ASU alum inspires youth through story of growing up homeless, pursuing education

July 5, 2019

“Every day, you must rise! Rise to new beginnings, rise to new doors and opportunities, rise to new relationships, and rise to create change for the better!”

This quote from one of Mona Dixon’s recent Instagram posts is the type of encouragement she regularly shares both on social media and on stages around the world. Mona Dixon presenting on stage Mona Dixon speaks to students during her Arizona Empowerment school tour. Photo by Robyn Martinez Download Full Image

Drawing from her own life experiences, the two-time ASU alumna, current doctoral student, teen empowerment leader, keynote speaker, author and more is dedicated to sharing her inspiring story and empowering the youth who need it most.

When she was 10 years old, Dixon moved to the Phoenix area from California with her single mother, two siblings and nowhere to live. She has spent half of her life homeless, in and out of shelters. Despite her challenging upbringing, however, she decided not to let anything stop her from achieving her dreams and going far.

Dixon said a simple $20 membership to the Tempe Ladmo Branch of the Boys & Girls Club, paid by a woman she did not know, is the thing that changed her life.

“The Boys & Girls Club helped build my foundation and gave me a means to be successful,” Dixon explained.

While a part of the Boys & Girls Club, she competed for and won the National Youth of the Year award for 2010–11. She initially won at her local club, then Valleywide, for the state of Arizona and eventually the whole Pacific region. From there, Dixon was brought to Washington, D.C., where she was awarded the national title.

As a result, she got to meet President Barack Obama, who appointed her to be the youngest member of the Corporation for National & Community Service in 2015. She has also been recognized as an influential leader by major media outlets, alongside people like Oprah and Michelle Obama, and has appeared on event stages with prominent actors, musicians and athletes including Beyoncé and LeBron James.

Winning and competing for the National Youth of the Year award sparked Dixon’s desire to become a motivational speaker and helped her earn more than $100,000 in scholarship money, which she used to earn her bachelor’s in business management and master’s in communication from ASU and now her doctoral degree in organizational leadership from Grand Canyon University.

Recently Dixon combined her motivational speaking with her ASU connections by working with the university’s GEAR UP grant program, which helps students prepare for college earlier in their education. In the spring, she kickstarted the program as well as her own Arizona Empowerment speaking tour by presenting to more than 1,000 students at six GEAR UP partner sites. She weaved her story throughout her speech to share how students can gear up for success, what it means and how they can take full advantage of the program.

Mona Dixon presents to students

Mona Dixon presents her CMART strategy for student success during her Arizona Empowerment speaking tour. Photo by Robyn Martinez

In her talks, she shared the CMART acronym ("smart" with a “C”) that she developed to try to reach her audience. “C” stands for “circumstances,” to encourage kids not to let their past circumstances dictate who they can become or how far they can go in life. “M” stands for “main thing,” to motivate students to pick something that will keep them focused through distractions and bring them back to the right path if they ever stray. “A” represents “aspiration” to help kids surround themselves with positive people, activities and behaviors that will help them to achieve their aspirations. Resourceful is what the “R” stands for, encouraging the kids to take full advantage of the opportunities they’re provided. The final letter “T” represents “Talent.” Dixon explains the importance of finding a passion and using it to give back.

“Their goal in life is to find where their talent is and where their passions are, and to build them and build their strength, because that’s their gift to the world.”

Dixon said it’s all about helping students find the one person or story they can connect with. 

“It’s just an amazing feeling because you know that maybe a lot of people can’t reach them or they try to put up this shell,” Dixon explained. “But as I’m talking I can slowly see their shell start coming down, up there from that stage, and it’s just a very powerful thing.”

Dixon has also started her own nonprofit, the Inspired by Mona Foundation, to help further her mission of empowering youth. One part of her organization, the Teen Success Academy, is focused on providing high school students ages 13–19 with opportunities, resources and life skills.

The inaugural Teen Success Academy took place on June 8 at ASU’s West campus in partnership with ASU GEAR UP. Two hundred students participated in workshops focused on financial literacy, college and career readiness, community engagement and personal development.

“I’m not only helping kids go to college, but I am also teaching them other skills that I think are necessary to help them be successful in life,” said Dixon.

Interested in helping drive Dixon’s mission forward? She is always looking for dedicated volunteers, sponsors or inspired people who want to contribute in a variety of ways. Reach out to her via her website, or send an email to

Written by Lindsay Lohr

'Beautiful Boy' brings his story to ASU behavioral health conference

July 5, 2019

When Nic Sheff was 11 years old, he began drinking vodka. A year later he was using marijuana, soon joined by acid, ecstasy, mushrooms and cocaine. By the time he was 18, crystal meth was his drug of choice as everything spiraled out of control.

“When I was using, I had this philosophy that, well, if I wanted to kill myself with drugs, that was my business,” said Sheff, now 37. “I felt like I lived in a vacuum. Like I was the one in all this pain, so I should be able to decide whether to blot it all out with drugs or not. I had no idea whatsoever the extent of pain I was causing my family and the people that loved me.” Author Nic Sheff smiles atop a mountain in a black baseball cap reading "Dockweiler Surf Club" and blue open jacket New York Times best-selling author Nic Sheff will share his experience with recovery from a substance use disorder during ASU’s 20th annual Summer Institute. Download Full Image

His compelling story of addiction, relapse and recovery inspired both his father's memoir, "Beautiful Boy," and the 2018 Felix van Groeningen film of the same name. And in July, Sheff will recount his painful addiction experiences as keynote speaker at the Summer Institute, hosted by the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy at Arizona State University.

Nearly 400 national and local leaders, educators, researchers, counselors and behavioral health professionals will take part in the 20th annual conference held July 16-19 in Flagstaff, Arizona. The four-day event provides networking opportunities and education, part of the center's commitment to building more resilient and healthier communities.

Sheff will speak the morning of July 16, sharing his insights into recovery, including how it affects the addict and others. His personal account about dealing with addiction, combined with his bipolar disorder, builds to his inspiring breakthrough to sobriety and its maintenance. He offers a compassionate and contemporary viewpoint, with a understanding of chemical dependency, risk factors, the isolation people who use drugs experience and the resulting trauma, pain and survival. 

He says he believes that helping people with recovery is like “putting together the puzzle” concerning the issues surrounding addiction. “We all have this one moment: NOW!” Sheff wrote in "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines" (2007). “Now is now. There is nothing but now … this, right here, is all there is. So, my challenge is to be authentic. And I believe I am, today. I believe I am.” 

"Tweak" utilized the extensive journals Sheff kept as a teenager and, along with his father's 2008 book "Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction," inspired van Groeningen's film starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet.

Sheff collaborated with his father, David, for the book, "High: Everything You Want to Know about Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction," published in January 2019. This handbook serves as a resource for middle school readers to learn about the realities of drugs and alcohol. It addresses what drugs look like, how they are used, what they are called and their side effects. It also draws on the experiences of the New York Times best-selling father/son team to teach how to recognize drug behavior, how to understand it and what can be done to overcome it. The book features candid testimonials from those who have experienced substance abuse and from families who have lived through the addiction of a loved one.

Sheff’s poignant perspective is a timely addition to the center's Summer Institute, given the increasing pressures facing behavioral health professionals amidst the current opioid epidemic. For more about the conference, visit The center is a unit of ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

Written by Deon Brown, ASU Class of ’85