College of Sciences Alumna of the Year Susan Corbett arrived in Las Vegas in the late 1980s with a specific game plan: Enroll at UNLV to pursue a master’s degree in math education so she could go on to teach high-level math courses. Immediately, though, Corbett was forced to call a life audible when she learned that the College of Education’s graduate program didn’t offer a math specialty.
Reluctantly, she walked across campus to the College of Sciences and began inquiring about its mathematical science master’s program. Now, to the layperson, the degree of difficulty involved in earning a master’s in math education as opposed to math science probably seems negligible. Corbett knew otherwise.
“It was a definite change in my mindset, as a graduate degree in math sciences required a much more daunting path filled with additional and much more challenging coursework than a master’s in education,” she said. “But I went to the math department and found professors who were more than happy to guide me through the program.”
Corbett rose to the challenge and completed her master’s degree in mathematical science in 1991, and she’s spent the last three decades sharing her math knowledge with thousands of high school and college students, inspiring many of them to push beyond their perceived mathematical limitations to learn sophisticated concepts.
Following stints teaching math at UNLV and the University of Maryland, Corbett transitioned to Rancho High School, where she currently teaches Advanced Placement Calculus BC, an intense college-level course for which students can earn as many as eight college credits.
Along her teaching expedition, Corbett has been recognized with several awards, including the national College Board Siemens Award for AP Math and Science Teachers for being one of the nation’s Top 10 AP Math and Science Teachers for the 2004-05 school year. Two years later, the state’s chapter of the Air Force Association named Corbett Nevada’s Teacher of the Year. Also, in 2016, she was a finalist for the Kiwanis Clark County Educator of the Year.
As appreciative as she is for such accolades, Corbett’s primary satisfaction comes from seeing her students overcome challenges similar to the one she did when she was forced to shift gears in her graduate studies.
“I truly enjoy when, time after time, students come back from their universities and thank me for teaching them how to study at a university level,” said Corbett, who is one of only a handful of Clark County School District teachers with a master’s in mathematical science. “I am a much better teacher because of my training in math at UNLV.”
What’s the one challenge you’ve faced in your career that you conquered thanks to lessons learned during your days at UNLV?
Learning advanced math topics, persevering through the tough courses and teaching college students while a UNLV graduate student taught me the importance of pushing my students to work hard and resist placing limitations on their ability to learn. I have high expectations for my students and teach my course at a college level. Not only does this result in my students often earning exemplary AP scores and eight college credits, but it ensures they’re well-prepared for the work to come in any future college course.
Finish this sentence: When I look back at my time at UNLV, I’m most grateful for …
… the professors in the math department who believed in me and helped me believe in myself. I wasn’t sure I could finish a graduate degree in math sciences, as I wasn’t a traditional student. I finished undergrad 14 years prior, had two children (ages 5 and 7 at the time), and my husband was an Air Force officer who was out of town at least two weeks out of every month.
My professors also helped me get a graduate assistantship where I was teaching college algebra, which paid for my master’s program. I then ended up teaching full time in the department, which gave me invaluable experience that I apply to my high school teaching to this day.
What advice do you have for today’s UNLV students as they try to navigate our changed world?
Believe in yourself. You can do anything you put your mind to, regardless if the world is changing or not. It takes hard work, preparation, and perseverance, but anything — even excelling in math — is possible.