An International Pioneer:

Dr. Overtoun Jenda


            “So, how did you end up in COSAM?” The script had immediately been flipped on my interview with Dr. Overtoun Jenda before it even began, with his posing the opening question to me. Looking back, this is not surprising. Dr. Jenda has shown his passion for supporting students throughout much of his career, and his interest in my path to become affiliated with the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) further evidences this fact. However, my story isn’t as interesting. It doesn’t include the facilitation of previously unseen levels of collaboration between African and American mathematicians, nor does it involve starting inclusion programs that have seen continued and even growing success over the past quarter century. His certainly does. His story is one of building bridges, of bringing people different and alike together for the betterment of every party involved. It’s a story of expectations, meeting them and exceeding them. It began in Malawi.

            Overtoun Jenda was born in an urban area of the Northern part of the African nation of Malawi. Growing up, he knew he would be an educator from a young age, inspired by his father’s work as a math teacher in a K-12 school around where he spent his early life. He stayed fairly local up until he earned his first higher education degree, graduating from the University of Malawi with a Bachelor’s of Science with Distinction in Mathematics. For his graduate studies, he experienced a bit of a change in scenery and moved to the United States to attain a PhD at the University of Kentucky. 


Very Different, Indeed


            “That was very different,” Dr. Jenda said about his experience at Kentucky. “On the cultural side, coming from a university where everybody was pretty much African… and you come to Kentucky and you’re the only Black person in the whole department!” We laughed, “That was very different.” Indeed, though he made great friends in his department, he told me there were times where he would not see a single other Black person all day. Understandably, this was a bit jarring for him. In addition, he found that certain subjects were undergraduate-level in Malawi but graduate-level at Kentucky and vice versa, so he felt very prepared in some areas yet deficient in others. Fortunately, he said, “the motivation was there,” and he completed both his master’s and PhD in four years’ time. 

            Despite the efficiency with which he completed his degrees at Kentucky, Dr. Jenda appreciated the culture unique to his university. He told me an anecdote that seemed to perfectly capture what it was like to be at Kentucky in 1978, when the Wildcats won the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. “See, professors in mathematics are crazy,” he began, “and maybe that includes me,” he accentuated with a hearty laugh, “but you see, the day after the [National Championship] game, we had an exam. So, we all went to Rupp Arena, had a good time, and then went to the exam. We all did very badly,” we laughed again. He went on to ace his next exam in that course, which spurned Dr. Jenda’s professor to call him into his office. “He said, ‘Overtoun, you have to explain it to me. This is very good work. How come you did so badly before?’ I said, ‘That was the day after the game.’ He said, ‘Oh… Really?’ We won the National Championship and he didn’t notice!” Humor and academic consequences aside, basketball truly brought the campus together. Racial tensions in Kentucky were relatively high at this point, but all of that seemed to disappear when the campus celebrated wins and mourned losses as one. In addition, there were movie nights hosted by the Office of Cultural Affairs that brought students of African descent together, which was very therapeutic for Dr. Jenda. Finishing our discussion about his cultural experiences at Kentucky, he told me his friends back in Malawi essentially knew two things about where he would spend four years attaining his doctorate: “Basketball and Kentucky fried chicken… And that’s all you needed to know!”



Dr. Overtoun Jenda


            Regarding his academic experience in graduate school, he attributes his efficiency and success in large part due to his mentor, Dr. Edgar Enochs. Dr. Enochs allowed him to do much of his work independently, though he did support Dr. Jenda very much when mentoring him. About him, Dr. Jenda said, “he was like my parent over here.” Indeed, he said Dr. Enochs made him who he is today. Since his graduation in 1981, they have continued to work together on many publications, transforming their relationship from one of a mentor and his mentee to peers.

            Another factor behind his quick graduation was his strong desire to return to Africa, which he did and was employed as faculty at both the University of Malawi and the University of Botswana. However, while in Africa, he continued to do research with Dr. Enochs back at Kentucky. In the era before the proliferation of the internet, contact between the two was confined to mail, which simply took too long to get the sort of meaningful progress done that they wanted and anticipated. As such, he moved back to the US around 1987 to delve into the world of theoretical mathematics. Due to his discomfort with the Malawi sociopolitical climate and his very busy work schedule, he would not return to his homeland for nearly 25 years.


Work, but in What?


            As mentioned, Dr. Jenda’s work focuses on theoretical mathematics, which is also known as pure math, and specifically he works in the realm of homological algebra. In essence, this field of research connects different branches of mathematics, and whereas his work may not be applicable today, mathematicians of the future will be able to utilize the information he puts forward to inform their applicable mathematics work. A way that I found helpful to understand his work was through analogy. In the same way that medical researchers add to the overall knowledge base from which practicing physicians draw, pure mathematicians inform how application-based mathematicians attempt to solve their problems. In other words, pure math is the foundation upon which the house of applicable mathematics is built.

            Though he has facilitated incredible strides forward for inclusion and diversity at Auburn, he did not originally intend on working in this field when he was first hired. Rather, he was hired as a professor of Mathematics. “Being the only Black faculty member of the Math department at the time, all the Black students would come to my office, asking for help.” These students were not his official mentees, and he already had approximately 40, but his door was open nonetheless. With his experience with the Black students within the math department, Dr. Jenda was asked to head the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) at Auburn in 1993, which is a National Science Foundation program to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented individuals pursuing STEM. Before he accepted, he wanted to know what this position would entail. “I would have some scholarship money to give to students, but they would have to maintain a 3.0 GPA. I said, ‘ah, so you’re asking me to do what I’m already doing,’” we laughed, and he said that he was assured it would be very little additional work in addition to what he was already doing. To Dr. Lawrence Wit, who offered this position to him, he would later say, “You tricked me!”

            One of the first tasks he was to complete as the program leader of LSAMP was to find two students with a 3.0 or higher who were either a Junior or Senior to send to the University of Alabama Birmingham to conduct research. “I said, ‘no problem.’” He received the list of students either in COSAM or the College of Engineering who fit that criteria. It was two names long. “Something is not right,” he remembers thinking, being that there were over 100 total students who would have been eligible had there not been the GPA requirement. At this time, African American students in COSAM were given a tuition waiver if they were good students. Specifically, a good student was quantified by achieving a 2.2 GPA. I was a bit taken aback by that number, as to me, a 2.2 is not a high average. “[If you were Black,] you were not expected to succeed. That was my interpretation,” he said. However, he knew these students were smart, but they overwhelmingly came from underserved communities that had poor school systems which failed to prepare them for the academic rigor that Auburn provides. To remedy this preparedness issue, and according to LSAMP requirements, he began a drop-in center in the fall of 1994 where students were offered free tutoring sessions held 12 times per week and a space to study, work and commune with fellow students. This drop-in center is still going strong 25 years later. Furthermore, he began a 4-week STEM Summer Bridge Program to further prepare students for what they would encounter when in college. Altogether, these programs have made an incredible difference among the traditionally underrepresented STEM students at Auburn, and there is a much higher proportion of students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher.

            Dr. Jenda’s philosophy on retention strategies fall into two categories: Academic integration and social integration. “When you come to the drop-in center, both of them are there. A lot of the other social support that you can provide is distraction. I’m not talking about parties here!” We laughed, and he specified social integration amongst your academic peers is what is important for retention. Believe it or not, partying is not something on which COSAM tends to spend its hard-earned funding. In addition to academic and social integration, keeping students involved on campus and in their department is very important to maintaining the high number STEM students enrolled.


Going There and Coming Back Again


            However, Dr. Jenda’s present work in retention is not localized to Auburn University, or even this continent, for that matter. In 2009, he sat on a panel addressing minority students and their future career options at the University of Minnesota. “After the panel,” he told me, “this dude comes to me and says, ‘are you from Africa?’ and I go…” he pauses for effect, “… Is that a trick question?” We laugh, as due to his accent, one may relatively safely infer that fact. This man would then ask Dr. Jenda if he would be willing to be the keynote speaker at the Southern Africa Mathematical Sciences Association (SAMSA) Conference for 2009. “I’m going, ‘okay, yes,’ knowing full well that he would not follow up… However, come a few weeks later, I get an invitation!” He would travel to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania later that year, and even more surprisingly, he would find that many of his colleagues from his time teaching in Malawi and Botswana were actually in leadership positions in SAMSA. This conference led to the creation of the Masamu Program, which translates to “mathematics” from some Southern African dialects, that facilitates research collaboration between African and American institutions. This program, funded by the National Science Foundation and run by Auburn, sees much success and visits different African nations every year.


masamuphoto.jpgDr. Jenda, far right, with 2018 Masamu attendees in Botswana


            Nearing the conclusion of our interview, I wanted to ask Dr. Jenda about any advice he would give younger college students who are interested in getting into mathematics. “First, you have to work hard,” he said with no hesitation. “You may have been the top student in your high school, but you need to forget about that here.” He emphasized that with each level of schooling you attain, you improve, but so does everyone else. He also specified that students need to work within their passions. “I was pre-med student after my first year at the University of Malawi... But by that time I was really starting to get into mathematics, thinking that’s maybe what I wanted to do. To start with, I really hated dissecting things!” We laughed, “So maybe that’s not what I’ll do for a career.” After switching from pre-med to math, he felt much more comfortable and inspired to continue on his path, though he didn’t always have the support of faculty. He told me, “Even when I was in graduate school, I was doing pure mathematics. A professor had the audacity to come to me, ‘you’re from a third-world country, that country does not need pure mathematics!’ and then I thought about it… I thought, uh-uh, I’m going to do what I’m passionate about.”

            Pushing through that adversity and lack of support, Dr. Jenda has used his career to inspire and support students like him. Passionate, resilient and hardworking students are the backbone of what keeps mathematics moving forward. He asserts that more traditionally underrepresented minorities need to funnel into academia, to “replace us when we retire,” he said. He knows that these sort of careers may not be attractive to everyone, and gets a feeling that men in particular may be pushed to Wall Street these days, but there is plenty of room for young people to be successful within academia. As a final thought, Dr. Jenda adds that Auburn has been very supportive of its minority students. The Auburn Family has always had his back, and especially in the early days, the assistance of White alumni and deans supported his ability to reach students who may feel excluded from STEM, or mathematics in particular. I see why Dr. Jenda has been so successful in reaching so many students, with his outgoing demeanor and radiant positivity. At this point, he told me it was about time that he goes, being a busy man and all. I commented that I was disappointed, that I could talk to him all day. “Oh, don’t get me started!” he responded. I’m very glad that I did.








By Matt Gonzales


I'd like to thank Dr. Overtoun Jenda for sitting for an interview with me.