Holly Hirst

Holly HirstHometown: Shavertown, PA

Professor Dept. of Mathematical Sciences
327 Walker Hall

What I do at Appalachian State: I am a Professor of Mathematics and Co-Director of the Master's Program in Mathematics; I have also been Assistant Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Dean in the School of Graduate Studies.


  • Undergraduate Institution: Temple University
  • Undergraduate Major: BA Mathematics
  • Graduate Institution: Pennsylvania State University
  • Graduate Major: MA Mathematics; PhD Mathematics

Reflections on Being a First-Generation College Student

I was lucky to be raised in a family that valued education. While neither of my parents completed college degrees, they were supportive of us kids attending college but had limited means to help financially. When I looked at schools as a sophomore and junior in high school, I felt that I had to find a place to go that would be affordable – rather than thinking at all about what my major would be.

My first year was eye opening! I had no idea what college would be like – living in a dorm, choosing courses, finding a part-time job. I was well-prepared by my high school, and so I did not struggle in classes, just in figuring out how to fit in at a large urban school, having come from a very small town and a very small high school. With also juggling a 20-30 hour-per- week job on top of school, were many days that I wondered what on earth I was doing; it seemed like all my friends had everything figured out. Over winter break, I felt stressed out and complained to my older sister about how hard life was -- her response: Get over it! You are smart; you can do this. I got over feeling sorry for myself and took her advice.

I took lots of different classes, with the goal of becoming a physical therapist, or a chemist, or a doctor. Along the way I kept taking math classes – I knew I did not want to teach high school and was completely unaware of what else I could do with math, but I was drawn there. Finally, in my junior year I had to make a choice. Talks with my professors convinced me that math was right for me; one instructor in particular gave me the following advice – perhaps the best advice I have ever received: Strong students with a great work ethic and attention to detail will go far no matter what their majors are, so do what you like most.

After that there was no turning back: I graduated with a BA in math, and then attended Penn State to work on my MA and PhD in math. And now here I am doing what I love: doing and sharing math. There were certainly bumps along the way (the level of complexity in graduate courses was a real eye-opener!), but with support of friends, family and professors I made it through.

What do I think my story says?

  • Take courses in a lot of areas to see what is out there; you may find a subject you really love and it may not be what you expect.
  • Work hard and give your best to your classes, even those that you don't like much; strong overall performance pays off regardless of your major.
  • On bad days remind yourself that you can do this; Appalachian admitted you, so you must be capable.
  • Talk to your instructors. They can help you to see what is possible in their disciplines.