Solving the college equation: Paul Morrison ’20 pursues his love for problem solving with a math major

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Paul Morrison ’20, since his move from Texas, is studying to for his mathematics major and a computer science minor so he can become a teacher. COURTESY PHOTO / Paul Morrison

Each week, The Flat Hat profiles one person — a student, faculty or staff member, or alum that is deeply connected to the College of William and Mary. This week, The Flat Hat presents its fourth profile in a series about nontraditional students on campus.

When Paul Morrison ’20 graduated from high school just outside of Dallas, Texas, he enrolled at the University of North Texas. Just a semester later, he decided that pursuing a higher education degree wasn’t for him. For the next decade or so, he worked in food retail, tech support and customer service until his mom sparked a cross-country move and a new life direction.

“I figured out at some point during my second semester at [the University of North Texas] that ‘Oh man, I don’t have to go to school anymore,’” Morrison said. “I stopped because I just didn’t want to go, and I didn’t go back for a very long time.”

At this same time, Morrison said he was balancing what he describes as negative influences in his life. Morrison said that his struggles with alcoholism, although he is sober now, made it difficult to pursue a single career path. When Morrison received court orders to do community service after he was charged with driving under the influence, he found recovery through volunteering with a food bank.

“I ended up going to a food bank, and then after I was done with my mandatory hours, I kept going,” Morrison said. “I found that it was just that enjoyable and that it was part of my recovery over time, turning me into a worthwhile person.”

When his mom asked him to consider moving cross-country to the Williamsburg area, he saw it as a chance to go back to school. Once settled, he enrolled at Thomas Nelson Community College, where a required pre-calculus class changed his academic path.

“At TNCC during my first semester … I took pre-calculus I because I was going to need to take it no matter what,” Morrison said. “I hadn’t decided on a degree or anything, but that class reminded me that I like math. I remembered that I really, really enjoy this type of conceptual problem solving, and at the end of the course, after I made that discovery, I saw an advertisement to become a tutor. I made an A in that class, and I could then tutor pre-calculus and lower. I had never had that calling experience … that was the first time really in my life that I knew what I wanted to do.”

Morrison discovered that he wanted to pursue a degree in mathematics so that he could one day be a teacher. In the meantime, since there was no associate degree track in math, he settled on computer science, a discipline where he also learned to enjoy the problem solving involved with programming. Now, he is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the College of William and Mary, with a minor in computer science.

“it is a positive that nobody I know, nobody that I’ve met, treats me as though I am too old to be cool, or that I am not going to get something. People just talk to me like I am a person,” morrison said.

In one of his early computer science classes, Data Structures, Morrison said he had one of his favorite academic experiences at the College: finishing an extra credit project and being praised for his hard work by his computer science professor.

“I took it with [professor James Deverick],” Morrison said. “There was a programming project that was optional, a bonus thing where you could replace one quiz grade. My lowest quiz grade was an 88 … so the programming did not really end up impacting my grade at all. It incorporated a number of different concepts from throughout the semester, and you had to essentially build from scratch several abstract data structures in order to accomplish the goal, creating a type of encoding. … I worked hard on it; I was really proud of it at the end.”

Morrison said that Deverick searched through his code, saw that it was all functional and asked him specific questions about the algorithm that he used to solve the problems. After Morrison explained it, he said that Deverick had a smile on his face.

“[Deverick] said, ‘This is the best implementation of this project I have seen so far,’ and I was over the moon to get that kind of compliment,” Morrison said. “It was really pretty special at William and Mary. … It was something I didn’t have to do — there was no template for it. It was very gratifying to be given the stamp of approval in that way.”

Morrison is in his late 30s and said that before his first semester at the College, he was worried that he would feel out of place or uncomfortable around freshmen who had just graduated from high school. When he went on a pre-Orientation camping trip through the Tribe Adventure Program, he said that he found it to be an interesting, albeit mostly awkward, experience. However, once he arrived at the College, he said he’s found the community to be nothing like what he feared.

“I think that the term nontraditional is pretty broad,” Morrison said. “Specifically, what makes me nontraditional is that I am in many years older than most of the people here. In that respect … it is a positive that nobody I know, nobody that I’ve met, treats me as though I am too old to be cool, or that I am not going to get something. People just talk to me like I am a person.”

During his first semester at the College, Morrison took a COLL 150 seminar called Black Speculative Arts, a class he thought might be outside of his comfort zone as a math and computer science student. However, he said he was pleasantly surprised by the class and by his fellow students.

“It was really outside of my wheelhouse as a math major and computer science minor, but I wanted to take my COLL 150 class in something that I would otherwise never take,” Morrison said. “That was the furthest away academically from a mathematics class. Whenever I sat down in this class, we made this big circle, and it was clear that there was going to be lots of discussion. And I thought there would be a lot of awkward silences with people just out of high school — my expectations were obviously prejudiced,  and everybody had really insightful stuff to say every class session.”

According to Morrison, this COLL 150 ended up being an eye-opening experience, one which made him glad to have come to this school.

Morrison attributes much of what has shaped his outcomes at the College to a change in his mentality and his recovery from his health struggles, but he also said he is thankful for the different types of students he has found at the College.

“I’m appreciative about the type of school that William and Mary is,” Morrison said. “Before that, I have only had experiences at community colleges and one larger university. With William and Mary, the students are more engaged.”