How One Student Rediscovered Her Love for Math

Yolanda Brutley-Dugger says that in almost every space she’s in, she is most often the only person in a wheelchair. However, she notes that this doesn’t slow her down on her “journey of trying.”

Born in Texas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Yolanda moved to Philadelphia at 13. While she says her transition to Philadelphia was a culture shock, one thing remained the same: her love of learning – especially for math. 

“Growing up I always wanted to learn, and math was something that just came easy,” Yolanda says.

After graduating from Olney High School, Yolanda briefly pursued a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at La Salle University but said that her program of interest was dissolved. At that point, she decided to enroll in classes at Community College of Philadelphia. 

“I was pretty distraught and discouraged by that change,” Yolanda says. “I already wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree and I didn’t have any support. As a first-generation college student, this was a journey I chose and pursued on my own.” 

Yolanda recalls working full-time with the City of Philadelphia and raising her family her entire time in college. She even had to turn down an opportunity to join the Honors program so she could stay

enrolled part-time to balance work, family, and school. 

After graduating from CCP in 1999, Yolanda went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Temple University (pictured right). Still working for the City, she would sometimes substitute teach at Freire Charter School, which in 2006 was located right behind the Municipal Services Building. 

“Teaching at the charter schools was fun, but I soon discovered that I wanted to teach on the college level,” Yolonda says. “At the time I was preparing for a master’s program, and then I suddenly became disabled. I went from walking to a wheelchair in a matter of days.”

Yolanda would be diagnosed with traverse myelitis – a rare neurological syndrome causing injury to the spinal cord. She credits physical rehabilitation, the support of her family, and her psychology degree for helping her get through it. 

After spending two years at Johns Hopkins’ Transverse Myelitis Center, Yolanda returned to Philadelphia in 2016. She was determined to rebuild her math skills and finally pursue a master’s degree in applied math. 

“I remember telling myself that I wanted to get back to being independent and having a life of my own without much outside help,” Yolanda says. “Each day I would just try. I was driven to do it and because of technology I could now access a lot of resources.”

Yolanda reenrolled at the College and started by taking one math course at a time. She remembers spending countless hours in the math lab. Then in 2018, she was asked to become a math tutor.

“I decided to become a tutor at the College because there are a lot of students who reach out and ask for help in mathematics,” Yolanda says. “Many of the students I tutor have the skills, they just don’t have the confidence. They see how passionate I am about math and that I’m giving my all to help them. I start by helping them utilize what skills they already have.

As a first-generation college graduate, Yolanda wants to serve as an example to other students that if you want it, you can accomplish it. As someone who knows first-hand the struggle of navigating college alone, she wants to be there to offer support. That’s why she decided to run for student government. 

“I’m here as a voice to say no matter what you’ve experienced or what has been said about you, you can overcome that,” Yolanda says. “All you have to do is set your heart on it and get the support you need.” 

Although optimistic, Yolanda says she still faces challenges because of her illness. Challenges that she can’t control. But she remains committed along her “journey of trying” and doing what she can. 

She is currently looking for a female math mentor to help her along her journey. Dr. Linda Powell, chair of the College’s Biology department, is currently supporting Yolanda as she explores her options for advanced degrees. 

When asked what she loves most about math, Yolanda says, “Math challenges the brain and it’s very cerebral. There’s also a definite to it. You either have a solution or you’re searching for one.”