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ASU grad shares her gift for linguistics with the world


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Melody Taylor has made the Disability Resource Center her “home away from home” during her time at Arizona State University. She has also dedicated herself to education, working for the DRC to help students with disabilities be successful and also teaching English to international students and refugees. ASU grad Melody Taylor poses at ASU's Tempe campus Fall 2019 ASU graduate Melody Taylor. Download Full Image

Taylor, who is blind, is graduating in December with her degree in linguistics, and she also works as an editor for the DRC’s Alternative Format Services, making sure materials are accurate for students with visual impairment. 

“Being able to give back by proofreading the documents for the visually impaired students has been rewarding,” Taylor said. 

Taylor was the vice president of Daredevils of ASU, an organization that provides a safe space for students with visual impairment. It is a place for students to share stories, bring awareness and help each other overcome challenges.

“We also met to get stress relief while watching audio-described movies, playing Braille card games and eating good food,” Taylor said.

Taylor appreciates the diversity of language and all the forms that it comes in and said she’s open to what doors will open up for her after graduation. She answered a few questions for ASU Now as she prepares to graduate in December.

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

Answer: My “aha” moment to study linguistics and become a teacher of refugees and international students came when I was attending SAAVI School for the Blind in Phoenix. 

They were helping prepare me to get employment when we realized that everything that inspired me needed an education. So, two of the teachers said that they could see clearly that I was built to teach and I loved people of all cultures, so they suggested that I study language at ASU. This was a perfect fit for me.

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

A: While I’ve been at ASU, I’ve attended many meetings focusing on inclusion and diversity. I have been surprised to learn that individuals from other countries who are learning English don’t desire to be praised for how well they speak our language. Our language isn’t any better than theirs. They love when we are interested in their native language and culture. 

I didn’t realize that as I was trying to encourage and praise them, they were actually being turned off or even offended. Now, I know to actively inquire about their language and culture, which I’m fascinated by naturally.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I had known several visually impaired students who attended here and had a good experience.

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

A: It is difficult to choose only one professor who taught me the most important lesson at ASU. I would have to say Ruby Macksoud, who has been my professor in several classes during my time in the 4+1 MTESOL program (Master of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She has taught me how to come out of my comfort zone and see the benefits of pursuing several different facets of teaching English to international students. 

During my internships, she’s encouraged me to integrate my blindness into the lessons and curriculum as well as being extremely aware of each student's strengths and weaknesses.

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

A: I would advise students to never go it alone. Always take professors up on their office hours; always interact with other students to learn from their successes and failures; and absolutely, if they have any form of disability, make the DRC their home away from home.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus, besides the DRC, was the center of the Social Sciences building across from the Matthews Center. They have fountains flowing most of the time; the sound of the water is stress relieving, and it is shady, which keeps the heat down while enjoying the outdoors.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans after graduation remain to be seen. God may open doors for me to teach English in Japan or Jordan. I may help refugees adjust to our language and culture as they enter our country. I may teach English to international students who are overseas through the internet. The sky is the limit.

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

A: If someone gave me $40 million to tackle one problem, I would most definitely develop groups across America who would spread the word about how God created people to love and enjoy each other’s differences. These groups would teach about inclusion and diversity of all kinds: ethnicity, physical, mental and emotional disability, and cultural varieties including celebrations and foods, etc.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services

480-965-4255

ASU graduating student combines music, science as a 21st-century musician


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Felix Herbst refuses to settle on one path. The 21st-century musician is a violinist, vocalist and arranger-composer as well as a scientist. He will graduate in December as a dual major honors student with a Bachelor of Music in violin performance and a Bachelor of Science in molecular bioscience and biotechnology, and he plans to pursue both careers after graduation. Felix Herbst Felix Herbst Download Full Image

“The idea of majoring in music had been on my mind for a while, but I felt really committed to it near the start of my senior year of high school,” he said. “It was more of a slow and steady progression rather than a single moment. I made up my mind to add the double major in biotechnology halfway through my first semester at ASU when I realized that I missed science a lot.”

Following graduation, Herbst plans to spend some time in Arizona with friends exploring the state a little more before he begins a research project and a career as a musician. He says then he plans to move to Boston in the short term “for a potential part-time cancer research position, followed by a more definitive move to Los Angeles, New York City or Berlin to pursue my career as an arranger, composer, writer and performer.”

Herbst began playing the violin in first grade after emigrating from Germany to Northern California with his family. His passions extend beyond the classical realm and include jazz, pop, rock, fiddle and hip-hop styles. After attending ASU for three years on a National Merit Scholarship and adding a science degree to his music studies, Herbst spent one year at Berklee College of Music in Boston to explore contemporary performance.

Herbst has performed with the ASU Symphony Orchestra, ASU Gospel Choir, Urban Sol and ASU Choral Union on violin and vocals. He participated in a wide variety of musical groups as founder, producer or participant, including Side Note (a semi-professional a cappella group) and Priority Male (an all-male a cappella group that he directed). Herbst has performed with or opened for the band Moonchild, Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott, Alex Lacamoire and Old Crow Medicine Show, has written and recorded string arrangements for bands in Arizona and Massachusetts, and arranged and co-produced Priority Male’s EP recording.

While artist-in-residence at the Phoenix Art Museum, he performed at the museum and also created a sound installation. Herbst co-founded Third Thursday at ASU, a set of music/arts festivals on the ASU campus, and performed for the Boys and Girls Club of Tempe, senior clinics, hospice and transitional care facilities.

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

Answer: Early on in my college microbiology class, I met someone in their late twenties who was raising a child by themselves and simultaneously getting their bachelor's degree. Hearing her story reshaped my idea of how college can and should function. I tackled underlying assumptions I had about what a typical classmate could be.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My decision to attend ASU was very last minute. I was incredibly conflicted among the 20 schools where I applied. My mom informed me that with a National Merit Scholarship I could attend ASU fully funded. I visited ASU, toured the campus, took a trial lesson with Dr. Katherine McLin and visited Barrett Honors College, all of which confirmed for me that this was the place I wanted to study.

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

A: Dr. McLin, my violin teacher, taught me more about playing and performing than I could ever share here. The most important lesson she taught me is how to learn and progress from things that I considered failure. I appreciate her more than she could know.

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

A: Utilize the resources ASU can offer. As I near the end of my college career, I am starting to realize the incredible number of things that the school system can offer while in school and the things I'll have to say goodbye to once I'm out. ASU has gig referral programs, funding applications and a myriad of incredible people who care about their work and are more than willing to share it with you if you only ask. This community is one of a kind — take what it can give you.

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

A: James Turrell’s architectural art installation Skyspace: Air Apparent, near the Biodesign Institute, is beautiful at night. It has been a place of solace for me, as well as sharing moments of silence with other strangers enjoying the same space.

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

A: Clean drinking water access. Forty million dollars cannot develop water infrastructure every place that needs it, but it can go a long way in improving hundreds of thousands of lives affected by drought and lack of sanitation.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music

480-727-7189

Online biochemistry undergraduate finds academic home at ASU


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Arizona State University online biochemistry student and full-time mom Kassandra Herndon is reaching her goal of earning a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry. SMS undergraduate Kassandra Herndon Download Full Image

The wife and mother of a young daughter had earned two associate degrees in her home state of California, but wanted more for herself and wanted to be a good role model for her daughter. Majoring in biology, Herndon wanted an online program that allowed her some flexibility. When she discovered ASU had what she was looking for, she could hardly believe what she was seeing on her computer screen.

Herndon thought, “This can’t be true. There is no way there is a biology degree online.” She requested information and spoke to an adviser and was told she would be a good fit for the program. And in a leap of faith Herndon enrolled for the spring 2018 semester at ASU.

Herndon originally started as a biology major but switched to biochemistry when she became infatuated with the chemical structures and how each structure acted a specific way. It made her want to increase her knowledge on how chemical properties worked within the human body.

“Kassandra was a delight to teach, she was serious and enthusiastic to learn while at the same time working to support herself and her family. Kassandra took full advantage of the online degree program and is a fantastic example of why the online program is so important,” said Ian Gould, President's Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. “I am proud of Kassandra, she will do good things with her degree!”

Being an online student, a wife and mom can be demanding and you have many things to juggle like household chores, caring for your child and class work, but Herndon says the key is time management and a good support system.

“It’s definitely doable, and it takes time and patience and a lot of scheduling,” she said.

Herndon will be graduating in December and is traveling to the Tempe campus to take part in the graduation ceremonies. She is excited as well for the graduation experience of being in a big stadium and walking across the stage to receive her degree in front of her daughter, husband and family. Herndon shared that while it was challenging at times to balance everything, this big milestone in her life — completing her degree makes all the sacrifices to get here worth it.

“Having my support team there (at graduation) to see everything that I have done — all of the late nights and early mornings, the hour at Thanksgiving with them, has paid off,” Herndon said. “And seeing my professors will be a highlight.”

Herndon answered some questions about her time and experience at ASU.

Question: What was your favorite class and why?

Answer: Organic chemistry was my favorite. The class is great itself — to learn about different chemicals in the whole wide world and how those chemicals play a role in your body when you get into higher level classes. That’s something I learned in O chem and here it is again, it's great to see that. O chem is the center of really everything in life.

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

A: One thing I learned was to believe in myself. My past struggles are not who I am. ASU has made me feel like I can accomplish anything.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Allowing a mother to go back to school and finish her degree is one of the best innovations ASU could have ever made possible. ASU is renowned for setting the bar and I am thankful I chose ASU.

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

A: Dr. Ara Austin by far. She truly believes in your ability to succeed not only in the classroom but in your future endeavors. Dr. Austin's guidance through the program is truly unimaginable.

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

A: Continue to jump those hurdles until you win your race. It may be a triathlon but receiving your medal at the end will bring you great joy.

Q: What advice would you give to those who do not want to dive right in to an online degree or course because they are simply afraid of the time commitment or they are afraid they might not be able to do it?

A: To be able to make something for yourself that will help your family is the biggest leap of faith you can honestly do. So either going to school or going back to school with a family would really be one of the best assets you can provide for your family. Just for the brighter future, for the outcome that will occur — it will outweigh all your fears, all your negativity, all your worries. You can do it, just have faith you can complete it. Definitely talk to your advisers and your professors. They are always there to help you. To do something for yourself — going back to school is a great option. Not only does it help your family but it really helps you as a person be who you were meant to be in life. It helps you push further and past all those hurdles you may have. Go and do it! You make something better for yourself and your family.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus while you were here in the summer, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Outside of the lab, it had to be the University Club. The history and view of this building amazes me.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to start a career in protein synthesis, while working on a master's in genetics counseling.

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

A: If I were given $40 million dollars, I would tackle cancer. I would implement new ideas and ways to reduce cancer within the body. To create a world without cancer would touch more than my life. It would touch millions of lives. 

Communication specialist, School of Molecular Sciences

ASU grad seeks to be a future change maker


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

When New Mexico native and Barrett, The Honors College undergraduate Katja Klosterman enrolled at Arizona State University three years ago she wasn’t so sure she had made the right choice. School of Molecular Sciences undergraduate Katja Klosterman. Download Full Image

In high school, Klosterman took AP chemistry during her sophomore year and remembered absolutely hating it because she just could not understand it. She remembers wanting to understand everything about chemistry, and specifically the chemistry of human life, but being so frustrated that she just could not get it. Out of spite she chose biochemistry as her major when she enrolled at ASU, trying to prove to herself that she could understand it if she really applied herself.

Klosterman was accepted into the Next Generation Service Corps (NGSC) program, a first of its kind, four-year leadership development program that trains students from all majors to address these challenges. Students develop interdisciplinary networks and experience firsthand how collaboration among the public, private, nonprofit and military sectors can create meaningful change locally and globally. Through the Next Generation Service Corps program Klosterman received a scholarship towards her tuition.

While this is not a degree program, the NGSC provides a critical and marketable skillset that allows students to become transformational leaders in their fields and beyond.

“Through ASU, I was able to immerse myself in many different experiences that I don’t think I could have gotten any place else,” Klosterman said. “Participating in this leadership development program, I learned the skills needed to face complex challenges that affect the world through a cross-sector, collaborative viewpoint, which I think will translate well into my future career in medicine.”

Prior to taking chemistry with Professor Ian Gould, Klosterman said she always found herself questioning her abilities in chemistry, and often thought that she wasn’t good enough to succeed. In Gould’s class he taught her that with enough hard work, and some guidance, anything is possible.

“Katja was a wonderful student in my class, full of energy and full of questions,” said Gould, President's Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. “She is going to make ASU look good!”

During her time here, Klosterman took advantage of the opportunities ASU offered and immersed herself in student life. A few of the activities she became a part of include clinical research at the Mayo Clinic Translational Neuroscience and Aging Laboratory, publishing a research paper in Scientific Reports, and was part of several student leadership organizations including co-founding Devils Spark Change at ASU, training students to become catalysts for change through interactive and inclusive alternative break trips during fall breaks and spring breaks through volunteering across different communities.

“ASU made me realize that it is not about the grades you had or things you did during your time there, but it’s about the memories you made and the lives you touched while you were there,” said Klosterman, who will be earning a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry and a certificate in cross-sector leadership in December 2019.

Question: How has your scholarship impacted your education at ASU?

Answer: The Next Generation Service Corps Scholarship allowed me to get the education that I got at ASU. Without this scholarship, I would have never been able to afford to come to a school with as many opportunities at ASU. I can honestly say that the NGSC changed the entire course of my life by taking a chance on me and allowing me to pursue an education here at ASU. There are so many complex health disparities around the world, and I hope that one day I am a future change maker in them.

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

A: I learned my love for chemistry during organic chemistry, and that love grew as I entered into biochemistry and physical chemistry my junior year.  These classes, in combination with other research experiences, really made me realize that I chose correctly as I was constantly wanting to know more. I think that’s a good sign you’re in the right field.

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 how to be compassionate. I think it’s really easy for us to become so bogged down by every exam and assignment due, especially when we’ve got high expectations for ourselves. It’s easy to become so absorbed into this idea that your grades depict your worth. I used to believe this for so long, until one day I was walking back from a physical chemistry exam that I was sure ruined my grade, until I just looked up and realized how many people were around me — and how many people also could have felt like this. ASU has so many passionate people, that it always calmed me to be surrounded by all these other students with different life experiences. It really reestablished to me that you never know what someone is going through, or where they are coming from. ASU made me realize that it is not about the grades you had or things you did during your time there, but it’s about the memories you made and the lives you touched while you were there. Just be kind to others.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Growing up in the same place my entire life, I really needed a change of pace and scenery to challenge myself to grow throughout college. I had the opportunity to come to ASU through the Next Generation Service Corps, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. I never quite understood the opportunities that ASU could generate, but after spending three years here, I am confident I made the right decision. ASU is full of passionate individuals that will inspire you to keep challenging yourself.

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

A: Dr. Gould. His class honestly changed my life. It made me gain confidence in my abilities that allowed me to do the things that I’ve always wanted to do. His passion for teaching was inspirational, and for a while it made me consider if I wanted to become a professor so that I could become a professor as passionate as him.

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

A: Try to go out of your comfort zone at least once a day. I know it can get scary to do things that make you uncomfortable, but that’s the only way for growth, and eventually the things that used to make you uncomfortable will no longer make you uncomfortable. Whether it be raising your hand to ask a question in front of the entire class, or applying for a job that you think is out of your league, you’d be surprised how much you grow by just doing things.

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

A: When it’s colder outside, I loved sitting outside on the balcony of the Student Pavilion, but I also love the open space design of Armstrong Hall.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on working at Los Alamos National Laboratory researching a rapid and affordable diagnostic tool for bacterial infections that can be utilized in countries around the world. In June, I will be applying to medical schools to pursue an MD.

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

A: That’s difficult. I’d say access to clean water. Clean water is a necessity and is fundamental to life and escaping the cycle of poverty. I wish $40 million was enough for that, but I think we could find a way to use that money as a catalyst to inspire others to give towards clean water, creating an endless cycle of giving.

Communication specialist, School of Molecular Sciences

It's technical: ASU English grad has a way with complicated words


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Many of us dread reading instruction booklets but few of us have considered whose job it is to write them. Certainly, a well-crafted manual is a thing of immense usefulness, if not beauty. Enter, the technical writer, a superhero for our time, easily able to translate complex issues into layperson terms. Graduating ASU student Seth Zimmerer / Courtesy photo Graduating ASU English student Seth Zimmerer offers sage advice for students still working on their degrees: "... be willing to embrace change, and don’t sweat it if you don’t have it figured out." Download Full Image

Arizona State University student Seth Zimmerer, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English (writing, rhetorics and literacies) with a minor in technical communication, is one such hero. The Chandler, Arizona, native hopes to break into the burgeoning field of technical writing upon his graduation this December.

Zimmerer does not feel intimidated or bored by sifting through what some might term “minutia.” On the contrary — he relishes it. As the knowledge gap between creator and consumer widens, demand for capable technical writers will only grow. Zimmerer plans to leverage his way with words and his listening ear to forge a path in helping others transform ideas into language.

We caught up with Zimmerer to ask a few more questions about how he arrived at his academic destination and how he decided what’s next.

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

Answer: My “aha” moment took me longer to achieve than others. Ever since I was young, I knew that I had the capacity to be a good, well-rounded writer. Naturally, I drifted towards classes and subjects that dealt with writing and dissecting literature. At ASU, I initially found myself in film school learning about storytelling and writing scripts. Then, I switched to English with the intention of teaching college and helping others with their writing. It wasn’t until I took a business writing class when the light bulb flickered on and I discovered that business writing, technical writing to be specific, was right up my alley. Writing complex topics and communicating them in a simple manner for others was the perfect fit, so I added a technical communication minor my junior year and am on the path to becoming a full-time tech writer after school.

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

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific moment that helped change my perspective because each day, really, offered something fresh and exciting. I come from a small high school where many people think the same way, so coming to a university as large as ASU was prime for daily experiences which changed my perspective on social issues, cultural differences and the overall way I perceive the world.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: To be honest, I chose ASU because it was close to home. But over the course of my nine semesters here, the reason I stayed is because ASU really did feel like a new home to me. The sense of community found in classrooms and clubs and on-campus jobs is one that I can’t imagine finding elsewhere and helped me feel comfortable as I navigated college life.

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

A: Travis Franks (a former teaching assistant in English), one of the first faces I encountered my first week of school, showed me the power of change and demanding a better world. On syllabus day in ENG 105, he had us write down an issue on a notecard which we thought was important. Funny enough, this was the most difficult assignment for me because I didn’t really care about any issues. The remainder of the semester was us focusing on issues that permeate society, and Franks showed us that if we aren’t satisfied with something, we really do have the capacity to call for change. Franks taught me the importance of actually caring about something and inspiring change.

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

A: Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out. Quite frankly, nobody does. Even after we graduate, we are still figuring out our lives, what our quirks are, what interests us, what makes us tick, what we want out of life. It took me three years to finally add a minor that helped me feel comfortable with what I want to do after college. But even then, I’m keeping the door open and know that the person I am right now may be vastly different in five years. So be willing to embrace change, and don’t sweat it if you don’t have it figured out, it’ll come to you — and you may not even realize it when it does.

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

A: The Secret Garden — for those of you that know — offers a slice of tranquility in an otherwise populated campus. It is the perfect spot to do homework, read a book, relax or eat a snack in between classes. Occasionally, someone will throw an event in the garden. If you haven’t checked out the garden yet, do it.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Finding a full-time technical writing gig somewhere in Arizona is number one on the list along with getting an apartment and a new car. After a year or so, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself out of state somewhere doing technical writing or whatever else life has in store for me.

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

A: If we’re talking larger issues, I would donate to any organization that is fighting the climate crisis. Our time is ticking, so contributing to any group that would help alleviate the effects we’ve brought about to our planet sounds like the most practical thing to do.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

History graduate leaves her mark on the ASU international community


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Everyone always says it is important to make the most out of your college experience and graduating senior Rebecca Ericson did just that.  Rebecca Ericson Photo courtesy of Rebecca Ericson. Download Full Image

Not only do her professors describe her as an “extraordinary” and “stellar” student, she has been involved in the Arizona State University community in any way she can.

She has done extracurricular work for the Center for Asian Research and the Political History and Leadership program, co-founded Epic Movement, an Asian American student organization, and has worked with Bridges, a club for international students. 

Over this last summer she studied abroad in Singapore and taught English in Hong Kong while protests were going on. Ericson cared for her student’s concerns about the current events and made the most out of the unexpected turn in her summer. 

“I cannot imagine a more deserving, or a more humble, candidate than Rebecca,” said Catherine O’Donnell, history professor and history faculty head. “In her achievements, ambitions and generosity she is the best of us.”

Ericson is getting bachelor’s degrees in history and English with a concentration in linguistics as well as a minor in Chinese. 

“When I received the news, it came as a big surprise and it is definitely a huge honor,” Ericson said. “At the same time, it wasn’t a complete shock to find out simply because the professors that I’ve worked with in SHPRSSchool of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies have been some of my biggest supporters during my time at ASU. If it weren’t for their constant encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Ericson is the recipient of the Dean’s Medal for the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies this semester. We caught up with her to ask about her time at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: For me, there was never a specific moment where everything just clicked. Instead, it’s been a slow process of uncovering my own interests, strengths and weaknesses and understanding how those all work together. During my time in university, I switched majors twice before I finally arrived at the intersection of my passions. Because of that, attending ASU was a huge blessing for me, because I was given the flexibility and resources to try lots of different things. My degree in history reflects my love for people and stories and has equipped me with invaluable tools for research and writing. My linguistics degree has helped guide me towards more specific academic interests. Through taking classes, talking with professors who know me well, participating in cross-disciplinary research, and working in various jobs and internships, I now feel fully confident in where my future career is headed.

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

A: Something that I have learned about this semester that has really impacted me is the reality of educational inequality in the United States. Through investigating the effect of class, race, social reproduction, policy and other factors, I am developing a more critical viewpoint of educational systems as a whole. Aside from classroom content, I had one particularly interesting experience in my capstone history research course with Dr. Catherine O’Donnell. I was looking for a bill from the early 1700s that many sources were citing, but wasn’t able to find any proof of its existence. After a few weeks of emailing back and forth with the Massachusetts archives, I finally found out that the bill was never actually drawn up! It was pretty exciting — and satisfying — to know that I had discovered a small inconsistency in the narrative, and that experience challenged the way that I view research and even the pursuit of truth as a whole.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU was always a logical choice for me because I grew up in Sun Devil territory! Ultimately, I was drawn to ASU for multiple reasons, like the incredible value, especially for in-state students, vast resources and beautiful campus. After actually enrolling, I found even more reasons to stay. I love ASU’s commitment to diversity and access, incredible faculty, and endless opportunities for students. My time at ASU has also given me experiences that I will carry with me for a lifetime. For example, I was able to participate in an exchange program to National Taiwan University, where I spent a semester at the top university in my mother’s home country. Because of this partnership, I was able to have an amazing experience exploring my heritage, connecting with family and new friends, and improving my Chinese skills.

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

A: Rather than one specific professor in particular, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from the faculty at ASU is to be confident and take ahold of opportunities when they present themselves. I have had professors encourage me to apply for scholarships, attend conferences and check out summer jobs and opportunities that I had no idea even existed. I have also had conversations with professors where they pointed out hidden traits and interests that I didn’t know I had! Their guidance and support has made a huge difference over the past four years. 

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

A: My first piece of advice is to study abroad! Choosing to study abroad was arguably one of the best choices that I made during my time at ASU. Aside from that, I want to encourage other students, especially those who don’t know exactly what they want to do after graduation, to take advantage of the resources that ASU offers to explore their interests. Even if there is something that you are just marginally interested in, just try it out! Either you’ll love it, which is great, you found something you love, or if you don’t like it, then great, you know now that you don’t like it. Even if you don’t find your passion in a job, research opportunity or class, eliminating choices still means you’re one step closer to finding your “thing.”

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

A: I am always a fan of the Secret Garden, it’s a great place to slow down and take a moment to breathe. If I have more time to kill, I love stopping by the Student Pavilion to hang out with friends from Epic Movement, an Asian American Christian organization, which has without a doubt been one of the most important communities for me during my time at ASU. There are always people there who are down to work on homework together, chat in between classes or play a few rounds of TypeRacer. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am currently applying for graduate schools, as I will be pursuing a master’s and potentially a PhD in applied linguistics. I have also been applying for English teaching fellowships, which would place me in a teaching position in China or Hong Kong. I was actually able to teach English in Hong Kong this past summer through the nonprofit Summerbridge Hong Kong because of a timely SHPRS scholarship and I hope to return to Asia to learn more about educational systems and language teaching. Regardless of what opportunities open up, I am excited to both gain firsthand experience in the language classroom, as well as theoretical and practical knowledge in applied linguistics.  

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

A: The issue that is most on my heart is definitely education. As Weis and Fine write in “Beyond Silenced Voices,” "Good schooling sits at the foundation of a strong nation, a democratic society and an educated, engaged and active community for hope and justice." I would use the money to boost funding for the schools that need it most, provide support for teachers and create extracurricular programs that give struggling kids a reason to stay in school, among other things.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

Research on 'colorism' by ASU grad breaks new ground


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Graduating Arizona State University student Sayantan Mukherjee believes that “quality education is the only way up.” Graduating ASU student Sayantan Mukherjee / Courtesy photo "In the past five years at ASU, I have learned a good many things," said graduating ASU student Sayantan Mukherjee. "I could write an entire essay on that. However, there is one thing that usually secures the top place on the list—a remarkable balance between student and teacher life." Download Full Image

Mukherjee, who is originally from the small town of Dubrajpur in West Bengal, India, is setting into motion his own vertical mobility by earning a PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics this fall. He defended his dissertation, “Understanding ‘Fairness’ in India: Critically Investigating Selected Commercial Videos for Men’s Skin-Lightening Products” on Oct. 30.

“Sayantan Mukherjee stands out among our PhD students for his original and carefully strategized dissertation research,” said Karen Adams, a professor in the Department of English’s linguistics and applied linguistics program who chaired Mukherjee’s dissertation committee. “’Understanding “Fairness” in India’ breaks new ground in gender studies and in issues of colorism.”

Mukherjee’s innovative research on skin-color discrimination in India shines on a necessary light on a systemic problem. His dissertation study analyzed the language and semiotics (images and symbols) of YouTube commercials for skin-lightening products aimed at young, urban men in India. Mukherjee concluded that preferences for lighter skin — likely remnants of India’s time under British colonial rule — have become “naturalized” among makers and purchasers of these products.

In other words, in these Hindi-language advertisements, both company and consumer tacitly believe possessing lighter skin confers certain social benefits.

Mukherjee said he arrived as this choice of topic somewhat organically. “I was already interested in the discourse of television advertisements,” he explained, “and I became curious about how advertisements construct/portray gender stereotypes.” A visit home to India during summer break 2016 provided the specific focus.

“My friends and some acquaintances started reassuring me that my tanned skin/dark skin tone, thanks to the excess amount of sunlight in Arizona, should not be a problem for my marriage.”

Mukherjee was floored. He had been aware of skin-color discrimination faced by females in India, but had never considered males to be impacted. With that realization, Mukherjee said, he finally understood a small part of what Indian women had faced. “I genuinely feel sorry for my lack of awareness.”

“Once I returned to Tempe after the summer break, I soon invested myself in understanding and foregrounding this issue of colorism.”

Mukherjee cautioned that in Indian society, the issue is complex and addressing the biases and ideologies underlying skin-color discrimination will take time.

“There are people who have started campaigning against skin-color discrimination in India, but it is still very little compared to what we need,” he said. “Spreading awareness among people is important. Making them realize that idealized beauty standards are detrimental to the growth of a remarkably diverse society like India. Discouraging the use of skin-lighteners is a good starting point to tackle this issue as well, and it is so because of two reasons — it helps minimize skin-color discrimination and it saves people from using harmful chemicals on their skin just to attain a lighter tone that misleadingly denotes beauty or attractiveness for all genders.”

Mukherjee has presented his work at the annual conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics, the top professional society in his field, and has been the recipient of several fellowships from the ASU Graduate College.

We visited with Mukherjee to get his thoughts on other aspects of his life at ASU — and to find out what’s next.

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

Answer: My “aha” moment had happened long before I joined ASU while I was doing my BA in English literature in India. I was studying the history of the English language and some interesting things about sound change, grammar, culture, etc. I realized there was so much more to learn about human language. My former professor at Visva-Bharati — the university in India I attended for my undergraduate studies — Dr. Anupam Das told me a lot about a discipline called “linguistics” that is dedicated to scientifically studying human language. With all eagerness, I would listen to him say how language as a system encodes both linguistic and cultural concepts. The very existence of language presupposes the excellence of human intelligence as a species. It was during this time that I found my passion. My BA in English was soon followed by two master’s degrees in linguistics at the University of Delhi and lately a doctorate in linguistics and applied linguistics at ASU.

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

A: In the past five years at ASU, I have learned a good many things. I could write an entire essay on that. However, there is one thing that usually secures the top place on the list—a remarkable balance between student and teacher life. I was fortunate enough to secure a teaching assistant position in the Department of English. It helped me understand what kind of life a college student usually leads to achieve his/her goals in the United States, and how significant the roles of the teachers are here. Coming from India, I had had no prior experience of the student life in the U.S., nor had I imagined being a TA teaching first year composition courses to young college students. I realized most students are hardworking. They are here because they want to be here; just like me. As a student, they struggle at various things like I do, and as a teacher, I can make their learning process as smooth and rewarding as possible — the same way I have had it from my teachers.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose a handful of schools to apply for my doctoral studies in the U.S. Arizona State University was one of my top preferences because of its faculty strength in the area I was interested in. Even in 2014, I was aware of the ASU’s reputation as a public university that prided itself on diversity and innovation. I must say, having secured a PhD at ASU, that I would again choose ASU for the very same reasons if I were to do another PhD.

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

A: It is hard for me to pick just one, so I will pick two. First it would be my chair Professor Karen Adams. She taught me to take on challenges that made me a better academic. Things I was scared of doing, research areas I was nervous to explore, projects I dreaded, she believed in me and inspired me to move ahead with confidence. It is because of her that I became interested in multimodal critical discourse analysis — a perfect academic lens to see and analyze the current world. I could not have asked for a better chair and adviser.

The second person I am forever indebted to for her constant support and encouragement would be (Regents Professor) Elly van Gelderen. She taught me that learning is important, but so is self-care. She taught me syntax — the area I am most passionate about in theoretical linguistics. She has been a wonderful teacher, friend, and colleague.

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

A: If you are attending graduate school, pat yourself on the back for already achieving so much that many others only aspire to. You, and no one but you, decide the trajectory of your progress. Trust yourself and learn as much as you can. Find support and inspiration, and maintain a distance with people that stall your progress.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus has been the graduate lounge inside Ross-Blakley Hall. I was able to be productive for hours while there. Some of my wonderful friends and colleagues often accompanied me in that lounge, so I had some good time there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Currently, I am seeking a professorial position at a good U.S. institute. If I get a fulfilling position at a reputed educational institution in India, I am more than willing to return to my home country too.

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

A: I believe everyone’s top priority should be handling climate change in a sustainable manner and remedying the damages we have done to our planet as much as we can. Judging the scale of this massive long-term endeavor, I do not think $40 million would be a lot of money though.

Apart from this global issue, if I was given $40 million, I would like to use that money to better the future of underprivileged children in India by providing resources and ensuring quality education for them. I, myself, had an extremely struggling childhood, so I know quality education is the only way up, and it changes things for future generations also.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

Scholarship enables master’s student dream of a law degree; inspires to give back


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Vince Nicholes is a busy father and working professional that is about ready to graduate with a master’s degree in legal studies and business administration, as part of a concurrent degree program between Arizona State University's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the W. P. Carey School of Business. When reflecting back on his law school and business school journey, Nicholes considered himself lucky for this opportunity. photo of Vince Nicholes and family Vince Nicholes (center), who graduates this fall with a master’s degree in legal studies and business administration, as part of a concurrent degree program between the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the W. P. Carey School of Business, poses with his family. Download Full Image

“I have a top-ranked business school and law school in my town. It allowed me to minimize disruption to my career and family life while pursuing a world-class education,” Nicholes said.

Recently, Nicholes was promoted to the western region development manager for T-Mobile, and credits his participation in this degree program for that recent success. However, like many students, Nicholes had a few challenges balancing school and his professional life.

“There were times when I felt over my head,” Nicholes said. “To face these challenges, I looked to others who had gone before me for advice and I broke the challenge down into manageable pieces.”

Nicholes was also the recipient of a scholarship that helped to lessen the loan debt that some students face while in graduate school. He recognizes the opportunity that came to him from receiving financial support.

“I likely would not have pursued the dual degrees had I not gotten the help and encouragement that came with the scholarship assistance,” Nicholes recalled. “Associate Dean Menkhus was also a great help in encouraging me to stay on track. The scholarship allowed me to finish my degrees with considerably less student loan debt.”

ASU Law sat down with him to learn more about his ASU Law and W. P. Carey School of Business journey.

photo of Vince Nicholes

Vincent Nicholes, Fall 2019 Graduate. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study both law and business?

Answer: I had always been interested in studying law but due to career and family obligations, did not have the flexibility to pursue a JD. While researching the evening MBA program, I learned about the concurrent MBA/MLS program and saw it as my chance to finally do it.

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

A: The subjectivity that exists, and has always existed, in our laws is a double-edged sword. It can be a source of liberation or oppression, depending on the skills — or lack thereof — of the person wielding it.

Q: What has your experience at ASU Law been like?

A: Invigorating. Learning about the intersection of the law and business has been enlightening and invigorating.

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

A: To current and future MLS students: you get out of it what you put into it. Dig into the materials and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the professors.

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

A: Easy. Discipline in education. I would engage with the 'school-to-prison pipeline' that exists in many parts of the country where disruptive behavior — particularly of students of color — is treated as criminal instead of an opportunity to teach and develop.

Q: If you could speak directly to the philanthropists that donated for your scholarship, what would you like to tell them?

A: I believe that, next to a relationship with your creator, an education is the most redemptive goal a person can pursue. I sincerely thank you for enabling me to pursue mine. Please continue to do this work and help others. Because of you, I will too.

Nicole Almond Anderson

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

480-727-6990

In praise of happenstance


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Leah Soto is passionate about sports. She also likes to read and write. So, the Chandler, Arizona, native put two and two together and got … a major in sports journalism at Arizona State University. But: “I pretty quickly realized that I preferred being a fan of sports rather than an unbiased observer,” she confessed. Graduating ASU student Leah Soto / Courtesy photo Graduating ASU student Leah Soto started out as a journalist and ended up as an editor but one thread was constant: her love for the written word. Download Full Image

Soto stayed in the journalism program but switched her focus to straight reporting. That wasn’t quite right either. “It wasn’t something I was passionate about.” On a whim, she sauntered metaphorically over to the humanities and voila! It was a match.

Soto is graduating this December from ASU with a BA in English (linguistics) and a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). She doesn’t regret a single thing: “Pretty much everything I learned during both my majors has somehow changed my perspective.”

While switching majors midstream might have unnerved some less intrepid students, Soto has a knack for taking life as it comes. Her ability to see value in happenstance is what led her to degree completion.

Some of Soto’s best “teachers” have been the firsthand experiences she gained, both in her work as an editor at Downtown Devil and in three separate internships: at Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine, at Dunham Media, and as a tutor for English 108 courses at ASU. The magazine internship taught her to “write prettily,” she said, and her time at Dunham Media was a goldmine of one-on-one mentoring and plum assignments —“most of the stories I wrote were about food so I got to go to a food truck festival and do a hot sauce taste test.”

The tutoring internship really whetted her appetite for teaching, where she said she sees her long-term future most clearly and plans to make full use of her new academic credentials. “All of my students are wonderful and I love being able to give them some guidance,” she said. "I really want to travel and write and a TESOL certificate seems like a great way to do that. … Plus, people always say teaching is the best way to learn and I love learning!”

We sat down with Soto to ask her a few questions about her time at ASU and what’s next.  

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

Answer: I realized I wanted to study linguistics as I was studying it. I didn’t really know too much about it before I decided to make it my major. I chose linguistics because I was changing my major after two years in the journalism program and all I knew was that I wanted to study English. Literature didn’t seem like the right path for me, and creative writing required a lot of the same classes as the lit major plus it would’ve resulted in me graduating a semester late — something my four-year scholarship wasn’t going to cover. I did some research on linguistics and it seemed interesting and new, so I decided to go that route and I have no regrets! I’ve enjoyed every single lesson, so it was definitely the right choice.

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

A: The entire process of reporting was completely new to me until journalism school and it gave me a whole new perspective on the importance of a free press. As far as linguistics goes, every day blows my mind. The entire premise seems to be just tearing down all of our preconceived notions of language and replacing them with smaller building blocks. I love it.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I originally wanted to study sports journalism and ASU’s Cronkite School has one of the best sports journalism programs in the country. Plus, my entire family is in this area and I received an excellent scholarship to attend the university.

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

A: I’ve had so many fantastic professors, I can’t pick just one. Terry Greene Sterling from the Cronkite School taught me how to have confidence in my writing and empower myself through it. And Ruby Macksoud and Dr. George Justice in the English department taught me the value of making meaningful connections with your professors through their incredible kindness and support.

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

A: I’d tell everyone to go to class, pay attention and engage with your professors. Even just doing things as simple as making eye contact or asking questions can go a long way.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus is Engineering Center G. It has the perfect balance of quiet and background noise, it has plenty of natural light, and it has different types of chairs to sit in.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m going to do some freelance writing and editing here in Tempe, move to Colorado when my lease is up in May, and hopefully find a full-time editing position up there. 

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

A: I’d donate it to find a sustainable solution to clearing garbage out of the ocean.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

Religious studies graduate earns degree while running nonprofit organization


December 6, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Azra Hussain was born and raised in Kuwait with a family who highly valued education. Her great-grandfather was a lawyer, one grandfather was an engineer, the other was a doctor, her grandmother earned her bachelor’s degree after her children were grown and her father was an engineer as well.   Azra Hussain Photo courtesy of Azra Hussain. Download Full Image

She moved to Arizona in 1981 after getting married. The next year she started her education at Arizona State University as an engineering student, but as she continued her studies, another degree caught her eye. 

During her time as a student, Hussain has raised four children, juggled motherhood and grandmotherhood, volunteered at her children’s schools and ran an educational nonprofit she co-founded 20 years ago called the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona, which provides education about Islam and Muslims to build interfaith dialogue. 

Hussain is graduating this semester with a degree in religious studies and a certificate in Islamic studies. We caught up with her and asked her about her time here at ASU. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: I started out working on getting an engineering degree as I love math and physics. My “aha” moment came when I was 37 years old. I was sitting in an introductory level class for C programming with freshmen. Although I was keeping up with homework and doing well in the class, each session was difficult for me because the other students had a stronger background in coding than I did. It felt like class discussions were led by an advanced group of students who already had a background in C. I then realized that I had come to a stage in my life where I wanted my degree to be in a subject that would enhance knowledge as it relates to my career, rather than just a subject I enjoy. I changed to religious studies as I educate about religions.   

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

A: During one of my classes, I read about an anthropologist who was observing native people and their rites and rituals around funerals. While questioning them, he was surprised at their process. When asked about how his people bury their dead, back home in the West, his description shocked and horrified the native people. This made me realize how we, as people, do things as tradition or follow religious practices without understanding or appreciating how outsiders may view them. This made the work I do with my nonprofit even more necessary.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it is the university closest to me, but I stayed with ASU because of two amazing student advisers who have helped me navigate and stay on top of my degree through the decades.

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

A: Professor Agnes Kefeli Clay showed me how to approach and navigate the academic study of religion.

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

A: Never give up on your dream. Each setback is only a failure if you don't try again.  

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

A: Since 1982 my favorite spot on campus has always been the Memorial Union. Even though it looks and feels very different to what it used to be, it is still the place where we can meet, eat, chat and attend events.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Hopefully I get accepted in a master’s program and continue studying.

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

A: It would be nice to say "medical research" or "save the planet" but others are already spending billions. I would keep it close to home like Robert F. Smith did for the 2019 graduates of Morehouse College. I would help pay off student loans, allowing those children and families here in our community to live the lives they dreamed of after getting their degrees. This way, instead of spending all that they earn to pay off loans they will be able to provide homes, food, clothing and health care for their families.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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