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ASU graduate plans to empower others through social work

Kourtney Conn

School of Social Work outstanding graduate Kourtney Conn (Photo courtesy Kayla Kitts)

December 11, 2018

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

Kourtney Conn is the fall 2018 outstanding graduate of the School of Social Work in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions in downtown Phoenix.

Service to others is an important part of who Conn is. It’s how she was raised.

“I’ve spent my whole life being passionate about serving people,” Conn said.

The Fort Collins, Colorado native chose to attend ASU after a visit to the Downtown Phoenix campus.

“I didn’t know anyone and had only spent a couple days visiting the campus, but I knew ASU was the right choice for me based on the culture and ASU’s commitment to the community,” Conn said.

Originally enrolled as a nutrition major, Conn wanted to make a difference in the lives of people with health issues. But, it never felt right. After talking to friends, family and even high school guidance counselors, Conn switched her major to social work. She hasn’t looked back since.

“On the first day of my social work classes, I genuinely cried tears of joy because it felt like I was where I belonged, like all my passion could finally be funneled into something,” Conn said. “Sitting in that lecture hall preparing for a career of loving and empowering others was the ‘aha’ moment.”

Conn had lots of experience helping others over the years. Her family would annually travel to Somoto, Nicaragua, a rural town near the Honduras border. There, they have helped build homes, hosted a kid’s camp in the small mountain community and paid for local students to attend college.

Kourtney Conn plays with kids in Nicaragua

School of Social Work outstanding graduate Kourtney Conn volunteers in Somoto, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy Kourtney Conn.

“After taking seven years of Spanish classes, I use my language skills to ensure our trips are not just about laying concrete blocks or writing checks, but rather creating positive and meaningful relationships between Americans and Nicaraguans.”

An internship at New City Church in Phoenix gave Conn the opportunity to create a “Foster Care Closet” where foster families could find needed clothes and toiletries. Conn created a system for processing and distributing supplies, recruited volunteers, designed marketing materials and conducted outreach to social service agencies to promote the community resource.

“This was a unique and creative concept that required a lot of thinking from a different perspective and problem-solving on the fly,” Conn said. “While it was certainly a challenging intern project, it helped me to recognize how I represent innovation — by leading with energy and empathy to create new solutions."

Conn is also a student in Barrett, The Honors College. She says being in Barrett is the best decision she’s ever made.

“It opened so many doors for me,” Conn said.

Through Barrett, Conn served as a peer mentor and a residential leader helping create positive first-year experiences for new Barrett students and serving as part of their support system. She also directed communications for the Barrett Leadership and Service Team.

Barrett scholars are required to write a thesis and Conn is thankful for the opportunity.

“My favorite experience in Barrett was getting to write a thesis about digital dating abuse trends among teens with social work professor Lauren Reed as my faculty project director and professor Jill Messing as my second reader,” Conn recalled. “I did a mixed-methods study analyzing survey data and created a project I am so proud of in a field where there is little existing literature.”

Conn and her social work professors are now hoping to get the thesis published in an academic journal.

“Being a part of Barrett has enriched my time at ASU immeasurably and I feel so grateful for the opportunity,” Conn said.

Her time at ASU is even more remarkable as Conn has dealt with health issues that could easily have prevented her from succeeding.

Conn has temporomandibular joint disorder or TMJD, a medical condition that occurs in the jaw joint and can cause considerable pain. For Conn, it’s required numerous medical appointments and physical therapy visits.

“No one ever knows what I’m talking about when I mention it because they think I’m referring to my jaw popping once in a while, not the extreme lockjaw and pain I deal with,” Conn said. “It’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but it definitely played a role in my academic career and learning how to persevere and stay focused despite physical pain.”

The greater obstacle, in her opinion, was her struggle with dysthymia. Dysthymia is also called "persistent depressive disorder," a long-term form of depression that Conn struggled with for many years. It wasn’t diagnosed until she got to college.

“As anyone who has experienced depression knows, it makes it feel nearly impossible to finish tasks successfully, be at your best, attend events or sometimes even just get out of bed,” Conn noted.

While the condition affected her academic productivity, it didn’t define her. She appreciates any opportunity to have a conversation about mental health or be open about health issues in general to reduce the stigma.

“I think it’s important to show that mental health issues can be a part of you, but not the entirety of you,” Conn said. “It’s possible to succeed, it’s okay to ask for help, and there is light at the end of the tunnel!”

After graduation, Coon plans to work in the area of gender-based violence intervention. Ultimately, she wants to return to school to earn her master’s degree and a PhD. Her goal is to do gender-based violence intervention and prevention research.

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