Connecticut is a long way from North Carolina, but the distance didn’t matter to Candice Wilson-McCain; she was close to her grandparents and her family roots are in the South. Born in Bridgeport, CT and spending her early childhood years there, Candice headed south with her grandparents when they moved, with her own mother following her down shortly after.
As a student, Candice struggled to take her high school classes seriously, and college seemed like a non-starter for her. “I didn’t want to do more school,” Candice shared, and her hiccupy path during her high school years (she repeated her freshman year—though she ended up graduating with her original class), called to mind a young person digging in their heels because the potential, expected path looked so uncertain.
Yet what pulled her forward was her consistent need to want to help people. It’s not clear where that drive came from, but it was enough to push her to take her studies more seriously. As her grades improved, so did her outlook and planning; by her junior year she was talking about becoming a business owner, a move that she knew would require going to college. Eventually, Candice enrolled at North Carolina A&T, a historically black university located in Greensboro.
Her time at NC A&T was pivotal, and sounds like something akin to experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates at Howard University as he recounts in Between the World and Me: an African-American mecca where students are exposed to the spectrum of black potential, talent and identities. Once there, Candice focused her plans, pursuing a business marketing degree instead of the more broad business management field. “I saw the opportunity to tell stories through commercials,” she says, remembering the uncanny ways that commercials that she grew up with wormed their way into her brain and made the idea of creating situations that were relatable to everyday people.
But after finishing school, Candice went into management and spent four years managing property for a real estate company and a retail pharmacy. The work was both challenging and a great way to build skills that would serve her later in life. Still, it wasn’t as rewarding as she wanted it to be; four years into it and Candice found herself wondering what difference she was making.
While repeatedly asking herself that question she was simultaneously developing a relationship with one of her company’s tenants. Ms. Tally was a teacher and always stopped by and candidly shared her latest adventures, challenges and rewards working in the classroom. Candice remembers, “I started looking forward to her coming by every day to hear those stories.” The effect was twofold: it encouraged and inspired her while also making it clear that she wasn’t having the impact she wanted to in her career.
“I didn’t see how I could become a teacher since I didn’t have a teaching degree,” Candice remembered. But then Ms. Tally told her about Teach For America, a program that seemed to Candice as too “prestigious” to get into, but she figured she would apply and try to get in all the same. What was there to lose, after all?
Since making that choice (and getting accepted in the TFA corps in 2007), Candice spent three years working in schools in Atlanta and Charlotte as a teacher and an intervention coach,eventually adding in part-time work in an after-school program. “I was seeing what could happen for students from an achievement sense,” Candice shared, “but still saw that in middle school, there was a consistent love-hate divide for young women and math that seemed connected to confidence and community at times.”
That realization led to the creation of the FLY Math Club (which stands for “financial literacy for youth”), an afterschool program Candice started to create a space where middle school women of color can collaboratively learn and build their math confidence through experiential learning and community impact projects.
Started in 2012, FLY Math Club combines not just the leadership and training Candice gained working in various after-school programs, but also her increased focus on supporting STEM teachers and classrooms as a teacher leadership development manager on the Teach For America staff in North Carolina.
In a typical convening, FLY Math Club brings together young women between the ages of 10-14 at a Saturday program, summer camp session or the signature “Girls Love Math 2” summit to promote the young women’s confidence and skills in STEM education. That’s made a world of difference for the students and their families participating in the program. To date, dozens of young women have come through the organization’s services; at their most recent Summit, over 50 students and nearly 40 parents and family members attended the day-long program which included everything from gallery walks to speeches from professional women in STEM careers to integrated problem-solving for math in everyday situations. In one session on healthy eating and managing a budget for an upcoming party, Candice remembers “a girl [who] realized she could save money by texting people thank you instead of sending thank you cards.”
These sessions help make the sometimes abstractness of math feel not only relatable, but doable. Perhaps more importantly, it helps remove the barriers and stigmas that Candice saw firsthand from having worked in schools, but is also backed up by data. The STEM field is comprised of only 25 percent women, with the number dropping even lower for women of color. It’s why the aforementioned gallery walk—an exposure to professional women that have made it and thrived in the STEM industry—has also mattered.
The work often feels like an echo of Candice’s own epiphanies on NC A&T campus. A common bond exists between her past and these young women’s future: that seeing is truly believing.