Young Change Makers: Why and How Hannah Guan Is Helping To Change Our World
Don’t be shy to ask for help. Teamwork and collaboration is the key for my success, not the title of CEO. When I started SaMi, I struggled to find people to support me in my endeavors, I couldn’t simply get rid of my love for math. I couldn’t get rid of how difficult problems would linger in my mind long after I saw them for the first time or how ecstatic I would feel after solving them. I wanted to share this with everybody. Therefore, I began approaching my teachers, school principals, superintendents, community leaders, and national organizations for their help.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hannah Guan.
Hannah is named a winner of the 2022 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. She founded San Antonio Math Include to provide greater access to STEM education to all students from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultural perspectives. She is passionate about math and in 2021, was named the top female in the American Mathematics Competition, entered by 330,000 students worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Along the San Antonio River are pathways to all my hometown has to offer, including the depth of its people — we shine, our roots run deep, our heritage is rich and a confluence of cultures is celebrated. I was born here to a Chinese family and raised under the influence of multi-cultures. As a Chinese person, education has also influenced my cultural identity. My mom has been an American dream-maker herself. As an immigrant who struggled to raise my brother and me, she spent nights learning English at community centers and eventually earned a Ph.D., becoming a professor and department chair. My friends and neighbors are diverse — Mexican, Tejano, German, Irish, Czechoslovakian, Filipino, and more. Their food, literature, languages, and generosity towards our single-parent family have shaped my understanding of how to form a truly inclusive society that I will promote wherever I plant myself in the future.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Becoming by Michelle Obama is a powerful and moving book that teaches me how to find my voice. Mrs. Obama successfully became a leader as a community organizer and First Lady, making her own impact beyond her husband’s presidency. Reading her book Becoming inspired me to lead my own math nonprofit. And now, I want to inspire my students into becoming leaders in their passions, creating a tidal wave of leaders in the new generation.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference means to cause a change, big or small, that can change lives of people, including mine.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
We dedicate our efforts to making STEM education accessible to students both on an intellectual level and in any location all over the world. Founded in 2018, San Antonio Math Include (SaMi) has grown to an international network connecting 42,212 students to 879 tutors, principals, counselors, teachers, and after-school coordinators in 910 schools across 42 states and 15 countries. We are one of the first organizations that funded The First Internship program to offer the first paid, full-time internships and training for underprivileged youth to build career paths and goals. We organized activities for Math and Science Night in Jubilee Lake View University Prep, we translated our curriculum into Spanish, and shared it with the math department in Colegio Bilingüe Lauretta Bender, a bilingual school in Colombia. SaMi has offered 38,312 free classes, workshops, and seminars, written 300 pages of curriculum, established 73 national chapters, raised $104,018.2, and created 1641 Casting Your Future Scholarship to close the digital divide. Through partnerships with the UN Major Group of Children and Youth and Global Youth Constituency for Quality Education, SaMi’s online programs are accessible to 306,234 youth worldwide.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
In my hometown, San Antonio, TX, we are so culturally diverse that it is beautiful. However, immigrants are disadvantaged, falling below the poverty line. Families are without proper housing, clean water, healthy food, medical attention, and minimal educational resources. In 2016, one adult in six lacked a high school diploma. In 2019, we had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas. I witnessed young people drop out of high school, and struggle to find employment to support their families. The cycle repeated, often getting worse for each following generation.
In terms of embracing diversity of all races, I was disenchanted when I found a significant disparity between Black, Hispanic, and White students in Texas, especially concerning math education. According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, African American students scored twenty-one points lower than White students in Texas. Similarly, Hispanic students were falling behind their White peers by nineteen points. Through the pandemic, the gap has grown ever wider among minority communities. According to the 2021 STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) math score data, there was a 20% decline in the number of African American and Hispanic students who scored close to, at, or above their grade level in 2021, compared to 2019. Among their White peers, there was only a 9% drop.
Worldwide, race affects how all students of color view themselves as individual learners. Although helpful in documenting and pinpointing disparities, the concept of a racial hierarchy of mathematical ability has also had the harmful effect of discouraging historically marginalized students of color, including black, Latino, and indigenous youth. This concept has been embedded into many math teachers’ perspectives leading to a repeated pattern of less support, lack of encouragement, and sadly discounted. Asian students who are racially stereotyped as being good at math are seen as odd when they do not excel in math. Education has been the path to opportunity for all racial and ethnic minorities, yet many youths don’t have equal access to educational resources. Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education is the key to prosperity. It opens a world of opportunities, making it possible for us to contribute to a progressive, healthy society. Learning benefits every human being and should be available to all.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
In sixth grade, I participated in math competitions. These experiences made me realize my own potential but also made me realize that we had a limited amount of resources here in San Antonio. My mom did all she could to drive me to across Texas to attend math activities. Many were Olympiad-level, but they were not accessible to everyone. Many kids had fewer resources to travel than we did. I care about the people of San Antonio. They are my friends, my family, and my neighbors. I want the best for them, just like they want the best for me. So I began building a new community where everyone had equal access to education to build themselves up.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I started with my math club teacher. I would go to her classroom during lunch, sit with her during club meetings, find her whenever I was free. While previously I would be shy and reserved, I began approaching people I met at competitions, camps, and leadership programs. Surprisingly, they responded enthusiastically — education inequality is a worldwide issue. The Mathematical Association of America offers its strong support through MAA’s curricula and social media connections. The National Center for Women and Information Technology and MIT’s Math Prize for Girls awarded us the best girl tutors to bridge the gender gap.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Initially, I hoped to run SaMi in afternoon programs in public schools. After contacting 466 schools in San Antonio, only one accepted me, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. Wilson is a Title 1 school ranked last in the San Antonio Independent School District. I quickly led a team-teaching math class in their after-school program. Meanwhile, I strategically developed the Remote Synchronous Teaching (RST) model to teach online live classes and summer camps in 2018. When the COVID-19 crisis began in 2020, schools and universities widely adopted the RST model. In 2021, I organized the nation’s largest free online summer camp to prevent the COVID-19 summer slide. In total, 3502 students from 223 schools attended 219 Math, Computer Science, and Artificial Intelligence sessions. SaMi doesn’t become an afterschool program as I planned. However, my vision has grown it to one of the largest math organizations in the world, in just five years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
SaMi locates in Central Time Zone and all of our programs are scheduled based on this time zone. When we became an international organization, I forgot to put the time zone in the schedule. As a consequence, a parent in India called me at 4:30am about a class scheduled at 3pm central time. This lesson taught be to be mindful for everybody including their geographic locations and time zones to build an inclusive community.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My team includes tutors, principals, counselors, teachers, and after-school coordinators across 42 states and 15 countries. Everyone is unique and will be able to offer their own experiences and knowledge that others may not possess. Providing equitable access to education and supporting tolerance of those who have different backgrounds and cultural perspectives undeniably benefits our society. It makes me creative, flexible, dedicated and proactive.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of our students has multiple disabilities. He can’t pay attention to class and has trouble controlling impulsive behaviors, especially in remote learning. To help him, we focused on the rules of smart online teaching. We chunked lessons into shorter units and constantly connected with and solicited feedback from the student. We used a game based platform to keep his attention. The student passed the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test every year and now is a middle school student.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I hope the policy makers can: 1) invest more resources for support in Title 1 schools such as increasing special education specialists and counselors, 2) deprioritize test based funding because it discriminates against disadvantaged students, and 3) retain teachers by increasing their salaries and benefits.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- It takes a lot of time. Running a non-profit organization is a full time job and a long-time commitment. It is not like a class which will end in a semester, or a summer project. I had no clue about the time commitment when I started SaMi. Now I can share with you that I devoted more than 500 hours every year at SaMi and other community service.
- Don’t be shy to ask for help. Teamwork and collaboration is the key for my success, not the title of CEO. When I started SaMi, I struggled to find people to support me in my endeavors, I couldn’t simply get rid of my love for math. I couldn’t get rid of how difficult problems would linger in my mind long after I saw them for the first time or how ecstatic I would feel after solving them. I wanted to share this with everybody. Therefore, I began approaching my teachers, school principals, superintendents, community leaders, and national organizations for their help.
- Get organized. You need to organize everything and keep documentation, from classroom, to personnel, to finance. When I started SaMi, I didn’t realize the importance of organization and many memorable things were thrown around and couldn’t be found. Now I create a schedule every year and update it on a daily basis, keeping track of priorities and projects.
- You can be a CEO as a child. I founded SaMi at age 11. In many people’s view, this is early. But when I saw that some of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes winners are only a few years old, I wish I knew I could start earlier to help more students.
- Be prepared for changes. Changes can be hard for both the students and the organization. When I started SaMi, I thought everything would be set in stone. In the first year, our programs were run in my school. Then the pandemic hit and all programs were moved online. A year ago, students returned to schools and our programs adjusted again to accommodate this change.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The SaMi experience has been ever-evolving, and I have changed right along with it. Before this startup, I was the quiet type. I was never the first to introduce myself or read something in class. I had often wanted to change this about myself, but I never had a reason until I became a leader. It meant I would have to speak up for myself and for my ideas and for others, and I was right. When I developed SaMi, I found myself having to pitch the concept to hundreds of teachers, school administrators, school board members, and donors. Before sending every email or before every meeting, I would get nervous because I had never been so forward. As the meetings became more frequent and the emails passed, I became more accustomed to speaking up for myself, but I still haven’t mastered that science. Today, I occasionally find myself silent but more so when I am thinking up an idea!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’d like to sit with Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, and talk about how to utilize online platforms to help educate students. I wish to collaborate with Sal to develop more online tools to spread education to every student in the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
SaMi Website: mathinclude.org
Hannah Guan Home Page: hannahguan.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!