First-generation ASU grad overcomes obstacles to accomplish her dreams


May 1, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Rikki Nunley, a first-generation college student, is proud of herself for accomplishing what she once thought was unattainable — earning her bachelor’s degree.  Rikki Nunley with her dog, Liam. Download Full Image

Nunley started out at Arizona State University as a transfer student majoring in psychology. After taking a communication course, she became intrigued with how people interact with one another and changed her major to communication. Just as she was beginning to find her identity as a student and get a grasp on her new major, Nunley was faced with a personal struggle that forced her to take a semester off. 

During this time off, Nunley said she was discouraged and concerned she might never finish her degree. However, Nunley was determined to see her degree through. She returned to school in spring 2019 and worked two part-time jobs while taking as many credits as she could.

“When I thought my life was at its lowest, I realized that in order to get my life back to where I wanted it to be and to accomplish my dreams I had to work for it and I couldn't just sit there waiting for it to happen,” Nunley said. “It's OK to take a semester off. Being able to graduate was something that I dreamed about and if you really want your dreams to happen, you have to work for it. It may not come tomorrow and it may not come in a year — but I truly believe that everything will fall into place if you work for it.”

Nunley is looking forward to graduating this spring with her bachelor’s degree in communication from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and hopes to pursue her master’s degree in communication in the fall.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I was in this mindful growth communication class and we went through all of these different exercises. One of the segments in the class was learning how to get rejected, because there’s going to be times in life, whether it's a job or something else, where someone is going to tell you no. So we had to ask people three things that we knew we would get rejected for. That exercise honestly changed my whole mindset because ever since then I have not been afraid to ask for a raise if I thought I deserved it. That was something that I struggled with before — I wouldn't ask for raises because I was scared I was going to get rejected. That experience really taught me to never put things on hold just because I think I might get rejected.

Q: Did you encounter any challenges coming to or while attending ASU? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: One of my main challenges was transferring from community college over to ASU. When I transferred I lost some credits and that pushed me back a whole semester. I ended up having to retake some classes. Another challenge I encountered was when something happened in my personal life that actually caused me to take a semester off. That was a real struggle for me because my identity was so grounded in being a student and I had been working ahead and had created such a good schedule for myself. A lot happened in that couple of months and I didn't think that I would even be able to graduate. I had to work hard and save up but I was able to get all the funds that I needed to head back to school the next semester. Also, during that time I adopted my dog, Liam, and I know that he's just a dog, but he honestly motivated me to get out of the house and go on walks. When I realized that I raised him, I realized that I can do a lot more than I think that I can. So in a weird way, my dog honestly pushed me to achieve the things I’ve accomplished.

Q: What skills and experiences have you gained from your time in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that will help you achieve your future goals in life?

A: One of the main things I took away from my whole college experience is that conflict is not always a bad thing. Before I thought if you had any conflict with anyone that it was negative. Now because of what I’ve learned, if I have conflict with someone I don't see it as a bad or negative thing. I also learned that communication is inevitable. We’re always going to be communicating no matter what, even if it's non-verbal or through our body language. That's kept me more aware of my own body language and how I communicate with others. These things have definitely helped me in the workplace.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm going to stay with the company that I'm at right now, working as a district coordinator for two financial advisers. My original plan for graduation week was to go to Italy with my best friend. But everything has changed so I’m kind of seeing where life takes me. I'm going to start applying for master's programs. I’d like to continue studying communication, specifically small group communication.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Truly believe in yourself. Life happens and life is going to get in the way but it's 100% OK to take longer to finish your degree. For me, it's made me feel like I worked even harder for it because I went through struggles and then I had to work hard to provide my own means to be able to graduate college.

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

ASU graduate student discovers passion for teaching music


May 1, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

After completing her Bachelor of Arts degrees in music and psychology, and having taught private violin and piano lessons since high school, ASU School of Music graduate student Danielle Pivonka knew that she loved teaching. Pivonka also knew she had a strong interest in the way a person’s brain understands, perceives, learns and creates music. What she didn’t know was how to turn her interest into a career. Danielle Pivonka Danielle Pivonka. Download Full Image

So she took a year off to figure out her next move.

“I did a yearlong yoga teacher training,” she said. “It was during that time that I realized that teaching was my passion and music was the capacity I felt I could offer the most.”

After that year off, Pivonka went back to school to achieve her goals and will graduate in May summa cum laude with both her Master of Music degree in Music Education and her Music Education Teaching Certificate, which she completed in only three semesters at ASU.

Now that she knows she wants to teach, after graduation, Pivonka plans to teach middle school orchestra at a public school in the Phoenix area. She also plans on returning to ASU to earn her PhD.

During her time at ASU, Pivonka worked as a graduate teaching assistant helping coordinate the ASU String Project, a community strings lesson program, by communicating with parents of children enrolled and meeting with the ASU students teaching private lessons to help with their questions about teaching.

Funded by the National Association for Music Education, Pivonka is currently a grant coordinator on a research project with the music education faculty. As a psychology major, Pivonka had conducted research, and faculty members invited her to participate in the music education doctoral seminar. Her original autoethnodrama, “Am I a Musician? An Arts-Based Narrative Inquiry Approach to Researching Music Identity,” was selected for presentation at the interdisciplinary Southwest Humanities Institute’s symposium hosted by the ASU Department of English. In her work, Pivonka raised questions about music identity in the music classroom — how traditional music education interacts with students’ musical interests outside of school to shape their understandings of themselves as musical or nonmusical beings.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: While as ASU, I learned that teaching music is about so much more than just getting someone to understand the "correct" way to do something. While teaching private lessons, I certainly valued what the students wanted to do, but my goal was to help them accomplish proper technique and move through pieces of music. I now realize that teaching music is about creating relationships that allow students to express their musical goals and what makes music meaningful to them. From there, the teacher helps students accomplish this in whatever unique way this may look from student to student. I experienced this firsthand as a student through my professors and colleagues over the last 18 months. 

Q. Why did you choose ASU?

A. The music education faculty and graduate students were extremely welcoming when I visited. I knew that I would be supported and could grow immensely if I made the decision to attend ASU, which is exactly what happened.

Q. Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A. Dr. Marg Schmidt taught me the value of treating students as people first, who might come to class with many things going on in their life. To be aware of that makes all the difference as you help educate them. Recognizing that while people want to learn and grow, they also have lives outside of the classroom that play a large role in how they show up each day or each week. Dr. Schmidt demonstrated huge levels of understanding, grace and support for myself and other students in a way that I hope I can provide for my own students someday.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A. Take breaks regularly and allow yourself time to rest. Use this time away from work to get to know the people in your school or major. These people are dealing with similar accomplishments and struggles as you, and they are your lifeline during your time in school. Rely on your community and allow yourself the space to build those relationships.

Q. What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A. I loved my office in the music building because of the people I shared it with — Alisa Hanson, Mallory Alekna and Dongju Cha were amazing friends and supporters while I was in school, and I loved taking breaks and spending time with them. There was a balcony right outside of our office on the third floor, which I also really loved to use while I read, ate lunch or lay in the sun.

Q. If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A. I would donate the money to places whose goal is to help improve the environment and save our planet — research for sustainable/alternative practices, agencies that can clean our oceans, companies that help reduce our carbon footprint, etc.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music

480-727-7189