Willie Austin, 2011 graduate of Selma High School,    is the first African American male to be accepted in to a prestigious program at LSU. --Sarah Cook
Willie Austin, 2011 graduate of Selma High School, is the first African American male to be accepted in to a prestigious program at LSU. -- Sarah Cook

Selmian breaks through

Published 6:29pm Monday, May 20, 2013

While phrases like “nonlinear least-squares problems” and “multi-objective optimization” may confuse and overwhelm some, for Selma native Willie Austin, these words represent adventure and opportunity.

Austin, a student at the University of South Alabama, is the first African American to be chosen to participate in “Smile,” a math program at Louisiana State University. As a mentor in the program, Austin will teach graduate level math to high school students and also be involved in two community projects that deal with math.

“For the past six years, LSU has hosted the math program, and they’ll pick certain students from area schools to participate in it,” Austin explained.

From each school, LSU selects two students with a high GPA and rigorous proficiency level in mathematics, he said.

“I saw a banner for the program one day and I saw that it paid and it looked like something good to be involved in,” Austin said. “I went to the dean of the math department and I asked her how I could sign up, and she said first I had to be nominated.”

Not thinking much about the program, Austin said his hopes weren’t high for being selected. However, after receiving an email from LSU, Austin learned that his appeal was much higher than he originally thought.

“They said I was the top performer for the entire math department and that’s why they chose me,” Austin said. “And then they said, ‘By the way, you’re the first African American male to be selected for this in the South Alabama math department.’”

After receiving the news he had been selected — and was the first African American male from his school to be selected —Austin said his emotions were “indescribable.”

“First I told my mom, and of course she was so excited,” Austin said with a laugh. “I just hope I can make my family and Selma proud.”

A 2011 graduate of Selma High School, Austin said it was difficult at times to stay on the right path and put his studies first. However, with the help of his father and older brother, Austin said he kept his goals high.

“A lot of my classmates, they didn’t finish high school, and they’re now in jail,” Austin admitted. “I made sure I finished school, went to college and kept my grades up.”

Austin is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and mathematics from The University of South Alabama.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people who have steered me in the right direction,” he said.

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