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College success is all in the family

May 2, 2016

Mother-daughter duo Christine and Courtney Besaw are both graduating this month after finding career paths, personal growth at ASU

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Nine years ago, Christine Besaw found herself the sole provider for her two young children, working for minimum wage and scraping by with help from state assistance. Then, one day, she had a realization.

“I didn’t want to be there anymore,” she said. So Christine (above left) began taking courses at ASU while her daughter Courtney, then 12, looked on.

It would appear that witnessing her mother’s fight to rise above her circumstances and succeed roused a similar desire in Courtney. As a teenager at Tempe High, Courtney became involved in CompuGirls, a nationally recognized program that encourages young girls from under-resourced school districts to partake in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. She rode that wave of empowerment through to college, where she followed in her mother’s footsteps, attending ASU, and continued to mentor students through CompuGirls.

Now, both Christine and Courtney are graduating from ASU — it will be the second time for Christine, who earned her bachelor’s in family and human developmentA bachelor’s degree in family and human development is available through the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. from ASU in 2011.

This May, Christine will receive her master’s in counselingA master’s degree in counseling is available through ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences., while Courtney will be receiving dual bachelor’s degrees in anthropologyA bachelor’s degree in anthropology is available through the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and psychologyA bachelor’s degree in psychology is available through the Department of Psychology, an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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

Christine: I had a professor who once joked that people go into counseling to fix themselves. And I don’t think that that is entirely too far from the truth in my case.

I think the “aha” moment for me as an undergrad was when somebody suggested I take a women’s studies class (which I minored in). That was kind of a random thing that’s now really informed my whole worldview. In counseling you kind of pick different theories that inform your counseling style, and feminist theory is definitely one that informs my counseling style now. It has really shaped the way I look at the world and the way I conceptualize clients.

Courtney: I picked my second major [psychology] because it sounded interesting. For anthropology, I don’t think it was until I was in my second semester sophomore year or my first semester junior year when I was taking more in-depth subject matter classes when I thought, “This is really cool. Of course I picked [anthropology] for a good reason!”

Q: Courtney, you were in seventh grade when your mom began college at ASU. What was that like for you?

Courtney: I don’t know why but it was kind of like a joke in middle school, like, “Your mom’s in college!” As if it was an insult. I kind of didn’t get it, but then after a while, I was just like, “You know what, screw you guys. Yeah, my mom’s in college!” [laughs] So I thought it was cool. Especially during high school because my mom graduated when I was finishing my junior year of high school, so we went through most of high school doing homework together.

Christine: She tutored me in math. Really. It’s not my forte.

Courtney: Whereas, for some reason, it clicks for my brain.

Q: Were there any benefits to being in college and high school at the same time?

Christine: It was cool because I brought my kids on campus sometimes, like when I would go pick up books at the bookstore. So they were familiar with that and with the campus in general, which is good because it can seem so overwhelming.

Courtney: I thought the bowling alley was the coolest thing. I haven’t used it since, but it’s still cool.

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

Christine: When I started college, I didn’t realize the personal growth that would take place.

Courtney: You kind of stole my response, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot in college. … The reason I picked both of my majors is because I really like studying people; I think people are really fascinating. Every time I take a psych class or an anthropology class, I learn something new about humans and then kind of relate that back to my personal life or the people that I know. (I always joke with my boyfriend that I can psychoanalyze him.) But I feel like it’s given me a new appreciation for how people are vastly different and why people do the things that they do.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

Christine: It was convenient. I also received the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholarship. I had a friend who received that particular scholarship, and she really encouraged me to apply for it. That was a bad time for me; I had just gotten divorced, my self-esteem was really low. I had a lot of help getting into school. Once I was there, I took off but even my first semester, I was like, “What am I doing here?”

I remember wanting to buy an ASU T-shirt to show my pride but not knowing if I would be able to make it [to graduation]. So I didn’t buy one for a long time. And then, each semester, I got more confident and ended up graduating summa cum laude.

Q: Do you have that ASU T-shirt now?

Christine: I do! Several, actually. In various stages of wear.

Mother-daughter graduates Christine and Courtney Besaw

Christine Besaw (left) and daughter Courtney will both be graduating in May from ASU. Photos by Ben Moffat/ASU Now

Q: How about you, Courtney, why did you choose to attend ASU?

Courtney: Probably the major reason I picked ASU was because I had an in with CompuGirls. They set me up with a research apprenticeship, or what they call a “research experience.” So that was what kind of pushed me over the edge. And I got into Barrett [the Honors College]. And ASU has a good anthropology program, which was my first major going in.

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

Christine: Create relationships with faculty, with your professors, because you just never know what opportunities may arise from that. Networking is really important. I used to think “networking” was kind of a dirty word, like it was something business people do that’s shady, but it can lead to really cool experiences.

Courtney: Yeah. Going off of that, just to soak it all in while you can, and try to do as much as you are physically able to do. I definitely push myself over my limit sometimes trying to do too many things because I want to do as much as possible. … So don’t overwork yourself, because I’ve definitely done that, and I know that it’s not fun and your grades will suffer. But just try to do as much as you can. Get active in different programs, apprenticeships, research positions… Talk to your professors, because you never know, they might email you and say, “Hey, I need a TA, would you be interested?” And then you can put that on your resume. And if nothing else, you get to talk to them and learn more about what they do in their field and get more information about what you want to do, too.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot on campus?

Courtney: I like the Coor computer lab. I don’t know why, I like that better than the library. It’s smaller. Usually if I have to do homework, I’ll go there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

Christine: Eventually I’d like to open my own private practice. Family counseling is something that’s really interesting to me and something I’ve done a lot of during my internship. I had a yearlong internship at Total Life Counseling [in Gilbert, Arizona] working with couples and families, so that would be my focus.

Courtney: I’m taking a gap year but I’ll be working and doing other stuff; I won’t just be doing nothing! But I’m taking a gap year for a variety of reasons, then I’m applying to graduate school. The program that I’m going to be applying to is a straight PhD program, so it’s a really big commitment and it’s going to be a lot more schooling. So part of the reason I’m taking a gap year is because I want to take a year off from school. I’ve been in school the last 16 years of my life, so I want to take a year before committing another really intensive five or six years. Save up some money and really focus on my applications, because I wouldn’t have been able to this year while also trying to finish my undergrad and go to work and everything else. And I’m going to Belize for two weeks this summer to do an archaeology field school because the PhD I’ll be applying for is in archaeology. So I’m really excited about that.

Q: Where are you applying for grad school?

Courtney: That is an excellent question. I haven’t done as much research as I’d like yet, but I promised my mother that I’ll be applying to ASU. They have a good program here. I’ve also looked at UCLA, the University of New Mexico and Columbia. So we’ll see.

Q: If someone gave you a bunch of money to solve one problem in the world, what would it be?

Courtney: One of the things I’m most passionate about is getting low-income students into college. I have a lot of friends who either started college and dropped out or just didn’t go because it costs a lot of money, and it’s a lot of work if you have to work in addition to going to school, and I know what that’s like. [When I was younger] we were on state assistance, and … we didn’t have a lot of money. If things had stayed that way throughout high school, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to go to college when I did. And I see a lot of students — especially working with CompuGirls, where we work with a lot of inner-city schools — who don’t even think about [college] or don’t really consider it as an option.

Christine: I think it’s great to get people to go to college and to aim higher, but I think that realistically, we also need people to do all kinds of jobs. … So a living wage for everyone would be [what I’d solve].

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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'Good for a girl'

Watch out, boys: Girls got game in STEM.
ASU center fosters girls' pursuit of STEM fields.
January 8, 2016

New ASU center aims to change the game for women in STEM

Courtney Besaw is a natural when it comes to numbers and experimentation. She’s also a girl. And as such, she took notice of a certain nuance in her elementary and high school math and science courses:

“There were always more boys.”

Though that fact in itself did nothing to detract Besaw from her personal ambitions, she found it was often difficult to ignore the implicit bias.

“People were always impressed when I was good at math or science, like they were not expecting such excellence from a girl. I would hear adults say, ‘You are good at math for a girl,’ or ‘Usually boys are better at math,’ ” Besaw said.

That’s not uncommon, said Kimberly A. Scott, associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social TransformationThe School of Social Transformation is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. The founder of the nationally recognized CompuGirls, which introduces young girls from under-resourced school districts to technology, Scott has seen her share of educational injustice.

“I can recall going back to my time teaching in high-needs districts back East where I witnessed differential treatment by teachers and administrators in the schools,” she said. “They thought that these kids didn’t know enough or would never have the capacity to know enough because of their race, or gender, or socioeconomic status. So for me, not only as an African American woman, but as a social justice activist, this is something that we all must take seriously if we are really interested in addressing inequity.”

Keeping good on her word, Scott followed up on the success of CompuGirls with the formation of the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology (CGEST), which will host its official launch Monday, Jan. 11, on ASU’s Tempe campus.

“I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”
— Courtney Besaw, ASU Barrett Honors senior and CompuGirls peer mentor

The center will serve as a central hub — the first and only one of its kind — for the facilitation of research, building of programs and advocacy specific to African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American women in their pursuits in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The goal, said Scott, is to “make a systemic impact on issues of disparity that are affecting our society as a whole.”

The launch of the center comes on the heels of the White House’s announcement in September 2015 that ASU will lead the National STEM Collaborative, a consortium of 19 institutions of higher education and nonprofit partners committed to supporting minority girls and women in STEM fields.

Scott, who was instrumental in the creation of the collaborative, said it arose from the realization that something “actionable” and “impactful” needed to come out of all the conversations and meetings being had on the topic.

In relation to CGEST, the National STEM Collaborative is one of the signature programs within its advocacy arm. There are two other arms of the center: knowledge-building and capacity-building.

The advocacy arm, explained Scott, focuses on communicating the research and information from the other two arms to leaders and policymakers. The knowledge-building arm is dedicated to synthesizing and presenting research, making it accessible to a large audience in order to make sustained and scalable efforts through informed empirical data. The capacity-building arm houses programs such as CompuGirls, that reach out to adolescent minority girls and provide them with multimedia courses that cover subjects from digital storytelling to robotics programming.

Besaw, now an ASU Barrett, the Honors College senior double majoring in anthropology and psychology, participated in the very first cohort of CompuGirls as a high school student in 2009, along with her friend and fellow Barrett Honors senior Mitzi Vilchis, a secondary education major.

Both girls stayed involved with the program through college, serving as peer mentors or interns after graduating from it, and even co-authoring a chapter in the book “#youthaction: Becoming Political in the Digital Age,” with Scott, in which they detail their experiences in the program.

“I know from when I was in the program that CompuGirls can have a great positive impact on the girls involved,” said Besaw.

And not just in terms of learning STEM; participants in the program also learn about social injustice and how to address the various forms of it.

Vilchis’ topic was domestic violence, which her group chose to address by creating a video documentary. She served as the group leader for the project, which involved the use of technology she said she had never even considered attempting to master.

Now she’s a pro.

“My peers all know that when they're having a technical difficulty, I'm the person to go to,” said Vilchis.

group photo at convention

ASU honors seniors Courtney Besaw (far right) and Mitzi Vilchis (front, middle) pose with science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City. Also pictured are ASU professor and director of the Center for Equity in Science and Technology Kimberly A. Scott (back row, left) and fellow ASU student and CompuGirl research assistant Felina Rodriguez (front left). Top photo: Vilchis and Besaw in New York City. Photos courtesy Courtney Besaw

In the fall of 2015, both students accompanied Scott to New York City to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting on behalf of CompuGirls. When they weren’t demonstrating their robotics projects or singing the program’s praises, they ran into a few familiar faces: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Madeleine Albright, among others.

Besaw called the experience “the most exciting opportunity that I was given through CompuGirls,” and both she and Vilchis intend to remain involved with the program after graduating from ASU this May.

They will also both be the first in their families to graduate from college, and they intend to teach in the future; a good thing, considering there is still much work to be done in advocating for girls and women in STEM, as well as changing society’s perception of what they are capable of. 

“Just this last semester my professor was having issues with the computer and asked, ‘All right, who's our tech guy?’” said Vilchis, “and my classmates in unison said, ‘Mitzi!’ I found it funny that she was expecting a guy to fix the technology problem and had a girl come to her rescue.”

Besaw sums it up thusly: “I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”

Watch the full interview with Kimberly A. Scott, ASU associate professor and founder of CompuGirls: