Loyola Stats Professor Graduated High School Without One Math Class

Elise Martel Cohen sits comfortably behind her desk, a mug of Turkish tea in front of her. On the fourth floor of Coffey Hall, the building that houses Loyola University Chicago’s social sciences, Cohen holds her office hours for the several sociology classes she teaches at Loyola each semester.

Of those classes, STATS 301, Statistics for the Social Sciences, is Cohen’s favorite: “I love STATS. I love teaching STATS. It’s so fun. I love seeing the answers click for people,” Cohen said.

With her high praise and fondness for an upper-level math class, one wouldn’t imagine that Cohen herself graduated high school without taking a single math course. But that’s exactly what happened.

“I was a high school dropout, so college was not necessarily a part of my long view,” she said, without inflection. “I grew up on Devon Avenue. I used to take the 155 bus, and I would see kids going to Loyola and I thought, ‘Oh, that must be so nice, they look like normal kids, they went to high school and they went to college.’ It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I thought college was something that I could do.”

Cohen now has a Loyola professor ID resting around her neck. As for the mysterious way in which she graduated high school without taking a single math class, that’s beyond her knowledge.

“I don’t even know how it happened, that’s the honest to God truth,” Cohen said. “At one point, I was living in a group home, I think I must have gotten credits from the group home school.”

Cohen graduated high school and immediately attended Northland College, which she affectionately describes as “a small hippie college in northern Wisconsin.” Cohen had a true wilderness experience, living in a cabin on a sheep farm during her undergrad, hauling her own water and chopping her own wood. But, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds for the now Ph.D to finish high school.

“I had been trapped into that system,” Cohen said. “I was a ‘problem child.’”

After dropping out of Chicago Public Schools the first week of her freshman year, she eventually went back to what would have originally been the beginning of her junior year.

“Because I had not been in school for so long, when I went back, I had to take exams so they could place me into classes,” Cohen said. “They gave me a biology exam and I got a one hundred on it, so they assumed I obviously must have cheated.”

The school gave her the test again, with mixed up questions, and despite getting another 100% on it, “They put me in what the kids call, ‘dummy science,’ but it’s a remedial science class. I was really, really, really bored.”

Despite CPS failing her in this sense, Cohen persisted, “One day, the teacher, Dan Stewart, came in with a skeleton and said, ‘Can someone name the parts of the skeleton?’ I was so bored that I raised my hand and I walked up to the front and said, ‘Carpel, metacarpal, phalanges,’ and I just went all the way down the whole skeleton. He said, ‘What are you doing in here?’ and I said, ‘I can’t get out.’”

Indeed, it seemed that Cohen was trapped in the remedial science class. Mr. Stewart, her teacher, asked the principle to switch her into his AP Biology class, and they refused. But, Cohen still didn’t give up.

“What I wound up doing was hiding to eat my lunch, if I had lunch, and then seventh period, when I was supposed to have lunch, I didn’t go,” Cohen said. “I went to Mr. Stewart’s AP Biology class. It pretty much changed my life because it was fascinating.”

After finishing high school having secretly taken AP Biology and not one math class, Cohen made it to Northland College in rural Wisconsin and got her BA in Sociology. She then moved to New York City to attend the New School for Social Research.

“I remember being there, smoking a cigarette on the steps, on fourteenth and fifth, reading Karl Marx’s ‘Brumaire of the 18th Republic’, like, ‘I have arrived!” Cohen said.

After studying at the New School for a while, Cohen’s family began having problems back in Chicago. Her parents lost their jobs, and her twin sister needed her help. Cohen’s senior year of high school, she and her twin went through kidney transplant surgery, with her sister giving Elise a kidney.

“When I left the New School, I fell into a huge depression because…who am I to leave the New School?” Cohen said.

Her father, a Turkish immigrant, whom she has a photo of in her office and clearly adores, wasn’t always supportive of her academic endeavors.

“What was more jarring for my father was not that I would take college classes, but that I would dare have that, ‘go away to college, middle-class’ experience,” Cohen said. “He always wanted to make sure that I had a fall back plan.”

In her father’s mind, Cohen’s plan should have been typing or a skill- not college.

“I didn’t fault him for that,” she said, “He grew up in a different time, in a different country, where women didn’t necessarily go to college.”

After leaving the New School to move back to Chicago, Cohen eventually returned to school. She received her Master’s in Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago, and her Ph.D in Sociology a few years later at University of Illinois-Chicago.

Now teaching multiple sociology classes at Loyola, Cohen is married with three rambunctious boys, whom she loves helping with their math homework.

Cohen’s office is a sanctuary for her students. There’s Turkish tea and granola bars set out for her visitors. A huge bookshelf lines the wall, with titles like “The Arts and Crafts of Turkestan” by Johannes Kalter and “How to be Sexy with Bugs in Your Teeth: A Motorcycling Manuel for Women” by Trisha Yeager.

Madeline Browne, Loyola senior, is one of Cohen’s students. She can attest to the comfort and ease with which Cohen treats her pupils.

“She is just a very honest professor and really wants to get to know her students,” Browne said. “Her door is always open and she loves having conversations with all of her students!”

Cohen’s ability to discuss her personal life has created an inspiring and down-to-earth atmosphere in her classroom.

“She was open about her past which I think made her, as a professor, more trusting with her students because she explains where she came from, how she got into what she’s doing now, and giving hope to students that life is truly a journey,” Browne said.

Mary Wright, Loyola senior, has taken multiple classes with Cohen, “She knew all of our names, she remembered what research we wanted to do, she made me feel comfortable in who I was and my experiences.”

Wright is continuing with the sociological research that Cohen helped her develop in a research methods class.

“Elise Cohen has made such an impact on my major and what I want to do with my career path,” Wright said. “She’s such a hard-working, open-minded, strong woman. That’s what I wanted to see, that’s someone I can look up to.”

Most importantly, Cohen wants all her students to know that mistakes are okay.

“Play and make mistakes,” she said. “Trust yourself to make mistakes. You’ve gotta be able to take a hit to go further.”

Cohen is no stranger to mistakes- and that’s not a bad thing. She’s successful today because she let herself mess up every now and then, a habit we all can learn from.

               (Dr. Martel-Cohen on Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey)