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Geography student discovers passion and community at ASU

Abigail Johnson

Abigail Johnson will graduate with her bachelor's degree in geography from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

May 03, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Often students arrive at college with set plans on what path they want to take over the next four years. Abigail Johnson was one of those students, but as she prepares to graduate from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences this spring, she advises others to not be afraid to change up their plans.

“Follow what you think is right. There was a time that I really thought one major (journalism) was right for me and since I wanted it so bad and did an internship in it, I thought I would disappoint my family if I switched,” explained Johnson, who is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in geography from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “But when something doesn’t feel right, I think you should change your mind and really think within yourself and reflect.”

As a first-generation student, Johnson said she benefited from a number of resources in high school and while at ASU. One of those resources was AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

“(AVID) helps students who don’t have the tools for college, many are first-generation students. I didn’t know about the SAT, ACT and they tell you about those things and advise you to get involved,” she said.

During Johnson’s junior year at ASU, she was invited to speak to high schoolers at an AVID event.

I was so proud to be asked to speak at the conference. I loved it, just because I know what it’s like, I’ve been there in that exact same chair. It was really cool to be able to be the one to help them.”

Helping others was a consistent theme during Johnson’s time at ASU. She worked with elementary school students through America Reads during her freshman and sophomore years, frequently volunteered for events through American Indian Student Support Services and got involved with community gardening at the Polytechnic campus, which then led to work at the nonprofit organization Native Health. As an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Johnson said this work, in particular, was meaningful.

“To be around my people and to teach them about what I’ve learned at ASU about plants, it’s very fun.”

Johnson answered some questions about her time at ASU and shared what she has planned next.

Question: What’s your Sun Devil story?

Answer: I’m from El Mirage, Arizona, and grew up going back and forth to the Navajo Nation. I’m a first-generation student so my whole life I’ve been excited to go to university. I worked hard every single day in high school; I did community service and became really passionate about those kinds of things. Eventually, I made it here and really enjoyed it.

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

A: I took GPH 111 with Erin Saffell. I walked into class and saw how passionate she was about the subject and I loved being in her class. I was taking journalism classes and realized I was looking more forward to going to that class than the journalism classes. I had office hours with her and told her I really loved physical geography and she told me to think about majoring in it and that’s when I decided to switch over.

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

A: When I moved here I realized how being a first-generation student, I was always the one to lead my family. When I came here I met a lot of people and didn’t feel like I had so much weight on my shoulders. I think something surprising that I learned was that you really need people, and when you have the right people you can create better results than you could by yourself.

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

A: Professor Saffell. She taught me how to study and how each class is different. It can be hard as a freshman to build up the confidence to walk into office hours. I got over that barrier with her, she was very calm and I felt very comfortable in her environment. I’d ask her questions and from then on I wasn’t afraid to ask questions to other professors or TAs.

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

A: Students come here for their major but this is an opportunity for you to know yourself. Do something out of your major, like a club. For me, I love geography and maps but I had an interest in plants so I started doing those classes and I met my best friends there. Do something out of your element and nourish that. Create a hobby for yourself.

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

A: My favorite spot on campus is the American Indian Students Services room, it’s a very safe space for me. It’s in Discovery Hall and on the walk there, there are beautiful trees leading the way.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My husband is in medical school and starting his rotations so we’ll be traveling around the United States. I’m planning to intern at some urban planning firms or work as a GIS analyst.

Q: What would you say to someone considering ASU?

A: Do it, it’s a very great school. There are so many opportunities here, including employment opportunities. It’s very good for someone getting out of high school, especially when they don’t know anything because there’s a good community once you’re here.

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