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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Babette Benken

“I told my mom from age 5 that I was going to be a math professor.” Babette fulfilled that early childhood goal – and then some.

Currently an Association Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach, her career path has been a long and winding adventure through the field of education. She says, “The road to getting where I am now was certainly not the journey I was on. I never dreamed I’d teach K-12 for 5 years. That experience ultimately led me to wanting to do more with teachers and to prepare teachers for their careers.”

Babette studied pure mathematics as an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles and as a master’s student at Tufts University, after which she taught secondary mathematics in Chicago at the Francis W. Parker School. While at Parker she also helped to train teachers and assumed an administrative position as a college counselor. Of her five years in Chicago, she says, “These multi-faceted experiences led me to go back to graduate school to do more for K-16 mathematics. That's when I started the Ph.D. program in Math Education at U of Michigan.”

Babette came to U-M because of its national reputation and extensive program in math education. She remembers, “When I met with the Chair of Educational Studies in School of Education, he was just amazing. He spent so much time with me and answered all my questions. It definitely became a people connection for me. All of my experiences at U-M were full of great colleagues and amazing people.” When on campus, Babette established a strong relationship with Rackham dean Janet A. Weiss. She says, “Janet and I have stayed in touch over the years. I met her back when she was at the business school and needed a math tutor for her boys. I got to know her family. I went to the boys’ bar mitzvahs, and she’s always been really supportive of my career.”

Michigan was a pivotal stop on her academic journey: “My education at U-M shaped my career in so many ways. My first introduction to research was at U-M–I learned how to both read and conduct research. I was also afforded the opportunity to teach in higher education, plan curricula for prospective teachers, and collaborate with some of the best and brightest in the field of teacher education. I have drawn upon all that I learned almost every day since graduating U-M. I had an amazing thesis advisor (Dr. Skip Wilson), who prepared me for all that I've sought to do since.”

Many students go through their graduate years siloed in their departments, but Babette spent much of her time in Rackham, either seeking support or enjoying the solitude and space of the historic building. She reflects, “I was quite aware of all that Rackham provided me as a graduate student, even before I applied and was accepted. They walked me through the admission process, provided information on and support in seeking fellowships, supported my travel to conferences every year, helped walk me through the process of formatting and submitting my thesis–it was a physical space where I knew I could go and find what I needed. I found Rackham and resourced them early on. I remember going to Rackham all the time.”

Alumni participation makes a big difference to Babette, and she’s been consistently involved in a variety of ways long after graduation. She says, “I feel compelled to give back my time to my alma mater, sitting on the board of governors for Occidental College and helping with fundraising for at least 15 years. Now I’m helping Rackham however I can. I feel grounded by my experience at Rackham, and it is important to give back and be a big advocate for graduate education. I mention these schools all the time. I think it is important as you get older to try to find out what your institution is like today, to know its strengths, the highlights of work done there today.

It is this effort at sharing information and extending her network that she advises others to do as well. “I focus on highlighting connections people at U-M make both nationally and locally – that is so important. I had a math student here at Cal State Long Beach who is now a doctoral student at Michigan in the same math ed program I attended. I got her in touch with faculty at U-M and she’s now working closely with some of my old advisors.”

Since 2000 she’s primarily focused on teacher education with an emphasis on mathematics and STEM education. She conducts research on best practices for teacher education and models for teacher development. She’s garnered over $5 million dollars in funding to support research and professional development projects.

Her current initiatives focus on building a comprehensive umbrella program for graduate students at Cal State – Long Beach. “My goal is to create a mini Rackham, a place where we can house information on graduate level programs and scholarships, a computer work center and a space to host workshops. Rackham is a rare situation. Not all universities have a centralized place that focuses only on graduate education and can offer a centralized place for gathering, funding, and information. I saw at U-M how powerful that can be. Having gone to U-M and knowing the benefits to having a ‘Rackham,’ that’s why I went after this funding,” she says, describing the $2.8 million in funding she’s received from the U.S. Dept. of Education to start a program.

Outside the halls of academia, Babette considers herself to be a well-rounded and family-oriented person and keeps busy with a long list of activities she enjoys. She describes, “I grew up a dancer and every decade I seem to reach out to do something with dance. Before I left Michigan, I had started doing competitive Latin ballroom dance. I said, well, I’m 40, it must be time for competitive Latin ballroom! Now, I’m busy with all of my 6 year-old’s activities. I help with my daughter’s Daisy Troop and volunteer in her school.”

And, of course, given her passion, drive, and love of teaching and math education, she’s helping develop math units for every grade in her daughter’s school.