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From ASU Dean's Medalist to Harvard Law School

The School of Social Transformation recognized Mackenzie Saunders with The College’s Dean’s Medal

SST Dean's Medalist Mackenzie Saunders

School of Social Transformation Dean's Medalist Mackenzie Saunders

April 15, 2020

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

In May, Mackenzie Saunders, an Ahwatukee native, will graduate summa cum laude with Bachelor of Science degrees in justice studies and politics and the economy and a certificate in socio-legal studies. A graduate of nearby Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills, Saunders has been a Barrett, The Honors College student and earned a 4.0 GPA while at ASU, among numerous other achievements. In addition, she has been very active with campus residence life and has increasingly taken on leadership positions in political advocacy and nonprofit organizations.

Gregory Broberg, a lecturer in the School of Social Transformation, remembers Saunders' academic work as her fifth grade elementary school teacher. "Mackenzie’s commitment to her education has always been evident," he said. "Watching her academic growth has been an honor and I know that this will continue as she moves to Harvard Law School."

Saunders has been accepted to Harvard Law School (incoming class of fall 2022) and after earning her law degree, she aspires to work in the area of disability rights law to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act and to eventually become a federal judge. In the meantime, she will continue her work as a deputy campaign manager for the November 2020 and March 2021 elections for Phoenix City Council and as director of operations for a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for disability rights and provides resources to people with paralysis nationwide. 

Mackenzie’s honors thesis, “Improving Physical Accessibility at Arizona State University: A Student Perspective,” draws inspiration from her own experience as a walking paraplegic following a spinal cord injury sustained during a soccer game when she was 11 years old.

“For her honors project, Mackenzie conducted an extensive inventory of nearly all buildings on the Tempe campus to identify physical accessibility issues — a painstaking process, given the blistering summer heat and her reliance on disability transportation to get from building to building," said Annamaria Oliverio, Mackenzie’s honors thesis adviser. "But Mackenzie’s drive and determination are only matched by her energy and contagious joy. Her goal was to create a thesis that not only contributed to a nascent academic body of knowledge in disability studies but also advocated for all students. As a disabled student, her perspective is certainly unique, though her results benefit the entire university community. It’s a document other university campuses also can adopt. Mackenzie has been coordinating her efforts with the Disability Resource Center and Facilities Management Office, who have already begun to use her thesis work to improve accessibility over campus."

In many respects, Saunders' thesis embodies the School of Social Transformation's commitment to social innovation and to fostering a more inclusive and just society. “Mackenzie is a pathbreaker who rises above the small-mindedness of individuals and the restrictions of society. She elegantly transforms challenges into opportunities, not just for herself, but also others,” said Oliverio.

We met with Saunders (virtually) to ask a few more questions about her experience at ASU and to learn more about her future plans:

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

Answer: I was actually in the business school for the first two years of my undergraduate career. Business school definitely helped me realize that I belonged elsewhere. I didn't find the work I was doing to be fulfilling; I wasn't excited about the work I was doing. The moment that really made me realize I had to change majors happened over the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I looked at my class schedule for the fall semester of my junior year, and I felt a feeling of dread. I love school, and I love learning, yet I was dreading school to start. That really flipped a switch for me; I told myself that I needed to make a big change and find a field of study that made me excited and motivated. I looked through all of the majors ASU offered — yes, all of them — and I landed on justice studies. I love helping people, I love social justice, and I love immersing myself in the worlds of others to gain valuable perspectives that I don't currently have. Justice studies excited me, and it was exactly what I needed to make the rest of my undergraduate experience enthralling and rewarding.

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

A: Some of the most incredible people in the world go to state schools. Sure, private and Ivy League schools get a lot of praise, but I think the real magic happens at state schools like ASU. I've been lucky to meet people of all walks of life here at ASU: first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, veterans, nontraditional students, students who transferred from local community colleges. ASU is so incredibly and beautifully diverse, and ASU awards all students with the opportunity to succeed to their fullest potential. This has led me to curb my former thinking of "the more exclusive the school, the better it is" because that's totally false! It's not whom you exclude that makes you better; it's whom you include and how you enable them to succeed. That's how you measure greatness: through inclusion. ASU does a brilliant job of awarding a huge and diverse group of people with the opportunities to succeed and thrive.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was born and raised in Arizona, about 10 miles south of the ASU Tempe campus. I chose ASU because I would be closest to my family: my entire family lives here, and they're my best friends. Also, because I'm a first-generation college student, we didn't really have the finances to send me out of state for undergrad. But ASU didn't just draw me in because of its proximity to my family or its in-state tuition; ASU really drew me in with Barrett, The Honors College. The thought of having a small, tight-knit community of driven individuals like myself at ASU — the largest university in the nation — sounded like a dream. And it really was. My Barrett experience shaped my entire undergraduate career, and I can't imagine where I'd be if I didn't choose ASU.

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

A: Dr. Annamaria Oliverio was my Disability and Justice professor, and she was also my thesis director. As my thesis director, she helped me immensely by telling me to slow down, narrow my project's scope, and remind myself that I can't do everything on my own. Dr. Oliverio taught me how to reach my high standards for myself, all while not stressing myself out too much. I'm the queen of stressing myself out and beating myself up for things I do wrong; Dr. Oliverio, on the other hand, was always the person to remind me that I could be my best, and still take care of myself along the way.

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

A: Build relationships with your professors! Ask them questions about their past research! Go to their office hours! ASU professors are some of the most brilliant people out there, and we as students are so lucky to have them here for guidance and insight. Some of my favorite people in the world are professors here at ASU. I'm convinced that me getting into Harvard Law School was because of the sheer amount of help I received from multiple ASU professors during my admissions process. Don't forget that your professors are here to help you, and they truly care about you.

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

A: For my honors thesis research, I walked through every floor of every single ASU Tempe building to document any inaccessible features. Through this process, I discovered so many cute nooks and places of ASU's Tempe campus that no one goes to or knows about! My absolute favorite spot to go is this strange little building on Mill and Curry Street: the ASU Community Services Building. It has a big, grassy lawn and a great view of downtown Tempe. I go there at least once a week to read, get some sun, and study for exams.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was recently accepted to Harvard Law School, but I deferred my acceptance for two years. This means that I will get two gap years after graduating ASU to gain some professional experience before starting law school in September 2022. After ASU graduation, I'll be starting my full-time job as the deputy campaign manager and finance director for Yassamin Ansari's Phoenix City Council campaign. She is a nonincumbent running for an open seat, and it will be a really exciting race. The election is in November, and the run-off is in March 2021! I'll also continue my part-time remote work as a paralegal at The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm in Washington, D.C. and the director of operations for SPINALpedia, a disability nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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

A: I would tackle the problem of homelessness! We have more vacant homes in the United States than we do people who are experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is not an issue of a total lack of resources; it's an issue on how we allocate those resources and how we approach homelessness as a whole. I would use $40 million dollars to aid the development and subsidization of low-income housing in areas with a high amount of homelessness, and I would also fund the voluntary relocation of people who are experiencing homelessness and are willing to relocate to currently vacant homes. I would put more funding into existing homelessness shelters as to improve their quality and capacity, and I would create support programs for those who have previously experienced homelessness, focusing on one-on-one mentoring and a proliferation of employment, financial planning, family and addiction resources as to prevent a situation of homelessness in the future.

Look out Harvard, cause here comes Mackenzie!

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