From loathing math to loving it – and now heading to William & Mary

December 13, 2016
Nicole Brailer stands in front of TCC's Center for Military and Veterans Education

Nobody would have laughed harder than Nicole Brailer if you had told her five years ago she’d be making a career in mathematics and attending the College of William & Mary.

Yet that’s exactly the plan for the first-generation college graduate, who will leave Tidewater Community College with three degrees when she walks in the Dec. 19 commencement exercises at the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

“Everybody has the potential to be good at math,” says Brailer, 32, who lives in Isle of Wight with her husband, Adam. “It doesn’t have to be this dreadful subject. It just depends on who’s teaching it.”

Lucky for Brailer it was Professor Iain McKaig, whose disdain of memorizing formulas in favor of how mathematics applies to the real world awakened the math gene within her. She dreaded pre-calculus only to realize that, under McKaig’s instruction, it not only made sense, but she actually enjoyed it.

“Math is literally teaching somebody another language,” she said. “People don’t realize that because of the negativity associated with it. Math is life. Professor McKaig made it relative to life.”

Nicole Brailer in her own words

Prior to TCC, the Boston native thought college was something only for the rich. She went to work immediately after high school in law enforcement and radio promotions, but neither career suited her for the long run.

Four years in the Navy, including a deployment to the Mediterranean, were fulfilling and provided Brailer with GI Bill benefits to use for college.

“I didn’t want to have loans, but I didn’t want that to stop me,” said Brailer, who will leave TCC without any debt. “My research led me to TCC.”

Initially, she considered architecture and worked toward an Associate of Applied Science in Computer-Aided Drafting and Design Technology. Along the way, she discovered McKaig’s classes, which changed her path.

She remembers the moment when a career plan crystallized in her mind. Brailer was in statics class, tutoring a fellow student who couldn’t grasp one of the more difficult concepts.

“I wanted him to understand so he could have the release I had when I understood and it wouldn’t hold him back,” she said.

Instead of getting discouraged, Brailer became inspired and figured out a Plan B and finally a Plan C until she saw that clarity in her classmate’s eyes. He understood. She beamed.

“It wasn’t even the fact that I had helped him,” she said. “It was the feeling I got when I saw the feeling of relief on his face when he finally understood it. That’s how I knew I should be teaching. I want that feeling all the time.”

Brailer was so close to earning the associate in CADD that she finished that degree last spring. Because of all the extra classes she’s taken, she will graduate with both an Associate of Science in Science and an Associate of Science in General Studies. She holds a 3.9 GPA.

“Nicole was one of the most tenacious students I’ve ever had,” McKaig said. “She’ll work and research a topic until she knows the inside and out of it. It was truly a pleasure having such an amazing student in my class.”

Brailer plans to work toward a bachelor’s in applied mathematics at William & Mary beginning this spring. She will enter as a junior thanks to TCC’s transfer agreement with the school.

Brailer is grateful for that and all the opportunities at TCC, which include taking part in a paid NASA internship last summer and being a work-study student at the Center for Military and Veterans Education.

Adam and Nicole’s stepson, Cole will be at graduation along with her mother, stepfather and grandparents from New England.

“I would love to teach math at a university,” she said. “Math is one of the subjects that is suffering. There’s good people out there, but they haven’t had the privilege of having someone pull it out of them. I had that benefit and I’m completely thankful for that.”