KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Do the math on Dr. Linda Lesniak. A bachelor’s degree in elementary education + master’s degree in mathematics + PhD in mathematics = She’s more than held her own in a male-dominated field.
Before she came to Western Michigan University, she’d barely left the state of Indiana. Flash forward to today, and Lesniak’s life in mathematics has taken her around the globe as well as garnered her many accolades.
“I feel like I’m most proud of the book “Graphs & Digraphs” that I co-wrote in 1979 with another Western faculty member,” she says. “It’s in its sixth edition, has been translated into Japanese and now Indonesian, and has been used all over the world. I even get asked to autograph it when I give lectures!
“So, I guess in the world of graph theory, I’ve made it,” she jokes.
Officially “sort of retired,” this first-generation college graduate has held tenured professorships in mathematics at Louisiana State University, Western and Drew University. Along with co-authoring “Graphs & Digraphs,” she has also written about 100 research articles on graph theory. She serves on several mathematical journal editorial boards and travels extensively to give mathematical talks.
“Since I retired from teaching at Drew and am now an adjunct faculty member at Western, I have the time to do more mentoring of female math students and was an organizer of the National Science Foundation-funded workshop Women in Graph Theory and Applications in 2019,” she says. “Over 40 women spent a week at the University of Minnesota, working in six research teams. All these teams are still working in some configuration and have published at least one paper.
“Why did I do this?” Lesniak asks. “Because the percentage of full professors in STEM areas who are women is woefully low, and this was some way I thought I could help.”
At first, Lesniak had planned to become an elementary school teacher. The Gary, Indiana, native chose WMU because of the University’s location, reputation for preparing teachers and financial support.
“I was a very smart girl—not a plus in the 60s—and wanted to go to school somewhere that nobody knew me or that I was smart,” Lesniak says. “A friend of mine who also wanted to be a teacher was going to WMU, and she told me that it was a good school for teacher training. Finally, since I was poor and WMU offered me enough money in a financial package to make it comparable to staying in-state in Indiana, Western fit the bill.”
Repaying the alma mater that supported her during her academic journey is one of the reasons she decided to help fund completion scholarships for the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the Department of Mathematics, including the Linda Lesniak International Study Scholarship in Mathematics or Mathematics Education, which is awarded to undergraduate students who wish to study mathematics in Budapest for a semester. Her dedication to mentorship has also nurtured her philanthropic giving.
“I had amazing mentors at WMU. They were all men, since there were no female math faculty members (at the time),” she says.
Lesniak has never shied away from a challenge. She used to work at U.S. Steel in the summers to help cover the cost of her undergraduate education. Her mentors “took a mill rat” and suggested she get an advanced degree in math.
“I had to toughen up early on but, luckily, for many years when I was young, I did a lot of work with three guys who became like family.”
As an undergrad, Lesniak student-taught fifth grade and hated it. Fortunately, she was offered an assistantship in math at Western, and after teaching her first class, she knew she was right where she belonged. Upon earning her master’s degree, she briefly considered teaching at the community college level.
“I was then encouraged to get my PhD. Other than my college professors, I had never met a person with a PhD. So, I continued and had my wonderful career. But never did I see a woman in front of me, and there are still not enough beside or below me. This is why I mentor young women.”
Her passion for empowering women in the field of mathematics also inspired Lesniak to make a planned gift by putting Western in her will.
“I want everyone, but especially young women, to have dreams and goals,” she says. “And I don't want talent to go to waste because of gender stereotypes that limit the dreams of young women or because there’s no one to reach out and encourage and help with finances.”
She hopes others will follow her lead, whether they give dollars, time or both.
“When we first graduate, we feel a lot of connection with our university but likely have very little extra money. Don’t be embarrassed to send $10 if that's all you have. You can always send more later, or you can also give time if you’re local.”
In addition to giving back, Lesniak offers these words of wisdom for current Broncos: “Dream big, but get advice from everyone you can. Talk to your professors for both advice and so they get to know you and your goals. After all, we’re the ones who write your reference letters for grad school and jobs.” ■