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Watts College outstanding undergrad's passion for justice, civil rights finds home at ASU

ASU grad Anna Salas

Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions overall outstanding undergraduate student Anna Salas said the most important lesson I learned in the classroom at ASU was that knowledge doesn’t always come in the form of a book or lecture approved by institutions — "I found an abundance of knowledge in mediums such as rap music, silent films, hip-hop dance, theater, radio dramas and my personal favorite, Day of the Dead celebrations."

May 05, 2020

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

Anna Salas believes her life experiences led her to public service.

“Ever since I can remember, I have helped my family navigate the world of public administration, from translating documents for my parents to helping different family members go through the citizenship process,” she said.

The spring 2020 Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions overall outstanding undergraduate student grew up in North Las Vegas, Nevada, where she attended Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. She said there she discovered a love for justice and equal rights, following the direction of great civil rights figures.

Salas acted on that newfound passion as a high school student in Odessa, Texas, where she founded a chapter of Amnesty International.

“Through this chapter, my cabinet and I were able to educate my school and town on the Declaration of Human Rights and human rights injustices all over the world,” she said. “We enabled students and teachers alike to engage in these issues through letter-writing campaigns and fundraising activities for the organization.”

Salas said the experiences all led her to decide on continuing a life of service, and she found ASU’s degree program in public service and public policy at the School of Public Affairs “a perfect fit for me, allowing me to continue with my passions and create a positive social change.”

As she was deciding on where to attend college, she said she was “ecstatic” to get a scholarship offer from ASU.

“This was only reaffirmed when I asked my favorite high school teacher what he thought of the university. He told me that it was a fantastic university, his first choice for school when he was my age, actually. From that moment on, it was settled,” Salas said. “I went from not even considering Arizona State University as an option to not being able to imagine going to another university.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I think one of the valuable lessons I learned at ASU or otherwise was the fact that college students are not the normal, young, fresh-out-of-high-school students everyone has in mind. In my college experience, I met peers from a variety of different backgrounds. I feel as though Arizona State has prepared me for a complex work environment where I can connect with different individuals. This is because Arizona State University provides its students with a complex variety of connections both in and out of our work environment. 

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

A: The most important lesson I learned from one from one of my professors at ASU came from Mathew Sandoval at Barrett, the Honors College. His seminar-style course, The Human Event, can be tailored to the professor’s wishes as long as it meets the scope of what Barrett teaches its student body. What Dr. Sandoval taught me was that knowledge doesn’t always come in the form of a book or lecture approved by institutions. Knowledge can also be imparted in other forms not credited with legitimacy because of their rudimentary roots. In his class and under his direction, I found an abundance of knowledge in mediums such as rap music, silent films, hip-hop dance, theater, radio dramas and my personal favorite, Day of the Dead celebrations, all teaching me valuable lessons in life that I would have never acquired through a textbook.

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

A: It is OK to not be OK. College is a huge change in one’s life, and sometimes big changes are hard to deal with. Depression, anxiety and imposter’s syndrome are all normal and common feelings college students experience, especially in their first few years. I struggled with these issues, myself, my freshman and sophomore years of college. Being away from home for the first time in an unfamiliar environment truly affected my happiness and mental health. The narrative that college is supposed to be the best years of my life really skewed the perception I had of myself because I believed there must be something wrong with me for not enjoying it as much as my peers. But the truth is, these emotions are common and there are many resources the university can connect you with to help you get through them. It is hard finding one’s place, especially in one of the biggest public universities in the United States — but you are not alone, and once you find your niche, you will find your home away from home.

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

A: As a downtown on-campus student, I would have to say that my favorite spot to study or think about life is the hidden patio on the fifth floor of Beus Center for Law and Society. While the rest of the downtown campus is filled with hustle and bustle, this small outdoor patio offers serenity and peace. It’s a place where you can study for your upcoming public affairs test or just take in the sun and cool breeze of an Arizona spring.

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

A: I would start a fund to help support service-industry workers in the Phoenix metro area. On March 17, 2020, Mayor Kate Gallego declared the city of Phoenix in a state of emergency. This led to the closure of countless bars and restaurants across the Valley, with the exception of carry-out or delivery. This led to the sudden unemployment of hundreds of individuals. My own home away from home was affected by this. My roommates and I all worked at a downtown restaurant called Chico Malo. It was where we met and where we continued getting our livelihood from. Overnight, our livelihoods were taken away. We didn’t know that the last time we clocked out of work or joked with our coworkers would in effect become the very last time.

I have become the only breadwinner in a household of four, thanks to an internship I am currently working in. However, my roommates aren’t as fortunate. Now we are struggling to pay bills, having to have a difficult conversation with our landlord about rent and the ability to keep a roof over our heads. Having the $40 million and starting a fund would ensure that others like my roommates and I have security in such a dire time. Restaurant and bar staff become like family the more you work with one another; from complaining about ridiculous customers to freaking out when we are out of clean silverware, the bonds formed there are deep. I would like to put forward that money to take care of my work family in our time of need.

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