Marvin Jones Jr. tutoring at Bethel A.M.E. Church. Photo by John Bailey


If two trains leave two stations at different times and speeds, when will one overtake the other? Ask Indiana University mathematics graduate student Marvin Jones Jr. about this classic nightmare of a math problem and he laughs. “People get freaked out when they see these problems,” Jones concedes. “But the neat thing about them is that, at the crux, they’re about a relationship between two objects. You need to find the relationships, and that’s very important in real life, too.”

As the leader of the Bethel A.M.E. Church Homework Help program, Jones knows something about building relationships. The Reverend Rochelle Laffoon of Bethel A.M.E has seen that firsthand. “My daughter doesn’t take to tutoring, but she opened up with Marvin,” Laffoon reports. Jones also helped her son, who’s just started his freshman year at college, raise his SAT scores.

Laffon has tracked a marked improvement in the grades of the kids who participate in the church’s free Wednesday night tutoring program, which is open to all Bloomington students from kindergarten through high school. Last winter, she nominated Jones for one of the City of Bloomington’s Be More Awards for volunteer service. “Marvin makes math interesting,” Laffoon says.

Jones, who hails from Newport News, Virginia, by way of South Carolina, is pursuing his doctorate in applied mathematics at IU. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T) in Greensboro. His alma mater is a historically black college, and Jones is committed to the role of black colleges. “Even if we reach a place where we’re post-racism — and that’s going to be awhile — I think they’re necessary to American culture because they bring a different experience to education,” he says. “At a black college, you really feel like family, and there’s a strong connection to uplift and build one another.”

As a former officer in IU’s Black Graduate Student Association who remains active in the group, Jones tries to foster that same sense of community at IU. But he hasn’t forgotten about his roots. “I used to tell my A&T department chair all the time, ‘When I’m done, I’m coming back for your job.’” After he earns his Ph.D., Jones would like to get real-world experience, possibly at NASA. But his ultimate goal is to return to teaching.

“The teacher in me really loves helping people,” Jones says. “I want my students to understand that math is more than just numbers. It’s teaching you how to problem-solve and think for life.”