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Grad seeks justice for the vulnerable and forgotten

April 29, 2017

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

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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A passion for juvenile justice reform

April 29, 2017

Brigitte Nicoletti, the Barrett Outstanding Graduate for Leadership and Service, taught class to inmates, traveled world to seek solutions

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

Brigitte Nicoletti's interest in law was sparked in ninth grade when she joined her high school's mock-trial program. In 11th grade, she began participating as a juror and attorney in the Teen Court of Coconino County, Arizona, a diversionary and restorative justice program for juveniles.

She brought that interest to Arizona State University, where she took a class with ASU Law Professor Anne Herbert called the Global Legal Community and directed a research project that examined international, regional and national approaches to juvenile justice to design a restorative juvenile justice model for Latin American countries.

Nicoletti, who is the Barrett Honors College Spring 2017 Outstanding Graduate for Leadership and Service, also was president of the Prison Education Awareness Club and taught a weekly gender studies class to male inmates at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

In 2015, Nicoletti received the Barrett Honors College Intercontinental Study Award, worth about $9,000. She used the award to fund a research project that she designed with the help of faculty in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The project took her on a solo trip to six countries to study approaches to the implementation of the restorative justice norms outlined by the United Nations in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Her aim was to bring back methodologies as models for reform in the United States.

She visited Switzerland and Belgium to meet with officials at the United Nations and the International Juvenile Justice Observatory to gain a better understanding of the current status of juvenile justice theory. She also traveled to Germany, Norway, Malawi and Japan, to compare those country’s juvenile justice systems.

“I met with professors, judges, lawyers, police officers, ministers, mediators, NGO advisers and people who had been incarcerated as juveniles, trying to create a complete picture of juvenile justice practices in each country. Despite the multitude of cultural and political nuances I encountered, I came to understand that the underlying problems associated with incarceration are the same the world over. People need to be invested in a system in order for them to respect it; they have to believe that it works equally for them as it does for everyone else,” she said.

Nicoletti, who is from Flagstaff, is receiving her bachelor's in history from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with minors in French, women and gender studies, and English literature. She will also graduate with honors from Barrett. Here, she answers some questions about her studies and her plans for the future.

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

Answer: My parents instilled me with a love of history from a very young age. My dad was a high school history teacher, and my mom has had a lifelong interest in British and American history. I grew up going on trips with my parents to visit historical landmarks around the country, and later around the world.

I think the most significant moment for me occurred when I was 7. My parents had taken me to England, and we were visiting Oxford University. I remember walking up the staircase at Christ Church College, running my hand along the centuries-old bannister and thinking about all of the great people who had walked there before me (including the cast of Harry Potter). From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to know more about English history, and at ASU, I was able to realize this goal and so much more. I never will accept the argument that traveling with young children is a waste of money because “they won’t remember anything anyway.” I not only remembered my time in England, it shaped the rest of my life.

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

A: I believe the subject that most changed my perspective was the concept of intersectionality, or the ways in which intersecting aspects of our identities come together to uniquely shape our perspectives and interactions with systems of power and discrimination. I was first introduced to this concept my freshman year in my first Women and Gender Studies class. Since then, I have gone on to pursue a minor in Women and Gender Studies and to teach a class on gender studies at Florence State Prison through my work as president of the Prison Education Awareness Club. In this class, I had the opportunity to introduce my students to intersectionality, finally giving them the word for something that they had been feeling the effects of their whole lives.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I wanted to have both the intimacy of a small, liberal arts education through Barrett, The Honors College, and the opportunities afforded by a large research university. I could not have chosen better. I have been able to take classes in fields I didn’t even know existed, all while creating fantastic relationships with faculty and staff who I believe will be my lifelong mentors.

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

A: I know that everybody says this, but my advice is to go talk to your professors! Almost every opportunity for research and employment that I have had at ASU began as a simple conversation with a professor during office hours. The majority of ASU faculty really are here because they love students and teaching, and there is a real value placed on collaboration.

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

A: My favorite is the Secret Garden. If I have time between classes, I’ll go there to read or take a nap. It’s really nice to be able to get away from everything, and even though it is in the middle of campus, it feels like a secluded sanctuary. Coming from Flagstaff, I’ve always valued the feeling of being able to escape into nature, and the Secret Garden is my escape.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be attending UC Berkeley's School of Law. I hope to then be able to work in the field of international juvenile justice reform.

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

A: When I was in Malawi, I spoke with the former Deputy of Police there. She now runs an orphanage in the southern part of the country, where there are huge issues with drought. She told me that if there was a way to get an irrigation system going from the mountains in the center of the country where there is plenty of rainfall to the valleys in the south that have very fertile soil, it would be a boon for the entire country.

Even more importantly than providing a boost to the local economy through job creation, this would combat the disastrous food and water shortages that this region has been experiencing in recent years as a result of the changing climate. She said that there had been numerous proposals by NGOs and government agencies to build such an irrigation system, but that each time, they left without fulfilling their promises.

Clearly, such a project is manageable, and the overall economic and human benefits could transform the entire country of Malawi. All that is required is the funding and the dedication to actually see it through.  As someone interested in juvenile justice reform, this irrigation project would normally be outside my area of interest, but as I spoke with the deputy, it became clear that providing economic stability to this area is the first, necessary step to implementing any lasting reform in any area. Receiving a well-rounded education from ASU gave me a profound appreciation for these kinds of novel, interdisciplinary solutions, and I hope to actually see this completed someday. 

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College