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MSU Denver students Clinton Woods (left) and Steven Stier (right) conquered their dislike of math. Both are graduating from MSU Denver in mathematics with a concentration in probability and statistics.

Strength in numbers

Two military vets summon their grit and earn hard-fought victory over … math.

May 9, 2017

By Doug McPherson

Meet Clinton Woods and Steve Stier, two military veterans who returned home only to face another formidable foe.

The battle began when they decided to finish their educations, so they applied to MSU Denver. Just one problem: neither was strong enough in math to gain acceptance.

And what happened next was pure academic victory – earned with military-style determination and perseverance.

Woods, an Army vet, wanted to study geology – math didn’t fit him. “I felt like I just didn’t like the subject,” he says.

And Stier, a former electronics tech in the Navy, was going to major in electrical engineering.

But before they could do either, they had to get the math down.

Woods started with the lowest remedial class the Community College of Denver offered – math 035. “It taught me the basics, and from there I took math 050 but failed. The second time I took math 050 something – I’m not sure what – sparked a small interest in the class, and I got a C and then moved on to math 055.”

There Woods earned a B and was finally allowed to take algebra. “I took my momentum from math 055 and got a 99 percent in algebra,” Woods says. “I was shocked and it placed a small thought in the back of my head that maybe I wasn’t as dumb as I’d been told throughout my life.”

Stier had to take two remedial math classes and college algebra at Front Range Community College. 

When the two men returned to MSU Denver they had been infected – bit by the numbers bug so hard they ended up switching majors. “I still never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be smart enough to ever major in a subject like that,” Woods says.

The two eventually met in a differential equations class and hit it off immediately, partners in prime numbers and all things math. And they’ve worked together ever since – covering each other’s back in their respective battles.

Stier calls Woods “an extremely hard worker, probably one of the most tenacious I’ve seen. We’ve helped each other on projects and here and there on homework,” Stier says. “I like working with him, we have a similar mindset and similar goals.”

Woods agrees and says Stier is “a good friend … we’ve studied together quite a bit and did most of our research together.”

Indeed, they jumped into the trenches, dug in deep, fought hard and conquered. In fact, they conquered it so well that their research earned grants and was featured at a conference.

The two arrived at MSU Denver via separate roads. But, they’ll leave on the same road. In May, both will graduate from MSU Denver in mathematics with a concentration in probability and statistics.

Plus, they’ve both been accepted into graduate school to study – you guessed it – more math. This fall they’ll begin the University of Northern Colorado’s applied statistics and research methods program. Both hope to eventually work as data scientists.

“This climb from the weakest math students to a couple of the strongest is impressive and awe-inspiring – especially for those who think they aren’t good at math,” says Elizabeth Ribble, Ph.D., assistant professor of statistics in Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

Woods, 27, who’s married with three kids, was the second oldest of five siblings. He grew up in a poor household, but with loving parents. “Today, we are all first-generation students,” Woods says.

Woods adds he gets his work ethic and tenacity from his dad. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve met, and he has never given up on his dreams regardless of how far from possible they seemed. I feel this has made me stubborn to the point that I couldn’t quit.”

Stier also credits his parents for his perseverance. “They both came here from Czechoslovakia with nothing. They’ve both worked very hard and have been fairly successful.”

The vets’ advice to future students: “Never give up, no matter how hopeless the situation seems. And strive for the hardest road – it’s the one that’s most rewarding,” Wood says.

Stier adds, “If you work hard, success will follow. It’s very rewarding when you see that hard work can take you places. If you don’t know how to do something, find someone who does. And hang around with others who have similar goals – it helps you achieve your own.”

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