Beating the odds

By Wendi Wheeler ’06

After completing her PhD from Yale in 2009, Chandra Erdman ’02 was in high demand. She was recruited for tenure track teaching positions at several universities, and the global banking firm Goldman Sachs also came calling with an attractive offer. But Erdman’s dream job was to work for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Today, she is one of the 39 percent of Washington, D.C., residents who work for the government. She is a mathematical statistician in the Center for Statistical Research and Methodology, a group that makes up less than one percent of U.S. Census Bureau employees.

She also happens to be the only African American ever to obtain a PhD in statistics from Yale University.

There was a time, however, when Erdman did not care about graduating from high school, much less obtaining a college degree. But with the encouragement and support from those who recognized her potential, she has not only succeeded as a scholar, she has also landed her dream job.

In the 10th grade, Erdman was truant 59 days; if she had missed 60 days, she would have been expelled. While speaking to mathematics students at Augsburg in January, Erdman said she had an “attitude” in high school. Despite her truancy and her bad attitude, she maintained a 4.27 grade point average (out of 4.33).

At the end of her 10th grade year, she met a man who directed a program that helped inner city youth focus on their education. “I didn’t think college was an option for me,” Erdman said. Neither of her parents had graduated from high school, and in the low-income housing community where she grew up, she knew no one who had gone to college.

Erdman enrolled in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program (PSEO) at the University of Minnesota. After two years, she transferred to Augsburg to complete her undergraduate degree in mathematics. “My only aunt who had been to college went to Augsburg,” she said, “and this just felt like the right place for me.”

Erdman continued to excel at Augsburg as a McNair Scholar, a federally-funded program that assists first-generation and low-income students with preparation for graduate school. She also conducted faculty-led research, served as a supplemental instructor for Calculus I and II, and tutored in mathematics. Through McNair, and with the guidance of several staff and faculty members, Erdman realized that a graduate degree could be in her future.

“They helped me along each step of the way, getting me prepared and helping me do what I needed to become a strong applicant to grad school,” she said. Erdman applied to and was accepted by three graduate programs in statistics. She chose Columbia, where she received a full fellowship.

In the summer before graduate school and again following that year, Erdman participated in Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE), a program aimed at helping women prepare for graduate study in mathematics. She completed her master’s program in one year and then went on to Yale to pursue a PhD.

When she finished her PhD program, Erdman applied to the Census Bureau and heard nothing from them for three months. Then she learned that the director of the statistical research division was speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C. She bought a train ticket and went to meet him. “At the end of his presentation, I walked up to him, handed him my C.V., and said, ‘I want to work for you.’” They talked, and he later invited her for an interview.

Today Erdman works in the Center for Statistical Research and Methodology at the U.S. Census Bureau. “I wanted to work at Census because I wanted to look at good data, but I got put into the missing data methods group that only looks at bad data,” she said. Still, she loves her work and speaks enthusiastically about the projects in which she has been involved.

Now that she is finished with school and settled into her career, Erdman hopes to find a way to mentor other young women through the EDGE program.

Posted in My Auggie Experience