I paid for my trip home out of money I would have spent on traveling, but it was very helpful that the Fulbright people said I could go.

“God has blessed me. I’ve committed most of my life to worshiping and being directed by God. I am a member of St. Christopher Episcopal Church. In Slovakia, I attended the Roman Catholic Church and I would go to Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“They are quite different from what I see here. It wasn’t just my spiritual side that they fed. They fed me with food and social things. They made sure I had a good time.

“I hope I have more and more to do, and biggest of all, that I will be an example to others. We can move on. There is no age limit to what you can do.

“And you must always be making sure you put God first. That has been very relevant for me. That’s a commitment that I have, that he is first in my life, and that is an example for my students, my colleagues and my church family.”

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-342-5027.

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