In a time when traditional roles for men and women were the norm, Argelia Velez-Rodriguez earned her doctorate from the University of Havana in Cuba, becoming the first black woman to accomplish this at the university. Velez-Rodriguez received her degree during a time of turmoil for her native Cuba following the overthrow of the dictatorship and its replacement by the Communist government of Fidel Castro. She immigrated to the United States in 1962. She worked at various colleges, first as a professor, then as department chair before becoming a program director with the U.S. Department of Education.
Argelia Velez was born in 1936 in Havana, Cuba. Her father, Pedro Velez, was a member of the Cuban Congress. Her family was Roman Catholic and she attended Roman Catholic schools during her childhood and teenage years. Velez-Rodriguez won a contest on fractions in the third grade, beginning her lifelong interest in the subject. Though she and her family were among the black minority, racial minorities typically faced no discrimination in Cuba.
Velez married Raul Rodriguez in 1954, thereafter taking the last name Velez-Rodriquez. The couple's first child, a son, was born in 1955, and in 1959 she gave birth to a daughter. The demands of motherhood did not disrupt her education. She received her bachelor's degree from the Marianao Institute in 1955. Velez-Rodriguez continued with her education, entering the University of Havana to study both mathematics and astronomy. The majority of her professors were women and most had earned doctorates as well. She studied using differential equations to determine orbits and wrote her doctoral thesis on the "Determination of Orbits Using Talcott's Method" and earned her Ph.D. in 1960. She was the first black woman at the University of Havana to receive a doctorate.
During Velez-Rodriguez's childhood, the president of Cuba was Fulgencia Batista. During his first term as president, he improved the lives of his constituents and made a number of them wealthy. After Batista left office, the Cuban government was plagued by corruption. Batista was returned to power by revolt, and he ruled as a dictator. Acting against the dictatorship in 1958, Fidel Castro and his Communist supporters overthrew his regime. When the new government turned the Roman Catholic school that Velez-Rodriguez's son attended into a Communist-led school, the family decided to emigrate to the United States shortly after Velez-Rodriguez finished her Ph.D. Unfortunately her husband was not allowed to leave with the family in 1962, but did follow three years later.
In the United States, Velez-Rodriguez found better schools for her children and political stability, yet she also encountered racism that was quite unlike what she was used to in Cuba. She faced discrimination at various places of employment not just because of her race, but also because of her gender and, at times, because of her advanced education. Velez-Rodriguez began teaching at Texas College after her arrival in the United States in 1962. She also taught at several historically black colleges and universities before joining the faculty at Bishop College in Dallas, Texas. She was a professor of mathematics from 1972 to 1975, and then chair of the Department of Mathematical Science until 1978. Seeing minority students at a disadvantage because of racism pushed Velez-Rodriguez to create programs that experimented with different teaching methods to encourage minorities and other disadvantaged children to pursue careers in mathematics and science. She began working with the National Science Foundation to accomplish this goal.
In 1979 Velez-Rodriguez took a leave of absence to work with the Minority Institutions Science Improvement as a program manager in Washington, D.C. A year later she resigned from her department chair position with Bishop College to become a program director with the U.S. Department of Education. In her new position, Velez-Rodriguez continued to create strategies to teach minority and disadvantaged students to succeed in math and science in the hopes of getting them to pursue careers in the two fields. She has become the head of the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship program, which gives high-ranking high school seniors in the United States and Puerto Rico or those who completed their GED a scholarship to an accredited college or university. In addition to creating programs for students, Velez-Rodriguez has also taken part in studies on teacher shortages in various communities around the country.
Years after Velez-Rodriguez's husband joined the family in Texas, the couple divorced. In 1972 she became a United States citizen. Her primary motivation for leaving Cuba was to keep her children out of Communist schools and her efforts paid off. Her son became a surgeon. Her daughter became an engineer and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard. Despite a brutal welcome from racist and gender-biased U.S. citizens, Argelia Velez-Rodriguez focused her efforts on helping the disadvantaged so they could have the same opportunities she had as a child. Her contributions both as an educator and program director have helped many realize their dreams.
At a Glance …
Born Argelia Velez in 1936, in Havana, Cuba; daughter of Pedro Velez (worked in Cuban Congress); married Raul Rodriguez (divorced); children: two. Education: Marianao Institute, BA, mathematics, 1955; University of Havana, PhD, mathematics and astronomy, 1960.
Career: Texas College, mathematics and physics instructor, 1962–?; taught at various historically black college and universities; Bishop College, Dallas, Texas, professor of math, 1972–77, department chair, 1978–79; Minority Institutions Science Improvement Program, Washington, DC, program manager, 1979–80; US Department of Education, Minority Science Improvement Program, Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship program, director, 1980–.
Memberships: National Science Foundation, Math Education Programs.
Address: Office—U.S. Department of Education, 1990 K Street NW, 6th Floor-Room 6020, Washington, DC 20006-8514.
"Argelia Velez-Rodriguez," Biographies of Women Mathematicians, www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/rodrig.htm, (December 1, 2005).
"Argelia Velez-Rodriguez," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 1, 2005).
"Argelia Velez-Rodriguez," Black Women in Mathematics, www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/PEEPS/velezrodriguez_argelia.html (December 1, 2005).
"Argelia Velez-Rodriguez," Mac Tutor History of Mathematics Archive, www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/∼history/index.html (December 1, 2005).
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