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School of Social Work outstanding grad says serving underprivileged populations 'is my calling'

ASU grad Cassandra Pena

When it came time to choose a university, there was no question for Cassandra Peña, who grew up in Tempe. "My home was about 10 minutes from the main campus. During Sun Devil football games, I would hear the fireworks ignite, and the fans’ excitement was ecstatic. Also, my grandfather was a huge inspiration that imprinted the ASU culture and higher education in me. I'm a proud Sun Devil, and this has passed down to my children as they have embraced the maroon and gold spirit."

May 05, 2020

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

Cassandra Peña’s search for a career didn’t end with her finding social work. “Social work found me,” she said.

She had started college seeking to work in medicine, taking a few classes along those lines. But, the School of Social Work’s spring 2020 outstanding graduate (graduate student) said she learned it just was not for her.

“I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession; I just wasn't sure what that was,” said Peña, who grew up in Tempe but today lives in Phoenix. “I decided to consult with a career counselor; at that moment, I knew social work was the right career path for me. Once I enrolled in my first social work class, I immediately knew serving underprivileged populations is my calling.”

Her internship at the Phoenix Area Indian Health Service’s Integrated Behavioral Health office has solidified her passion, she said.

“I want to continue to serve the indigenous people,” Peña said. “As a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community, my long-term goal is to be an asset and leader for my community.”

Peña’s advice for new and returning students is simple: Network.

“The advice I would give someone still in school would be to connect with your instructors, program staff, and designate some mentors. By forming these connections, the likelihood is you’ll find internships, jobs and opportunities within the school,” she said. “Also, join a student organization! As a non-traditional student, I’ve learned leadership skills will take you far.”

Peña served as vice president of the American Indian Social Work Student Organization.

She said she’s proud to be a social worker.

“I've established a desire to lead systemic change,” she said, “and because of my education and experience at ASU, I’m prepared to tackle issues impacting vulnerable populations.”

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

Answer: My classroom experience at ASU has transformed my general perspective. I bring a unique viewpoint to the classroom. However, I'm amazed by my peers, who have so much to offer in class and the social work profession. I think ASU has unwrapped the willingness to listen to all perspectives, regardless if I don’t always agree. I learned an abundance by being open to understanding the views of others, and by attending ASU, I've flourished my perception.       

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I knew I was going to transfer to a university, there was no question I would choose ASU. It is a piece of my adolescence, as I lived in Tempe. My home was about 10 minutes from the main campus. During Sun Devil football games, I would hear the fireworks ignite, and the fans’ excitement was ecstatic. Also, my grandfather was a huge inspiration that imprinted the ASU culture and higher education in me. I'm a proud Sun Devil, and this has passed down to my children as they have embraced the maroon and gold spirit.

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

A: I’ve been fortunate to have numerous influential professors and mentors at ASU. The School of Social Work has some fantastic professors! Going back to my undergraduate education, Cynthia Peters and Brett Petersen demonstrated the ethical standards of social work. They helped shape my understanding of the significant role social workers can bring to the table. During my graduate program, Judy Krysik and Kristin Ferguson-Colvin have demonstrated exceptional master-level education with the incorporation of social work values. Equally important, additional instructors­­ and faculty who have mentored my professional development are Christopher Sharp, director of the Office of American Indian Projects, and Miguel Vieyra, associate director for Community Engagement and Strategic Initiatives for the School of Social Work. Their guidance has also been instrumental to my success.

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

A: My favorite spot to study and reflect was the patio area in front of the post office at the Downtown Phoenix campus. When I had time to do this, I would grab some lunch and find a shaded area (you need shade in Arizona) to sit, people-watch and enjoy the view of the grassy area with a great view of the enormous art sculpture, called “Her Secret Is Patience.” A massive amount of my upbringing was in the Downtown Phoenix area. My grandparents lived in a home a couple of blocks from campus and most of our family gatherings took place in this home, and I'm always fascinated with the growth of the downtown area. Most of my reflection is how I’ve come full circle. This specific area is a part of me and engraved in my past. I remember exploring the downtown area when there was no ASU. It’s a surreal feeling!

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

A: Homelessness. During my undergraduate practicum, I was exposed to youth homelessness while working at Native American Connections’ HomeBase youth shelter. I have a connection to helping individuals experiencing homelessness. In my work with this population, I learned extensively about the needs associated with being displaced. I attended meetings with community partners and agencies who are dedicated to this work, trying to provide services related to housing, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, sex trafficking and more. It’s evident (that) homelessness continues to impact many lives. I believe the current system needs adjustment. It’s a bipartisan issue! We have to work together to advocate on behalf of this population and call on our legislators to maintain commitment to ending homelessness.   

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