How to Travel the World While Studying What You Love

How to Travel the World While Studying What You Love

AMU graduate Elise McMahon visited her alma mater in January to share with current students tales of her adventures studying and traveling abroad. Elise comes to the States after spending the last semester in Moscow, where she has been studying at the Independent University of Moscow on a highly coveted math scholarship from the American Mathematical Society. After her visit to AMU, she returned to Russia for a second semester of postgraduate studies.

Elise graduated from Ave Maria University in 2015 with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Physics. During her time here, she was involved in a wide range of activities, from Freshman Representative to Secretary of the Student Government Association, from Director of Development for the Genuine Feminine annual conference to founder and president of the Math Club. On top of all this, Elise headed up a number of student rock-climbing trips.

When Elise applied to Ave Maria University, she planned to figure out what she wanted to study through the liberal arts core. “It ended up being that my heart was in mathematics,” she explains. Her professors made themselves available to her for discussion outside of class—“I think it is there that I learned the beauty of math… I was able to see the really cool, the really beautiful stuff about math.” Within the Math Department, Elise says she owes a lot to Dr. Michael Marsalli and Dr. Jorge Calvo.  “I almost feel bad about how much time they’ve given me.” These two professors, she continues, are dedicated to their students and very good at explaining mathematical concepts.

During the summers after her sophomore and junior year, Elise participated in REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs at the University of Texas at Tyler (2013) and California State University at San Bernardino (2014). In Fall 2013, she presented a paper at the MAA 38th Suncoast Regional Conference based on her research in Knot Theory while at UT Tyler. “I was nervous,” she recalls, “but it went really well.” The research she did at UT Tyler was published in Involve, an online journal of Mathematics.  

Elise accelerated her course of studies so that she was able to spend the Spring semester of her junior year enrolled in Budapest Semesters in Mathematics. She was the first AMU student to participate in the program. “I’m really grateful because the university worked hard to make it possible. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, but they made it easy and encouraged me to go—both the professors, and the administration.” 

While studying in Budapest, Elise experienced a reorientation. “Living in a country where you don’t know anybody and you don’t speak the language is amazing for the growth of a person,” she explains. “I got a much better perspective on life, on what’s important… I walked with a sense of clear-headedness—it kind of reoriented how I saw my studies.” Going on, Elise explains: “When I was studying there, all I was doing was taking math classes. It was math, all day and every day. I got really burnt out. It’s important to have a balance. You are not a machine! … As a student, you are doing academia most of the time, but it’s very important to take breaks, to pray in between, to spend time with your friends, to show love, to be loved.” 

“When things go badly, sometimes you just want to cut it off and be done with it,” Elise warns. “That’s what I thought about math after I finished my semester in Budapest. But because I had already been accepted into the REU at USC San Bernardino that summer, I thought I’d go through with it.” Based on her own experience, she urges, “I thought I was never going to like math again, but here I am, doing postgraduate studies and applying to PhD programs. You have to hold on through the rough patches; you can’t just give up.” 

Elise finished her senior year at AMU graduating summa cum laude. After graduation, she returned to Budapest for the summer before beginning her semester of postgraduate studies in Russia. She has a publication to appear in Communications in Algebra, based on her research in Algebraic Geometry while in Budapest. She is working on getting another paper published in the field of Differential Geometry, based on her research while at USC San Bernardino. 

Elise has applied to pursue graduate studies in Mathematics. She was accepted into a MA program at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is waiting to hear back about her other applications.