Growing up in Haslet in a family of proud UNT alumni, Tobey Mathis always thought he'd break the mold and attend college out of state. His mother, Durenda, earned a business degree with a focus in real estate and his brother, Torey, majored in psychology.
"I didn't want to just copy-paste what they did," he says. "I had an urge to go elsewhere, to go explore."
After touring several out-of-state schools, he finally visited UNT and realized the adventure he wanted was closer than he thought.
"Every person I've met at UNT is just so friendly," he says. "It really feels like people are looking for friends no matter where you go. I was a physics major for a semester, and I'd go hang in the physics lounge all the time because the people there were just so cool."
But it was in the Department of Mathematics that Tobey found his passion, completed undergraduate research and thrived with mentorship from two tremendous professors.
Now on the path to starting his Ph.D. in Mathematics this fall, Tobey's journey began when, as a freshman in the Honors College, he gave a perfect answer to an extremely difficult extra credit problem in Kiko Kawamura's Differential Equations class. Impressed by his analytical skills and his passion for sharing his knowledge with fellow students, Kawamura encouraged him to change his major to math.
His future in the department was cemented when he emailed her to express interest in her research, kickstarting his undergraduate research career and laying the foundation for a mentorship -- and friendship -- that continues to this day.
"She requires a pretty high entrance skill level to start researching with her, but she's very humble," he says. "It makes it easier to feel like you're part of the group, like even as an undergraduate you're bringing something to the table. A lot of our meetings we don't go into like, 'Oh, I read this, I'm going to present it.' It's more like, 'I was thinking this, let me write it out and see where that takes us.' The teamwork is really nice."
Equally transformative was working with Associate Professor Lior Fishman, whose unique mentoring style extends beyond the classroom -- and often beyond mathematics.
"He has so many interests and hobbies," Tobey says. "You don't even have to be in the math department. You can just walk up to him and say, 'Hey, I want to do research,' and he'll find you something to do. He likes to pair grad students with undergraduate students, and we've even worked with TAMS students, who are just so incredibly smart."
With guidance from Kawamura and Fishman, Tobey excelled as a tutor in the Math Lab, earned an Undergraduate Research Fellowship and co-led a STaRS talk in October 2021.
Tobey encourages students to look for connections with professors and be bold in asking for opportunity.
"I know it's easier said than done, but you'd be amazed by what you can get by just asking," he says. "Faculty email addresses and research are online. All it takes is reaching out. And if you're really lucky, you'll get a Dr. Kawamura or a Dr. Fishman."
Even with support, his road to graduation wasn't always smooth. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tobey found himself in the ER after struggling to breathe for days. Doctors informed him that he was having a panic attack, and he realized he'd likely been suffering from them for some time.
"Before I knew this was anxiety, I went to a research meeting and was gasping for breath. I just couldn't operate," he says. "I'd get to class and have to leave -- something I'm sure many, many students go through. It makes everything harder than it needs to be."
Reaching out proved to be harder this time, but he eventually connected with a doctor and therapist who helped him gain a better understanding of his anxiety and how to effectively manage it.
Tobey's advice to anyone struggling with mental health is to not be afraid to take that first step. "Don't diminish your feelings. If you think you need help, that's the only sign you need."
"I know a lot of people don't have the financial ability to find a therapist, but there's help out there. Just finding someone to talk to, whether it's a mentor or a friend, can help. You have a few free counseling sessions and counselors available here at UNT."
Inspired by his professors and his experiences in the Math Lab, Tobey plans to complete his doctorate and share his passion for math as a professor.
"No matter how much somebody loves a subject, a bad experience can just kill it for them. I feel like a lot of people have had that issue with math. I would love to be able to get rid of that little bit of frustration."