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Starbucks partners shine bright

May 8, 2020

This month, nearly 700 Starbucks College Achievement Plan students will turn their tassels at ASU virtual commencement

Coffee and college seem to be a perfect match.

Nearly 700 Starbucks partners are graduating from Arizona State University in May 2020. Including these talented students, that makes nearly 4,500 total Starbucks partners who have earned their bachelor’s degree from ASU since the Starbucks College Achievement Plan was announced in 2014.

The program is a first-of-its-kind partnership that creates an opportunity for all eligible Starbucks employees, or partners, to earn one of more than 80 undergraduate degrees through ASU Online with full tuition coverage.

To celebrate with this year's new graduates, ASU Now talked to a handful of current Starbucks College Achievement Plan students to get a sense of what the program means to them and their futures. 

 Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scholar finds parallels between her communication courses and everyday life

May 8, 2020

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

Graduating from Arizona State University through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, Heather Oldenborg did something most students don’t during their senior year, she added a second major. While Oldenborg initially enrolled at ASU as a communications major, she will graduate earning a Bachelor of Science degree in both communication and digital audiences. ASU Online student and Starbucks partner Heather Oldenborg Download Full Image

“I did my degree backwards to what more of my peers did. I took all of my required communications classes first and left my electives for my junior and senior year. But I am really happy with the way it turned out because I was able to declare that second major,” she said.

As part of her coursework for her BS in communication, Oldenborg enrolled MCO 307 The Digital Audience with Jessica Pucci, associate dean and director of the digital audiences program at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“The class was rich and full of current content,” Oldenborg said. “Professor Pucci actually wove communications theories into the course content, and that was the moment I knew I needed to do more with the area of study.” 

Oldenborg found that her coursework related to her everyday life and in turn, was able to develop better leadership skills as a Starbucks supervisor. 

“I learned along the way that there is much more to communication than I thought. I remember searching through studies for a literature review paper and comparing them to my observations of the world. I love analyzing a situation and trying to figure out why it is the way it is. Learning the theories really helped me understand relationships and expectations and how to navigate them,” Oldenborg said.

Having started her path to a degree in community college, Oldenborg learned she prefers the layout of online learning provided through ASU Online. 

“I love online learning because I am able to go back and rewatch lectures as many times as I need to. With my previous classes, I would spend much of my class time taking notes and wouldn’t always catch what the professors were saying,” she said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: The true “aha” moment was when I decided to stop telling myself that communication was my weakness and decided to build it into a strength.   

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

A: I was a communications intern at the Starbucks Technology Center in Arizona the summer going into senior year. During that time, I learned how important it is to network and to continuously set personal goals.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan benefits. I was struggling to find financial aid that would cover the cost of tuition for my state school of choice. ASU worked out better for me because I was able to learn at my own pace and have the support from Starbucks to balance work and school.  

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

A: I had professor Jacob Nelson for MCO 348 Digital Audience Analysis. That was the first time I realized that my career needed to, in some way, look at analytics. I reached out to him asking about what career opportunities involved Google Analytics and he gave me a few suggestions. That was when I first started becoming acquainted with LinkedIn and reading through job descriptions. He helped me level up on my post college career goals.

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

A: Don’t put yourself on constant overload. It is okay to adjust your course load so that you can really go beyond absorbing information and find ways to put the lessons into practice outside of the online classroom. Balance is personal, and you need to take this time to make the most of your college experience.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: The power study location has changed over the years, but I was always near a window with a cup of coffee. I really appreciate taking a moment to disconnect, and my favorite place to do that is on a hike with my miniature Australian shepherd, Milo.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am actively looking for opportunities in communication, digital marketing or social media. For now, I will continue working at my local Starbucks. During my senior year courses I started a few blogs, and I think I am going to continue on with one of them.

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

A: I would focus on climate change because it is something that is on my mind daily. I believe that big things can come from small changes. I transitioned to a vegan diet about a year ago, after having been a vegetarian for a few years, and I am amazed at how my carbon footprint has changed. However, I have learned that we can’t change people; we can only give them the resources and support to change. 

COVID-19 has challenged us, but I am inspired by seeing homes and businesses with the writing, “we are all in this together.” My dream is that we can come out of quarantine, stay at home orders and safer at home orders, and still be in this together. One world that we are all on together.

Story by Tuesday Mahrle, earned media specialist for EdPlus at Arizona State University

Graduate develops a passion for politics and civil discourse

May 8, 2020

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

Like many first-year college students, Justin Heywood wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in. After scrolling through the hundreds of majors offered on Arizona State University’s website, he chose the first one that really drew him in: political science.  ASU Grad Justin Heywood Justin Heywood will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in political science and civic and economic thought and leadership. Download Full Image

“As a kid, I was always involved in politics,” said Heywood. “It wasn’t until probably my freshman year, second semester that I realized, ‘Wow, I chose right. This is exactly where I need to be.’ That experience came with the 2016 presidential inauguration.

The 2016 election was the first opportunity Heywood had to vote, and he was excited to be a part of democracy. He attended the presidential inauguration and the Women’s March, both of which opened his eyes to the work that needed to be done in politics — particularly as it related to bipartisanship and civil discourse. 

“When I went to the inauguration I saw people pushing, shoving, fighting, spitting on one another because of their political views. We heard stories about friends and family disconnecting or removing them from social media just because of their political views,” Heywood said. “I thought that was something that needed to change.”

Back on campus, Heywood helped start a student organization called Bridge ASU, which hopes to foster civil discussions with people you don’t agree with. 

“I think it’s vital; it’s critical that we engage in this type of discourse,” said Heywood. 

His passion for politics and eagerness to be more involved led him to an internship as an Arizona state senate page. He was quickly promoted to a senate page lead where he had the opportunity to train and teach students how to assist the senators. 

“It’s not the job description that’s really fascinating about this, but being able to understand and see politics happen firsthand, at a local level is an amazing opportunity,” said Heywood. 

As a sophomore, Heywood discovered the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and attended two of its Global Intensive Experiences: one in India and one in Israel and the West Bank. 

In 2019, when Heywood traveled to Israel and the West Bank, he had the opportunity to learn more about the deeply divided state by talking with former members of Israel's unicameral parliament and volunteering at a local kindergarten that taught Israeli, Muslim, Jewish and Palestinian students in the same classroom.  

“From all the news we see of Palestinians and Israelis and their clashes and violent protests, I think it was crucial to see that the hate that we see on the TV and hear about in society is really built-in and it's learned,” Heywood said. “These students played as any students would, unaware of the cultural ramifications that are surrounding them. It was really cool to be able to witness that firsthand and be able to help the students throughout that day and just have a chance to play with them.”

Heywood’s travels didn’t stop at India, Israel and the West Bank. Through a Fulbright Summer Institute Program, he was able to study in Wales to learn about national identity and nationhood. 

As far as after graduation, Heywood’s plans are unknown due to the COVID-19 crisis. He was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach English in South Korea, but with travel restrictions, this opportunity has been postponed and will start January 2021. In the meantime, Heywood is looking at working on a campaign or preparing for the general election by registering student voters. 

Heywood will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in political science and civic and economic thought and leadership. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership caught up with him to ask him about his time at Arizona State University.

Question: Did you write a senior thesis? 

Answer: Yes, so I did write my senior thesis with Dr. Zachary German and Dr. Jakub Voboril within the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and what we really looked at was campus expressions. So, “Do students feel comfortable sharing their views in a classroom setting or do they self-censor themselves due to their perceptions of other students, due to professors or administrators at the school?” Particularly we looked at politically oriented majors and nonpolitically oriented majors and whether they feel more or less comfortable speaking on controversial, hot-button, political issues. We found, largely, within our sample of approximately 350 or so students that this largely was the case — political science majors did tend to feel more comfortable sharing their views in the classroom. We took a look at the common perception made by conservatives that conservatives and Republicans are censored in the classroom due to fears of other students and repercussions by faculty members. We found this largely to be the case with 92% of very conservative students saying that they were likely to self-censor or feel reluctant sharing their views in the classroom. So, very interesting findings and if you want to read more feel free to look at it on the Barrett Honors Repository. 

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

A: I think getting students engaged and at the table is vitally important, and so if I had $40 million I would probably start some sort of student think tank or incubator for students to engage and learn important leadership skills but also find funding for students groups to be able to advocate for issues that they’re passionate about. I envision this as being a bipartisan movement — students on the left, students on the right, and anywhere in between could critically engage with issues and learn how to engage their communities in meaningful and important ways. So that’s probably what I’d do with my $40 million if I had the chance. And pay off my student loans, of course.      

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

A: I would say the most important lesson I learned from Dr. Michael Mokwa.  He’s a business professor in the School of Business — W. P. Carey — and I took a Tillman Leadership Scholar course with him across two semesters, three hours in the basement of the business administration building — which is kind of funny because we ended up liking “the catacombs” as we called it. I think he taught me a lot about leadership and how to develop and sustain teams when in a leadership role. I really use this in my role as president of Bridge ASU and really starting what we had from very little to know what we have being interviewed and stuff by, you know, popular news organizations and hosting — I think — really impactful events that many students enjoy. He taught me the most important lesson, and I really would have to thank him for all the leadership on that.       

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

A: I would say the most important piece of advice is understanding that you can actually make a difference in some of the issues that we confront in our daily lives and even outside of them. So, when you’re watching the news and you’re hearing about this protest or this issue that’s really drawing your attention, some students it’s really easy to passively listen to news outlets and just say, “Ah, that’s an issue for when I graduate, that’s an issue when I’m that lawyer, I’m that doctor that I really want to step in and confront that issue” but really, it’s something that can be changed and really dealt with in the college environment.

Honestly, college is the best place to find other students that have similar views or to even confront those that don’t have similar views and being able to understand both of them and be able to come together and join in a common cause.

Next issue that you find, that you’re really passionate about, make a difference! Start a club. Start a protest. Really just do anything you can to create change in your community. 

Jacey West

Communications program coordinator, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership


Master’s degree student reflects on online learning experience

May 7, 2020

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

Marvin Leal started Arizona State University's Master of Arts in Global Security as a way make advancements in his life-long career in the military as well as in his education. As a Threat Analyst for the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command, his duties include developing informational products detailing foreign threats to U.S. Army networks for the staff at NETCOM. Leal Family: Marvin (left), Rhi (right) and their son Luke Marvin Leal and his family. Download Full Image

“I realized that I wanted to learn more about why we fight wars, how strategies are developed, and how the international system works. I found out that the courseware in ASU’s online MA in global security filled many of the areas that I wanted to study and as a bonus, many of the courses were taught by authors whose work I had been following over the last 10 years,” Leal said.

Marvin will be graduating this May with his master’s degree from the School of Politics and Global Studies. He is part of the first graduating cohort for the cybersecurity concentration.

“As a practitioner, I was very specialized in a niche topic and I would metaphorically miss the forest because I was focused on one tree,” Leal said.

The program allowed him to take his existing knowledge and broaden his scope to view international policy and military problems from a strategic point of view, while also allowing him to understand how to better communicate with senior government civilian and military leaders.

“I think that this degree program is unique because of the people that are associated with the program. The student body within the program is very unique because it consists of people who want to get into the global security field and practitioners who have been working in the field for years, sometimes decades,” Leal said.

The master's program also holds events, which students can attend either in-person on the Tempe campus or via Zoom. Events sometimes feature program professors who live in various parts of the country and world.

“For me, another unique factor of this program is that, while not required, I was invited to participate in multiple seminars and workshops at the campus where I was able to meet and work with some of the top minds in the global security arena. These opportunities vastly exceeded my expectations of an online program,” Leal said.

As Leal was working on his master’s degree, his wife, Rhi Leal, became increasingly interested in the program. She works as a cross-cultural competency instructor for the Army’s Culture Center, which is tasked with teaching soldiers about different cultures, build rapport and successfully work with partner nation militaries around the world.

“I decided to join the MAGS program because when my husband was taking classes I noticed that the staff was very friendly and made him feel as if he was an on-campus student. They invited us to attend virtual workshops and events at the campus, which made me want to switch from the MA program I was attending at another university to the MAGS program,” Rhi Leal said.

Rhi Leal is confident that the program will provide her with a better understanding of the structure and fundamentals of global security and conflict around the world which will help her develop better seminars and research products for soldiers who are deploying to support partner nations. One of the biggest benefits of working on their Master’s though ASU Online was the fact that they are able to balance work, academics, and the transition of becoming new parents to their son, Luke.

“I was able to coordinate with my professors and not fall behind on my classes. A day after my son was born, I was even able to do a zoom meeting from the hospital with a professor to get some advice on my capstone project while my son slept in my arms,” Leal said.

As a result of some of the work that Leal has done within the Master of Arts in Global Security program, he has been selected to work on two very competitive broadening assignments within his organization that will make him more competitive for higher-level positions in the future. In terms of plans after graduating with his degree, Leal is looking forward to helping his wife achieve to advance in all aspects of his life.

“In the near term, I think I am going to take a short break from school and concentrate my time on raising my son, competing for promotion opportunities at work, and doing chores around the house so that my wife will also have the time to successfully complete the MAGS program,” Leal said.

Center Coordinator, School of Politics and Global Studies


Top math student earns Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize

Rose Lopez will pursue doctorate in mathematics at UC Berkeley

May 6, 2020

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

Rose Lopez is the recipient of the 2020 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive, and will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, a certificate in cryptology, and minors in physics and music performance (piano). Lopez defends her Barrett honors thesis Rose Lopez defended her Barrett honors thesis online via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Download Full Image

Lopez grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and attended Dobson High School. She decided to attend Arizona State University because it was close to home and she was awarded the Presidential Scholarship. Also, her dad, Juan Lopez, works as a mathematics professor at ASU.

She chose her major the same way many incoming students do. She simply picked her favorite subject and figured she could change it later if desired.

“I realized that I wanted to keep studying math when I discovered that I really enjoyed the more theoretical courses in abstract algebra and that I always enjoyed thinking about mathematical problems,” said Lopez.

She took Cryptography I and II during her sophomore year and really enjoyed them. She was pursuing the cryptology certificate and decided to take number theory and algebra courses because she could further understand the structure behind the problems they considered in cryptography classes.

Lopez enrolled in MAT 445: Theory of Numbers, taught by Nancy Childress, associate professor of mathematics and Barrett, The Honors College faculty honors adviser. 

“MAT 445 is an upper-division course in number theory, with nearly all of the assignments and exam questions requiring proof-writing,” said Childress. “Rose is the only student in memory who did not have a single point deduction taken on any exam or assignment in the course.”

In fact, Lopez excelled in all of her advanced 400 level courses — groups, rings, number theory, cryptography, applied complex analysis, partial differential equations — and graduate courses in combinatorics, abstract algebra and complex analysis, more often earning an A+ than an A in these challenging classes. She is graduating with an exceptional cumulative GPA of 4.15.

“Ms. Lopez is an extraordinary student and a most deserving winner of the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize,” said Al Boggess, professor and director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

In fall 2018, Lopez studied abroad at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She served as the secretary of the Math Club at ASU and is an active member of the Association of Women in Mathematics Student Chapter.

She also has served for the past two summers as construction coordinator for the nonprofit Sierra Service Project, leading high school and middle school volunteers to complete home repair projects in low-income communities. Lopez worked in Smith River and Imperial Beach, California, meeting with homeowners and community members to discuss projects. She drew up plans, purchased materials, and taught youth to use power tools so they could build projects such as wheelchair ramps, decks, stairs, fences, painting, and roofing.

Lopez worked on her Barrett honors thesis on the number field sieve for factoring integers, under the supervision of Childress. The number field sieve is a state-of-the-art factoring algorithm which uses algebraic number theory and is one of the fastest known factoring algorithms today. Factoring large integers into prime factors is an extremely difficult problem, yet is also important in cryptography. The security of the cryptosystem RSA is entirely based on the difficulty of factoring certain large integers into a product of two distinct large primes. While the number field sieve is one of the fastest factoring algorithms known, it is still not efficient enough to factor cryptographic-size integers.

This fall Lopez plans to study number theory as she starts the mathematics PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I have found it really interesting that the seemingly basic topic of primes and integers can be generalized to certain sets in larger fields and that there are many basic questions with extremely difficult and involved solutions,” said Lopez. “I am excited to learn more and study some of these questions at Berkeley.”

We asked the Valley native to share more about her experience as a Sun Devil.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Answer: Dr. Katie Kolossa was my MAT 300 professor. I think she taught me the most important lessons because she taught me how to think critically about math problems and how to write clear proofs. She really emphasized the importance of memorizing definitions to really understand them, breaking problems down to the basic logic, and learning and imitating strategies from other proofs. She also emphasized the importance of struggling and getting stuck and frustrated with a problem and working through it. Learning MAT 300 with Dr. Kolossa opened me up to taking all the other courses that I have loved.

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

A: During my time at ASU I learned that you should study what you like more that what you think will be the most useful or lead to the best job. One of my friends said that she has no idea what the job market will be like when she is looking for a job, so that is why she just studies what she likes. This surprised me because it is not the common thing for people to say, and it changed my perspective because many people say that "pure" math is not as useful and applicable as "applied" math, but I realized after hearing her advice that it doesn't really matter which one is more useful.

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

A: I would advise people still in school to make sure that they are studying something that they like.

Q: What is most misunderstood about mathematics by the general public?

A: I think it is most misunderstood that mathematics is very creative. Many people think that math is about memorizing formulas and plugging the right numbers in, but really math is about discovering the formulas and figuring out why they work.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: I like to play piano, go running, and to be with my friends.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus was the math tutoring center. I tutored math and physics courses there and was also a lead tutor, so I helped train new tutors and lead discussions at staff meetings with my tutor group. I will have worked there for three years by the time I graduate. There were always friends inside, either working, studying or hanging out, and the tutoring center has a fridge and microwave!

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

A: I would tackle the problem of hunger. It is such a fundamental issue and horrible that so many people spend their lives stuck trying to put food on the table.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


Dean’s Medalist plans to use political degrees for career in comedy

May 6, 2020

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

Cormac Doebbeling always knew he was going to study political science.  Cormac Doebbeling Cormac will be graduating with his bachelor’s degrees in civic and economic thought and leadership and political science and is The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. Download Full Image

“When I was in the fifth grade I basically turned into the elementary version of Leslie Knope. I not only ran for class president but I took that job way too seriously. And that really kicked off a lifetime interest in the political process,” Doebbeling said. 

When his mom moved from their home in Indianapolis to take a job in Phoenix, Doebbeling had a choice to make: attend a university with the friends he grew up with or challenge himself by attending a university on the other side of the country. In the end, he was drawn to Arizona State University because of Barrett, The Honors College.  

As a first year student, Doebbeling met with Professor Paul Carrese who was in the process of establishing a new school; the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. After his first civic and economic thought and leadership course with Carrese, Cormac said, “I was hooked.” 

“There were maybe six students in my class and I was sitting right next to the professor on the first day of class. I did not anticipate that,” Doebbeling said. “But that course on American Grand Strategy was just so transformative for me. Dr. Carrese was able to challenge my worldview. He was able to get me to support my beliefs with evidence and to really apply an analytical perspective and sort of reflection towards my political thoughts that I never really had before. 

Global Intensive Experience in Israel and the West Bank with the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

Later Doebbeling participated in the school’s Global Intensive Experiences in both India, and Israel and the West Bank. He also studied in Spain, Cuba and Trinidad throughout his college career.

“It's incredibly ironic but the most enriching academic experiences I’ve had as a college student have almost always been outside the classroom,” Doebbeling said. “Most of these have been study abroad (programs) where I had the unique opportunity to talk to someone. That conversation and what they say was able to radically change my outlook on life.” 

Doebbeling will be graduating with his bachelor’s degrees in civic and economic thought and leadership and political science and is The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. The school caught up with him to ask about his time at Arizona State University.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

Answer: When I tell most people that I am a political science major who is also getting a degree in civic and economic thought and leadership, they almost always assume that I'm going to go to law school, going to do a master's of public affairs or going to Capitol Hill as soon as I graduate. And I’m actually not doing any of these options. My plan is to attend DePaul University for a master’s in comedic screenwriting — a program in conjunction with Second City, an improv organization that is a farm-league for Saturday Night Live. It intersects perfectly with my undergraduate experiences. I'm very passionate about having a career in political satire. I think that some of the most insightful voices that human history has ever had were people who have been able to satirize problems in society and while their audience are laughing, they’re also realizing how messed up certain problems are. And they realize that they need to change what's wrong with society. This could be someone like Socrates or William Shakespeare but it could also be someone like Tina Fey or Seth Meyers. 

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

A: My advice to any ASU student is to get out of the country and to do study abroad as soon as you can. And once you get back from that study abroad, start planning how to get out of the country again, so you keep growing, learning and challenging yourself.

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

A: My favorite study spot would be my office at the School Politics and Global Studies. These past three years I had the immense privilege of working as a marketing assistant for (the school). The great thing is that it’s located on the sixth floor of COOR Hall, which not only gives me access to my political science professors but also allows me to go over to the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and talk to the faculty members there. Almost as soon as I was done with my work I’d be able to talk to my professors at SPGS and in SCETL. I cannot tell you how many times I just popped into the office of Dr. Zachary German to talk to him about politics or even my thesis.

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

A: Unfortunately, even $40 billion dollars probably wouldn’t put a dent in debt problems. But I'm really concerned about world hunger and how it affects children. I really encourage policymakers, both federal and at the state level, to put the interests of children above their own political interests. Even if it adds to the budget, even if you have to raise taxes a little bit, making sure that a kid is able to go to school and be full. To be focused on their education instead of focusing on their empty stomachs is really something in the best interest. With permanent free or reduced lunch, students are able to have a level playing field who get to see their full potential and are able to go out and achieve everything that they can achieve because they don't worry about something as crucial as what they’re going to eat that day.

Jacey West

Communications program coordinator, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership


Exploring psychology and finding community: Graduate reflects on experiences at ASU

May 6, 2020

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

Nneoma Njoku’s interest in human nature was born when she was young after watching the movie, “A Beautiful Mind.” Nneoma Njoku Nneoma Njoku graduates with her degree in psychology this May from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Download Full Image

An avid reader, she said she began researching the human mind and why humans act the way that they do. It wasn’t until years later when she discussed her interest with her mom that she decided to pursue it as a degree.

“‘Why do we do what we do?’ That question was probably in my search bar for like three years straight,” Njoku said. “I told my mom that I'm always looking that up and she said, ‘That sounds like psychology, you might want to study that in college.’”

Njoku’s family moved to Arizona from Georgia while she was in high school. She said she chose Arizona State University to stay close to her parents and because of the quality education available at the Department of Psychology in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Njoku said she experienced culture shock coming from a predominantly black community to ASU.

“At first I wasn't comfortable not seeing black people wherever I was,” she said.

But after talking with classmates, Njoku said she built a support system of connections and took classes with the same students time and again.

“What it taught me was to put myself out there and get out of my comfort zone — and outside of your comfort zone, it's still fun,” she said.

Question: Did your experience match your expectations of psychology as a major?

Answer: Oh, for sure. I learned everything that I could possibly learn. I've taken any psych class that I was interested in. My favorite course was abnormal psych with Dr. C (Carolyn Cavanaugh Toft). It was everything that you wanted to know about disorders and things like that, and she was a really great teacher to have for that class.

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

A: I'm almost 100% independent. A lot of my challenges were juggling school and work and time management. At first it was really hard for me to make enough money and have enough hours where I could still do my homework and have money in my account. But I got it down by the second semester of my sophomore year; I worked Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays and then I would spend the rest of my Monday, Wednesday, Friday in the library and Tuesdays and Thursdays I would use to rest after class. The library is my favorite place, so this COVID-19 thing is kind of messing with my vibe.

Q: What has been your best memory at ASU?

A: My best memory was my freshman year, the Black African Coalition threw a pool party and that was the most fun I've had at ASU since so many of us didn't know each other. We all knew enough about each other because it was the end of freshman year, but we'd never really had a conversation. We were all in the same place, partying at the same time and it was just so fun to know that there's so many people from so many different places all here at once. It felt like a real college experience.

Q: Which clubs and organizations were you involved in and how did they shape your experience?

A: I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, and I’m the chaplain of my chapter. At meetings I read the Bible, reflect and do the meditation. I'm also the president of the National Panhellenic Council, which is the council that all of the organizations and the Divine Nine are under. The Divine Nine is the nine historically African American sororities and fraternities that we have in the U.S. These experiences taught me to delegate, delegate, delegate. You can't do everything by yourself, it becomes overwhelming.

Q: Were there any other opportunities you took part in while at the college, like research or internships and if so, how did that impact your experience?

A: When I went to the psychology internship fair, I met this lovely lady, her name was Andrea and she was the representative for Future for KIDS, a program where you volunteer to mentor children at schools and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. But I considered the experience a psychology internship because I spent the whole year there with the kids, and at the same time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my psychology degree.

I'm a big foster care advocate and really want reform for foster homes. I was like, “OK, well maybe I'll start by opening my own and leading by example and mine won't have half as many as those problems and all these foster homes have.” I thought that was a really good idea. But then I did Future for KIDS for a year and was with troubled youth — those kids loved me and I loved them — but I was so happy to get in my car and go home after an hour. And I thought “If I own a foster home, I'm there from sunup to sundown, then I can go home. I don't know if that's for me.” Doing those kinds of things lets you explore what you think you're going to do with your life before you go too far into it.

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

A: Dr. Carolyn Cavanaugh taught me compassion. From the moment we started the Early Start program she was just such a loving professor. I could walk into her office today and she would still greet me with open arms and love. You know how some will have a connection with their high school teachers? That's how it feels. It feels like she's a friend.

Q: You came to The College early your freshman year through Early Start, what was that experience like?

A: Every friend I had at ASU, I met at Early Start. I met other people along the way, but I'm closest to the people I met early. I walked straight up to my best friend after all the parents went home and introduced myself. We walked together to the first activity and we've been together ever since. We were all so ready to start school and ready to meet people that we were so nice to each other during early start and we've all been friends since.

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

A: Do the extra credit, the points add up. Also, go to class please. You paid for it. Go to it.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm going to Georgia State University to become a physician assistant. I feel like I've learned everything that I need to learn about psychology; my thirst has been quenched. I want to be in a career that I know right off the bat I'll come out at least making $80,000, can donate to foster homes, be a volunteer and have that passion and have money behind it.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Engineering graduate goes above and beyond to complete four degrees in five years

May 6, 2020

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

Kristen Eckman is a profoundly driven person. She is graduating from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering this spring with three bachelor’s degrees. She then will return this fall to complete a master’s degree in aerospace engineering by next May. Four degrees in five years is a Herculean accomplishment, but Eckman is someone who thrives in the context of substantial challenges. Kristen Eckman Kristen Eckman Download Full Image

The process of her prolific studies at Arizona State University started when she graduated from high school a full year early at age 16, and the application of credit from AP classes put her on track to graduate from college after just two years.

“I would have been entering the aerospace industry at 18, and that did not appeal to me,” she said. “So, I came up with a plan to combine three major maps to see if they all could be completed in four years.”

Eckman determined that it could be done, and decided to take on the challenge. From what she knew, no one had completed three engineering degrees concurrently in the time most people finish just one. But she also noted that her majors, all offered within the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools, complement each other in a practical manner.

“Mechanical engineering gives me the basis of how things work, and then aeronautics and astronautics give me unique applications,” she said. “When people ask about the benefit of all three degrees, I say I’ll have the ability to make things work on land, in the air and in space!”

Eckman decided to take one extra year to pursue the Fulton Schools' 4+1 accelerated program to earn her master’s degree because it offered the chance to do more challenging projects in specific undergraduate classes when completing them simultaneously for graduate credit.

“It holds you more accountable for those critical courses,” she said. “Plus, it’s a great ‘bang for your buck’ because the graduate degree qualifies you for a higher-level job, which recovers the cost of that master’s program year. It just makes sense to me.” 

Even so, completing four degrees in five years generates enormous logistical challenges. There were times when Eckman says she felt the balancing act was too much. For example, the second semester of her mechanical engineering capstone project coincided with very difficult work during the junior year of her aerospace engineering program.

“That was a tough time for me. There were so many projects and tests. I was thinking that I could just drop my astronautics major and be fine with two degrees,” she said. “But I had a great support system and it turned into a learning moment. I didn't want to give up all that I had worked to accomplish, so I pushed through and figured out how best to manage my time to complete everything. And I'm very glad that I did.” 

Internships have played a significant role in Eckman’s undergraduate experience at ASU. As a sophomore, she worked on retrofitting and modifying avionics for Honeywell.

“My day-to-day was very fun,” she said. “I took customer field problems – for instance, one of the screens in a cockpit going black during flight – and recreated them in our lab. I had to then figure out what was causing it to happen, find which connection I could change to fix it and then test the fix until it was stable. I basically got a crash course on how to operate a plane in two weeks.”

Eckman says her time at Honeywell presented a steep learning curve, but she loved seeing how much the Fulton Schools experience prepared her for going above and beyond in her work ethic. It also showed her that she wanted to be involved in systems testing on actual hardware.

She then started interning for Lockheed Martin Space during the summer of 2019, working on testing procedures for satellite ground systems. Following graduation from ASU this spring, Eckman is taking another internship role as a systems engineer at one of Lockheed Martin’s Colorado sites.

She then will return to Tempe in August to finish her master’s degree program. When complete, Eckman would like to become a propulsion test engineer and help to develop the spacecraft that sends the first people to Mars.

“Exploring other planets is the next great space engineering challenge, and I would love to be part of that effort,” she said. “I've always been obsessed with the sky. When I was little, I would watch airplanes and wave to helicopters. So, it would be awesome to help humanity explore other worlds, including wishing Godspeed to the first people leaving for Mars.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Community of public servants inspires passion for local government in outstanding grad

May 5, 2020

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

Some people take online quizzes to find out what movie star they most resemble, or in which state they should be living. When Thomas Prior was an 8th-grader, his class took a career exploration quiz that had a lasting impact on his life. ASU grad Thomas Prior School of Public Affairs outstanding grad Thomas Prior advises students to pick up extra classes to explore other interests. "ASU has quality courses in just about everything you could imagine. Use this time to learn as much as you can by broadening your perspective and venturing outside of your minimum degree requirements. Although during finals you may question why you decided to double major or pursue a certificate, by the time of graduation, you will be that much prouder of yourself." Download Full Image

“Although it may sound crazy, basing your career path on a 20-minute online assessment, that is essentially what I did. While other classmates received results like teacher, artist and police officer, my top result was city manager,” said Prior, the spring 2020 outstanding graduate in the School of Public Affairs.

“I was eager to learn more, despite the fact that I hadn’t a clue about what a city manager does for a living. My teacher at the time organized an opportunity for me to learn more about local government by job shadowing the city manager of Glendale,” said Prior, of Peoria, Arizona. “That opportunity led me down an exciting path of civic engagement, including serving on the city of Peoria’s Youth Advisory Board, appointment as one of the state’s first high school student ex officio members of the Peoria City Council and multiple internships in cities and towns across Arizona.”

With the help of a passionate educator, a city manager who recognized how important being a mentor could be, and a “community of public servants who provided support, guidance and compassion throughout my academic career,” Prior said he found his own passion for local government.

He said that while at ASU, he was impressed by the high degree of support and numerous available resources.

“(From) the fantastic faculty and staff to the caring professors, ASU employs a consistent network of individuals who have a vested interest in student success,” Prior said.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU first as an undergrad, and then again for my graduate program, because of the school’s highly ranked local government management program, dedication toward being a leader in innovation and for its value of inclusion. Ranked third in the U.S. for local government management and No. 1 in innovation, ASU is committed to improving alongside its students — resulting in an exceptional, co-produced educational experience.

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

A: Throughout my time at ASU, I developed rewarding connections with staff and faculty as a student, teaching assistant and as a colleague. One of the most important lessons I learned while attending ASU didn’t come from a textbook, but rather from a cumulation of mini lessons in leadership and ethics from Professor of Practice George Pettit. Some would argue that these topics can only be learned through experience; however, Professor Pettit instills lessons in leadership in his students through tales of his own experiences as the former town manager of Gilbert, Arizona. As I look back on my time at ASU, these mini lessons have been the most important and meaningful takeaways.

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

A: The best piece of advice I would give to those still in school is to explore what interests you and find your passion. ASU has quality courses in just about everything you could imagine. Use this time to learn as much as you can by broadening your perspective and venturing outside of your minimum degree requirements. Although during finals you may question why you decided to double major or pursue a certificate, by the time of graduation, you will be that much prouder of yourself.

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

A: During my undergrad and now graduate program, I’ve had a front-row seat to the positive growth that has taken place at the Downtown Phoenix campus. Over the past six years, I have found so many great places to study. While I’ve been able to explore so many great spots on campus … my all-time favorite spot to study is at the Mercado. If you’re looking for a quiet, scenic spot on a nice day, the Mercado is a great place to be productive.

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

A: I would look to help those most in need within our immediate community. I’m a fervent believer that change begins at the local level. In the Phoenix area, we have neighbors, friends and family members who are one missed paycheck away from a financial disaster. Although we spend substantial time identifying vulnerable populations, we often lose sight of them during times of hardships, such as economic crises, natural disasters or even during a pandemic. I would help to protect these vulnerable community members and challenge others to do the same by helping those in need, not when it's convenient, but when it’s most needed.

Mark J. Scarp

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


Criminology outstanding grad has her 'aha' moment on visit to Arizona prison

May 5, 2020

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

Genevieve McKenzie remembers the spring of her freshman year, when she questioned whether she made the right decision to major in criminology and criminal justice. ASU grad Genevieve McKenzie School of Criminology and Criminal Justice outstanding graduate Genevieve McKenzie advises students that you get out of your college experience what you put into it. "It is easy to drift through your time in college just doing the bare essentials to pass classes and graduate. It is harder to really be present in your classes and engage with the material, but it truly does pay off. When I started to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the outside world ... I started seeing connections everywhere." Download Full Image

But even more vivid in her memory is the day those doubts disappeared. It was the day she sat face-to-face in an Arizona prison with an incarcerated man dressed in an orange jumpsuit.

Both were members of a class that combines ASU students with an equal number of incarcerated men through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

“I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember that being the moment when everything clicked for me,” McKenzie said. “All of a sudden, the people that I had been reading about in textbooks (each) had a face, a name, and I could see the real impact that what I was studying could have. Khan may not know it, but he is one of the biggest reasons that I am here today.” 

In fact, the spring 2020 outstanding graduate of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice said her favorite place to think about life is a barren stretch of highway between Phoenix and the Arizona State Prison Complex – Florence.

“Over the past four years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time driving to and from the prison in Florence for class, research, work and volunteer work. I had some of the best conversations with colleagues or classmates in the car after a long day at the prison,” said the Snohomish, Washington, resident. “It took me a while to adjust to the desert landscape after moving from somewhere that it rains 85% of the time, but I grew to love the dramatic sunsets behind cacti as I drove along that highway, lost in deep thoughts.”

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

Answer: One of the most notable things that surprised me to learn while at ASU is something that I’m still learning to this day: Being productive and successful is about more than just hard work. Being productive requires time off, sleep and taking care of yourself just as much as it requires hard work. I spent many semesters working myself to the bone because I thought that I would be successful if I just worked hard enough. It is only recently, with the help and guidance of some incredible mentors, that I realized I am able to do more when I’m doing less. When I take on too many responsibilities, I do not adequately take care of myself and end up burning out quickly. As a result of the burnout, the quality of my work suffers. When I prioritize taking care of myself, I am better able to focus and dedicate energy to doing things well.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I initially chose to come to ASU because I was impressed by the quality of the criminology and criminal justice program, which I intended to study. I actually committed to ASU solely because of this; I never set foot in Arizona until my orientation, three months before my first semester. The endless opportunities and resources that I was able to take advantage of are why I stayed and continued to choose ASU, though. There were a few times that I seriously considered transferring and pursuing a different career, but I ultimately chose ASU time and time again because of the community I had found and the unique opportunities that I would not have found elsewhere. I felt that I had a lot of potential for growth and ASU was the perfect place for me to take advantage of that; I was absolutely right.

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

A: Kevin Wright has, by far, been the most influential professor that I’ve met at ASU. He has taught me lessons about the value of mentorship, the power of embracing failure, and he single-handedly facilitated opportunities that pushed me to be more open-minded. One of the most powerful lessons, however, has been the importance of authenticity. I think that Dr. Wright teaches this without the intention to do so; he simply leads his life in an authentic way and inspires those around him to do the same. Dr. Wright is transparent in the way that he asserts his values and fearlessly lives up to them. He is authentic across all situations and with all audiences.

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

A: You get out of your college experience what you put into it. It is easy to drift through your time in college just doing the bare essentials to pass classes and graduate. It is harder to really be present in your classes and engage with the material, but it truly does pay off. When I started to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the outside world and to things that were more directly applicable to my own life, I started seeing connections everywhere. My most valuable experiences in college were outside of the classroom, but they would not have been possible if I hadn’t pushed myself to get as much out of each class as possible, to venture out of my comfort zone and to get involved in different opportunities that were presented to me.

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

A: I would put the money towards the coronavirus pandemic that is happening worldwide right now. Specifically, I would invest the money towards efforts coming up with a vaccine so that people can stay healthy and health care workers can recuperate from the madness of the past few weeks. This pandemic is negatively affecting mental health, financial stability, physical health and so much more for everyone. I would say that it has also opened our eyes to the importance of social, human connection, and I think that everyone is really craving to get back to that. I know I am.

Another reason, which hits closer to home, is so that graduations for high school and college seniors throughout the country can proceed as originally planned. There are very few rites of passage or cultural ceremonies in America that mark critical transitions in our lives; school graduations are one of the only ones that come to mind. To universities, a virtual graduation for one semester may just be a bump in the road that is soon forgotten about. But to thousands of graduates, the absence of a graduation in the traditional sense is a gaping hole in our transition to adulthood. This important ceremony celebrates all of our hard work and accomplishments. The alternatives, including virtual graduation and combined ceremonies in the fall, simply do not measure up.

Mark J. Scarp

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