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Military veteran, ASU Online student, graduates with honors after 20-year journey

December 06, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

Johnathon Orrell took his first college class in 1998. After 20 years of juggling military service, working full-time and being a single father, he is now completing his degree and graduating from Arizona State University with honors. This month, he will earn a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

After a chance encounter with ASU President Michael M. Crow at a military event in Washington, D.C., Orrell reconsidered the idea of higher education. While completing his degree wasn’t on Orrell’s mind at the time, the memory of the conversation resurfaced a few years later when he came across a small gift President Crow had given him. At that point, he finally took the plunge and applied to ASU.

“I wear my ASU colors with pride all the time. I am a Sun Devil. And it was all because of a happenstance conversation in an auditorium in Washington, D.C., when President Crow asked about my plans for the future,” he said.

Orrell’s ultimate inspiration is his family.

“I wanted to quit so many times — and I almost did, twice — but a little voice in the back of my head wouldn't let me quit. That voice belonged to my now wife, Ashton, whom I met halfway through my degree. She wouldn't let me quit and she was my rock through it all.”

In addition, he wants to be a role model for his five-year-old daughter, Emilia.

“I wanted to show her it is important to finish something you begin. And I couldn't quit on her. Between her inspiration and my wife's everlasting support, I was able to do what was once thought to be unobtainable — and I did it with honors.”

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 began my career in the Air Force as a firefighter. Due to some medical issues, I was reclassified into an administrative career field. I remember I had a commander call me into his office and tell me, "John — a big deal because an officer never called me by my first name since I was a young Airman — you are a great guy, you work hard, and everyone likes you, but you might be the worst admin the Air Force has ever had. We need to find you something more fitting to your skillsets." The Air Force then put me in public affairs. This career field includes journalism, social media, media relations, community outreach and strategic communication planning.

Fast forward 12 years and I decided to go finish my degree that I started in 1998. When thinking about the logical build to an already flourishing career in communications, a degree in mass communication and media studies just made sense. The genesis of wanting to finish my degree was my daughter Emilia. I wanted to show her it is important to finish what you start. I don't necessarily need a degree to be successful in the government, but it was important to me. 

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

A: Opinions matter, but tolerance to other people's opinions is more important. Working in groups can be demanding and stressful. Thoughts conflict and work styles differ. We all have our own stories of what has shaped us over the years, and when you are unable to accept what other people think and feel, you are unable to be a successful member of society, in my opinion.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: It came down to an interaction I had with President Crow in 2012. He was in Washington, D.C. to unveil a certificate program for National Guard members and ASU. I was photographing the event and he and I had a brief conversation. The crux of the conversation was if I had a degree and what my future looked like. I told him no, and that I had no plans of finishing my degree — since I had started in 1998 with no success and I was never the best student. He looked at me for a good ten seconds and told me that it is never too late — I need to find what works for me, and I should check out ASU. Then he gave me a challenge coin and went about his business.

I didn't think much of it at the time, but in 2014 I was unpacking and found that coin. It made me remember the conversation and how passionately a president of a college spoke with someone he had never met about not giving up and finishing what you start. I went online and researched the school, liked what I saw, and applied. I was thrilled when I got the acceptance letter in the mail. I even went out to the bookstore and bought an ASU hoodie and hat. I wear my ASU colors with pride all the time. I am a Sun Devil. And it was all because of a happenstance conversation in an auditorium in Washington, D.C. I keep that coin on my desk to remind myself that there is a reason for everything.

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

A: Dr. Jean-Marie Stevens. She is a history professor that I had several times during my tenure at ASU. She is passionate about history and that passion is conveyed through her teaching. I remember e-mailing her one time about being overwhelmed with school, work, parenthood and life, and I was thinking about quitting. She didn't try to talk me out of quitting, but instead made me open my eyes to whether quitting the right thing or the easy thing. That's an important lesson for life. Things won't be easy. Life gets hard. But do you have the intestinal fortitude to keep moving forward, through walls and over obstacles, or will you just quit the race? There’s a good lesson there. 

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

A: Don't give up. It is easy to quit. Trust me, I quit so many times on this 20-year journey, and I have paid the price for it. If I would have stayed true to course and worked a little bit harder, who knows where my life and career would be right now. Four years of hard work will be worth it for the rest of your life. 

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

A: It's a tie between my garage and my couch. Sometimes an Adirondack chair in front of my house was the best place to read.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am a government employee. I will graduate one day and head back to work the next, but I’ll have a better sense of pride in my accomplishments. In 2020 I will attend Eastern Illinois University to start my online master's of mass communication studies. That's the plan at least!

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

A: I’d start a non-profit working towards providing clean drinking water to everyone on the planet. One in nine people lack access to clean drinking water, and one in three lack access to a toilet with proper sewage removal. This is a pandemic, and no one is really doing anything about it.

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