First-generation biomedical sciences grad overcomes doubts, fears to earn degree

John Butler, ASU Biological Sciences Graduate

John Butler, a first-generation college student, husband, and father, is graduating with a BS in biological science (biomedical sciences). his goal is to become a physician's assistant. Photo courtesy John Butler


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

John Butler is not your typical graduating college student.

As a first-generation, older undergraduate who had to juggle family life, work and academic responsibilities, he learned quickly that getting support from friends and family was crucial during challenging times.

Just before he decided to go back to school, Butler faced a challenging family situation, but it’s one that helped him realize that he wanted to study biomedical sciences at Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences.

“Both of my parents passed away shortly before I decided to go back to school. It was a very difficult time but the level of care that they received, as well as the support I received during that process, particularly from the one-on-one interaction with the physician assistants, had a profound impact on me. I knew at that point, I wanted to be able to provide that for other families during their time of need,” Butler said.

He stuck with it and is a proud Sun Devil graduating this semester with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences (biomedical sciences concentration).

Question: What is your greatest accomplishment during your college career?

A: My greatest accomplishment was being able to leave my comfort zone and to quiet the doubts, fear and hesitation that had stood in the way of me getting my degree. Everything else came from accomplishing that.

Q: What were one or two of your challenges while attending college, and how did you overcome them?

A: Being a non-traditional — ie., old guy — first-generation college student while balancing the responsibilities of family/work/academic life has been the biggest challenge. My wife and daughter have been a constant source of support and inspiration for me. Their belief in me gave me the confidence to face all of the challenges and obstacles that come with the process and stay focused on accomplishing my goal.

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

A: Being so much older than most of the students on campus, and quite frankly, most of my professors, I expected to feel a little awkward at times. But my experience at ASU been the exact opposite of that. I was very appreciative and somewhat surprised by how much encouragement and support I received from other students and the faculty. Because of that, I felt like I was a part of ASU, not just simply attending ASU.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The Biodesign Institute at ASU is leading the way in many different fields of biology and medicine and I wanted the opportunity to be able to learn from the people that are directly involved with those advances. The ability to engage with, and learn from, people at the leading edge of their field is an incredible opportunity and the School of Life Sciences here at ASU provides students exactly that.

Q: What is one of your favorite memories while attending ASU?

A: My daughter, Hannah Butler, is a microbiology major here at ASU. My favorite memories have been getting to meet up with her in between classes to grab coffee. It is such a unique opportunity that most parents don’t have, to be able to connect with your kids and bond over your shared college experience and to be able to relate to what they are doing and going through, not in hindsight, but at that moment. That has been a tremendous gift.

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

A: Professor Damien Salamone taught me the importance of taking your education and putting it to work, to help serve your community. The outreach and volunteer opportunities I had while taking his class on HIV/AIDS really helped me see the power of education in affecting change, and the impact each one of us can make in our communities.

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

A: I would encourage other students to fully utilize all of the resources at the school by really engaging with their teachers as well as getting involved in some of the clubs and activities here on campus. Between work and school, it is easy to start to feel isolated, but there are so many resources on campus that can help you explore new interests, meet new people and advance your knowledge. These things really help to make you feel like part of a community and greatly improve the college experience.

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

A: Starbucks. I’m pretty sure the Physics Department would disagree, but I am certain that the dark matter that holds the universe together is coffee.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will be applying to several physician’s assistant programs here in Arizona and hope to continue my education both professionally and personally.

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

A: I would address access to higher education in low-income and underserved communities. There is a tremendous amount of talent and potential out there that goes unrealized simply because for many kids access to higher education is out of reach. When these kids aren’t able to use those talents, we all lose. Education is more than just a means to pay your bills. It offers possibilities for enrichment in all facets of our lives and I would like to see access to those possibilities available to everyone.

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