Ronnie White

“I developed a confidence so when I see something I don’t understand, I don’t panic, and I know I will eventually get it.”

Ronnie White
Ronnie White Photo courtesy of Ronnie White

Leda Zimmerman | MIT OpenCourseWare

Ronnie White1 has seen his fair share of tough times. The 59-year-old White lives in a Houston apartment complex for military veterans. Fifteen years ago he was diagnosed with a mental illness, and because he found it difficult to hold a job, now relies on government disability payments. But despite his economic and personal hardships, White says he “feels fortunate.” He has a home, internet access, and a daily date with OCW.

A few years ago, White’s doctor suggested he study music or math to stimulate his mind. White looked into enrolling at the University of Houston but soon realized he would not be able to afford “the ridiculous prices of books and tuition.” He searched online and came across OCW, and in particular, Professor David Jerison’s undergraduate course on 18.01 Single Variable Calculus.

“I’m a slow learner, so I’m still working on this course, though I’m almost through with it,” says White. He had to overcome a major obstacle at the start of his studies: “I had no idea what those symbols were saying—they were like French.” Undaunted, White borrowed algebra and trigonometry books from the library, “and spent a year working on those alone.” Also, because of his disability, White can only concentrate on his online work for one or two hours a day.

White watches parts of a lecture repeatedly until he masters a concept. “It’s easier now,” he says. “I developed a confidence so when I see something I don’t understand, I don’t panic, and I know I will eventually get it.” He finds great satisfaction in solving math problems, he says: “It’s either black or white—you either get the answer or you don’t.”

White also likes being usefully occupied. “I feel like I’m part of something when I’m watching videos and doing problems,” he says. “I avoid getting into a rut by doing something positive.”

He knows about getting stuck in bad places. White grew up in a west Texas city, in a household touched by domestic violence. Academics proved difficult for him, so he went straight into the Marine Corps after high school. In the late 1970s, after two years as a “grunt” training in the jungle, White returned to Texas, where he “bounced around from one job to another.” He worked in oil fields, and as a landscaper, trash collector, and janitor.

Things came to a head for him nine years ago. He headed for Denver, where he’d been promised a truck driving job that didn’t exist. “I’d spent my last dime getting there, and was shocked and scared to have to sleep on the street.” After he returned to Texas, a counselor sent him to the Veterans Administration, which offered him assistance. “I never wanted to fall through the cracks again,” he says. With the help of his OCW courses, White says, “My days are full, and I feel like I’m getting somewhere.” In the spring, once he finishes his first calculus class, he’s on to 18.034 Differential Equations. He has ambitious plans, too: “Once I learn enough math, I want to be a volunteer teacher with underprivileged kids in a community center.”

He credits OCW with paving the way for him. “MIT is doing this for me, teaching me math,” he says. “If I learn something, I should spread that out to other people who want to learn, and become part of an eternal and positive process.”

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1. pseudonym was used at the request of the subject.