School of Social Work outstanding grad says serving underprivileged populations 'is my calling'


May 5, 2020

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

Cassandra Peña’s search for a career didn’t end with her finding social work. “Social work found me,” she said. ASU grad Cassandra Pena When it came time to choose a university, there was no question for Cassandra Peña, who grew up in Tempe. "My home was about 10 minutes from the main campus. During Sun Devil football games, I would hear the fireworks ignite, and the fans’ excitement was ecstatic. Also, my grandfather was a huge inspiration that imprinted the ASU culture and higher education in me. I'm a proud Sun Devil, and this has passed down to my children as they have embraced the maroon and gold spirit." Download Full Image

She had started college seeking to work in medicine, taking a few classes along those lines. But, the School of Social Work’s spring 2020 outstanding graduate (graduate student) said she learned it just was not for her.

“I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession; I just wasn't sure what that was,” said Peña, who grew up in Tempe but today lives in Phoenix. “I decided to consult with a career counselor; at that moment, I knew social work was the right career path for me. Once I enrolled in my first social work class, I immediately knew serving underprivileged populations is my calling.”

Her internship at the Phoenix Area Indian Health Service’s Integrated Behavioral Health office has solidified her passion, she said.

“I want to continue to serve the indigenous people,” Peña said. “As a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community, my long-term goal is to be an asset and leader for my community.”

Peña’s advice for new and returning students is simple: Network.

“The advice I would give someone still in school would be to connect with your instructors, program staff, and designate some mentors. By forming these connections, the likelihood is you’ll find internships, jobs and opportunities within the school,” she said. “Also, join a student organization! As a non-traditional student, I’ve learned leadership skills will take you far.”

Peña served as vice president of the American Indian Social Work Student Organization.

She said she’s proud to be a social worker.

“I've established a desire to lead systemic change,” she said, “and because of my education and experience at ASU, I’m prepared to tackle issues impacting vulnerable populations.”

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

Answer: My classroom experience at ASU has transformed my general perspective. I bring a unique viewpoint to the classroom. However, I'm amazed by my peers, who have so much to offer in class and the social work profession. I think ASU has unwrapped the willingness to listen to all perspectives, regardless if I don’t always agree. I learned an abundance by being open to understanding the views of others, and by attending ASU, I've flourished my perception.       

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I knew I was going to transfer to a university, there was no question I would choose ASU. It is a piece of my adolescence, as I lived in Tempe. My home was about 10 minutes from the main campus. During Sun Devil football games, I would hear the fireworks ignite, and the fans’ excitement was ecstatic. Also, my grandfather was a huge inspiration that imprinted the ASU culture and higher education in me. I'm a proud Sun Devil, and this has passed down to my children as they have embraced the maroon and gold spirit.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I’ve been fortunate to have numerous influential professors and mentors at ASU. The School of Social Work has some fantastic professors! Going back to my undergraduate education, Cynthia Peters and Brett Petersen demonstrated the ethical standards of social work. They helped shape my understanding of the significant role social workers can bring to the table. During my graduate program, Judy Krysik and Kristin Ferguson-Colvin have demonstrated exceptional master-level education with the incorporation of social work values. Equally important, additional instructors­­ and faculty who have mentored my professional development are Christopher Sharp, director of the Office of American Indian Projects, and Miguel Vieyra, associate director for Community Engagement and Strategic Initiatives for the School of Social Work. Their guidance has also been instrumental to my success.

Q: As an on-campus student, what was your favorite spot to study or to think about life?

A: My favorite spot to study and reflect was the patio area in front of the post office at the Downtown Phoenix campus. When I had time to do this, I would grab some lunch and find a shaded area (you need shade in Arizona) to sit, people-watch and enjoy the view of the grassy area with a great view of the enormous art sculpture, called “Her Secret Is Patience.” A massive amount of my upbringing was in the Downtown Phoenix area. My grandparents lived in a home a couple of blocks from campus and most of our family gatherings took place in this home, and I'm always fascinated with the growth of the downtown area. Most of my reflection is how I’ve come full circle. This specific area is a part of me and engraved in my past. I remember exploring the downtown area when there was no ASU. It’s a surreal feeling!

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

A: Homelessness. During my undergraduate practicum, I was exposed to youth homelessness while working at Native American Connections’ HomeBase youth shelter. I have a connection to helping individuals experiencing homelessness. In my work with this population, I learned extensively about the needs associated with being displaced. I attended meetings with community partners and agencies who are dedicated to this work, trying to provide services related to housing, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, sex trafficking and more. It’s evident (that) homelessness continues to impact many lives. I believe the current system needs adjustment. It’s a bipartisan issue! We have to work together to advocate on behalf of this population and call on our legislators to maintain commitment to ending homelessness.   

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

602-496-0001

Outstanding grad inspired to give independence to others with disabilities through recreation


May 5, 2020

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

Rachel Dora-Ann Fisher never dreamed a disability that once interrupted her academic studies would lead to a fulfilling career helping others with similar challenges. ASU grad Rachel Dora-Ann Fisher School of Community Resources and Development outstanding grad Rachel Dora-Ann Fisher's advice to other students: "Don’t let anything hold you back, whether it’s income, being first-generation, being a parent, having a disability, being from out of state or out of the country, transferring here, or just thinking you can't make change. I have helped to make change and I am an adult transfer student, first-generation, single mom, low income, from out of state, and none of those labels mattered. You are seen by your fellow students as an ASU student. This is your family!" Download Full Image

Fisher, a first-generation college student from Cicero, a Chicago suburb, is the spring 2020 outstanding graduate of the School of Community Resources and Development (SCRD).

Upon arriving in Arizona eight years ago, she found that her already low vision was decreasing severely. Fisher was unable to find a job, leading her to conclude that she couldn’t do the work she had learned how to do as a college student in Illinois.

She transitioned to the Phoenix-based Foundation for Blind Children’s vocational rehabilitation program for adults to retrain in assistive technology and skills with vision loss. She planned to get a job and applied for her first guide dog.

When a career counselor asked her about her favorite previous job, she described her work in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association.

“It was my favorite job. I got to work with others with disabilities and mainly young adults with autism. It was fulfilling work I cherished. I kept a picture of one of my students from the program,” said Fisher.

“The ‘aha’ moment was when (the career counselor) told me it was recreational therapy I was doing, and that I could go to ASU to get a degree in the field. I knew at that moment it was what I was meant to do: to help give freedom and independence to other people with disabilities through recreation.”

ASU instructors were kind and understanding regarding her disability and helped arrange accommodations for her, which was key to her being able to be successful, she said.

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

Answer: I was surprised at how my professors and teachers cared about me as a person and as a student. I had a previous experience in a college in … Chicago where… (instructors told me) I would not get hired being visually impaired, and I only made it halfway through my senior year. The experience was horrific, and I thought I would never try to attend college ever again. Once the opportunity arose for me to go back to school and study recreational therapy at ASU, I was very timid and scared of what it would be like, (because) my previous teachers were not kind about my disability. The first semester here, my instructors were so kind and understanding and didn’t really see my visual impairment as a limitation to my abilities; they just saw it as the reason I needed some accommodations. I was treated like a whole person. I was so happy and surprised at how different my entire college experience has been, and their support and kindness has made me the student I am and given me the confidence to make change and be the person I want to be.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: It was the absolute best school to get my recreational therapy degree and on the downtown campus. Once I visited downtown, it gave me that city feel I missed from back in Chicago, but so relaxed. I had interviewed for an essay with (SCRD faculty associate) Beth Dietrich, and loved her perspective and knew she was going to be one of my instructors. All the working professionals in my field had come from ASU, so I knew where I wanted to go!

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There is a TED Talk where a teacher explains what a lollipop moment is. It's when you do something that greatly impacts another person’s life without even knowing it. Kelly Ramella (an SCRD associate instructional professional and program coordinator) impacted my life in the first semester at ASU.

The first time I met her face to face, I was in her online class and struggling with making it accessible. We met to discuss it near the elevators in UCENT (University Center on the Downtown Phoenix campus). She looked at me and said, “We are going to figure out how to make you the best recreational therapist with your disability.”

It was the first time I had ever in my life had a teacher tell me that my disability could make me better in my field, that it could work for me and not against me. Over the past two years, she has continued to do just that and show me so many ways to be who I am: a recreational therapist who happens to also be visually impaired.

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

A: To get involved, don’t sit back, make this the college experience you have always wanted. I can say in my experiences here at ASU in student organizations, student leadership positions, working on campus, and in my classes and volunteer work I have done more than I ever imagined I could.

My first semester, I was very shy and reserved and talked to very few people. It was getting involved in my first student organization, fighting for a streetlight near Arizona Center, and getting a campus job. I then started to work in advocacy more and have never looked back.

Don’t let anything hold you back, whether it’s income, being first-generation, being a parent, having a disability, being from out of state or out of the country, transferring here, or just thinking you can't make change. I have helped to make change and I am an adult transfer student, first-generation, single mom, low income, from out of state, and none of those labels mattered. You are seen by your fellow students as an ASU student. This is your family! You are surrounded by supportive, loving and intelligent students from around the globe and varying backgrounds. You can make anything possible.

Q: As an on-campus student, what was your favorite spot to study or to just think about life?

A: I love to sit right in front of UCENT and my service/guide dog Austin sits right up there with me. Under the trees in the shade and looking at Civic Space park across the street.

I also enjoy sitting in front of Starbucks with Austin in the shade, me with a coffee or tea and him with his puppuccino.

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

A: I would create better programming with recreational therapy for students transitioning with disabilities from high school to college or work. So many students with disabilities become lost from high school to college without support or assistance. I was one of those students. I was told I would only be a telemarketer because that’s all someone with blindness in my low economic bracket could do. (Instead) I would get to go to college and better myself. This is exactly what these students are hearing as well.

I am applying to my master’s program to aid in this issue in Maryvale, where many students have no support from high school to college or work. We need to help our next generation to be happy, healthy and independent individuals, increasing their quality of life with support and programs for not just training on social skills, but career skills, and leisure education.

I may not have $40 million, but I will find a way to make it happen and be a changemaker.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

602-496-0001