Grad seeks justice for the vulnerable and forgotten

Dean’s Medalist from School of Social Transformation headed to law school

ASU grad Caitlan Rocha

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Growing up in the small town of Trabuco Canyon, California, justice studies major Caitlan Rocha lacked the opportunity to learn about diversity and experience how the “other half of the world” lived. Through a mixture of fate and luck, Rocha left Orange County and set to make an impact at Arizona State University by dedicating her time to studying societal injustices and learning how to create change.

When it comes to describing her time at ASU, the best way to put it is by using Rocha’s favorite quote: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” by John F. Kennedy, which embodies her attitude on life — the only way one can make an impact is by taking a stand today.

Rocha declared a degree in justice studies before arriving at ASU because of her interest in criminal justice and justice-related issues. At first, she questioned her decision and sought a degree in criminal justice to prepare for a career with the FBI. However, her plans quickly changed after completing an internship with the Arizona Justice Project, which motivated her to pursue a law degree.

This May, she will graduate with a bachelor of science in justice studies and a minor in women and gender studies, along with two certificates in English and socio-legal studies. She has excelled academically by maintaining a high GPA and earning the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s List each semester as well as dedicating her time to upholding multiple leadership positions at ASU.

From serving as a president and founder for organizations such as the ASU Pre-Law Society and the ASU Manzanita Pen Pal Program to mentoring students as a First-Year Success Coach and writing mentor for the SST Writing Mentorship Center to volunteering for the ASU Clothesline Project, she focused on making a difference in and out of the classroom.

Rocha also received several achievement awards such as the New American University Dean’s Award, the Russell L. Duncan Memorial Scholarship Award and earned second place for the ASU Writer’s Award. Her achievements and scholastic passion lead to her ultimately being admitted to the University of California-Berkeley School of Law for fall 2017.

Rocha, who is one of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' spring 2017 Dean’s Medalists, answered some questions about her experience at ASU.

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

Answer: I always had an inherent interest in criminal justice and justice, but I wasn’t sure how to best apply my career field. I got this amazing internship during the first semester of my sophomore year with the Arizona Justice Project, where you basically work on cases of the wrongfully convicted or people who are serving unjust sentences. People are dying who are innocent or people spend their whole lives in prison who are innocent — it’s unfair. The Arizona Justice Project internship made me sure I wanted to be a lawyer.  

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

A: I would say one of the things that has been most disheartening that I have learned about and has surprised me is how easy it is to look 50 years ago and say, “We’ve made so much progress.” We still have a long way to go, and especially in terms of the recent election. Hearing all the rhetoric that so many people in America share is unfortunate. Learning about all the different ways people are systematically oppressed in every possible part of their lives from education to the cities they live in — that has been the most surprising and the saddest thing I’ve learned, but it’s also become what I care most about.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was the first in my family to go college and the first to apply. I had no assistance because my high school was poorly set up to assist you with those things, so I was just kind of winging on my own. I narrowed down to San Diego State and ASU. I went and saw San Diego State but just did not like it. I did not think it would be a good environment for me, and so I blindly chose ASU. I came here for orientation, and I just loved it. Now being here for four years and having been involved in everything at least once, I learned there’s so many opportunities here. I feel whole-heartedly that my degree is going to be worth so much more in 10 years with the trajectory that is going on now. I feel 100 percent this was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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

A: Every day while you are working or not, other people are working just as hard as you or harder. Everyone sort of fits into this mold, so you want to do everything you can to differentiate and diversify yourself. Work as hard as possible because it’s easy to lose sight of the goal.

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

A: Wilson Hall, third floor. I worked in the writing center for two years, and I love all the faculty and the School of Social Transformation. Whenever I have half an hour between classes, I’m up there on the third floor. Also, West Hall right outside on those benches overlooking Hayden Lawn. It’s just beautiful! 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m going to Berkeley in the fall — that’s my law school and dream school. I’m torn between my path because there’s so many things I care about like domestic violence, wrongful conviction, civil rights, etc. I’ve had a pretty concrete plan up to this point, but now I’m kind of letting life take its course.

However, after hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak [she spoke at the Tempe campus in January], I have this calling to go into politics way down the line. If I could become a Supreme Court justice one day, that would be amazing. It’s the ultimate unachievable goal, but it can still happen. I want to lay a good foundation and be reputable about social justice issues. I want to build myself up as an esteemed attorney who cares about all these issues and then take that with me into politics.

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

A: I wanted to zero in on something that is a national issue and we should care far more about. And that would obviously be Flint, Michigan, and their water crisis. Getting them clean water, new pipes, reimbursement, medical expenses, everything that they have suffered due to lack of care, attention and media coverage. It’s just such an embarrassment for the United States to have them still not having clean water after all this time. I feel it’s easy to go international and think huge, but I think that we should also focus on what’s going on at home.

Written by Stephanie Romero/School of Social Transformation

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