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Criminology outstanding grad has her 'aha' moment on visit to Arizona prison

ASU grad Genevieve McKenzie

School of Criminology and Criminal Justice outstanding graduate Genevieve McKenzie advises students that you get out of your college experience what you put into it. "It is easy to drift through your time in college just doing the bare essentials to pass classes and graduate. It is harder to really be present in your classes and engage with the material, but it truly does pay off. When I started to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the outside world ... I started seeing connections everywhere."

May 05, 2020

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

Genevieve McKenzie remembers the spring of her freshman year, when she questioned whether she made the right decision to major in criminology and criminal justice.

But even more vivid in her memory is the day those doubts disappeared. It was the day she sat face-to-face in an Arizona prison with an incarcerated man dressed in an orange jumpsuit.

Both were members of a class that combines ASU students with an equal number of incarcerated men through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

“I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember that being the moment when everything clicked for me,” McKenzie said. “All of a sudden, the people that I had been reading about in textbooks (each) had a face, a name, and I could see the real impact that what I was studying could have. Khan may not know it, but he is one of the biggest reasons that I am here today.” 

In fact, the spring 2020 outstanding graduate of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice said her favorite place to think about life is a barren stretch of highway between Phoenix and the Arizona State Prison Complex – Florence.

“Over the past four years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time driving to and from the prison in Florence for class, research, work and volunteer work. I had some of the best conversations with colleagues or classmates in the car after a long day at the prison,” said the Snohomish, Washington, resident. “It took me a while to adjust to the desert landscape after moving from somewhere that it rains 85% of the time, but I grew to love the dramatic sunsets behind cacti as I drove along that highway, lost in deep thoughts.”

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

Answer: One of the most notable things that surprised me to learn while at ASU is something that I’m still learning to this day: Being productive and successful is about more than just hard work. Being productive requires time off, sleep and taking care of yourself just as much as it requires hard work. I spent many semesters working myself to the bone because I thought that I would be successful if I just worked hard enough. It is only recently, with the help and guidance of some incredible mentors, that I realized I am able to do more when I’m doing less. When I take on too many responsibilities, I do not adequately take care of myself and end up burning out quickly. As a result of the burnout, the quality of my work suffers. When I prioritize taking care of myself, I am better able to focus and dedicate energy to doing things well.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I initially chose to come to ASU because I was impressed by the quality of the criminology and criminal justice program, which I intended to study. I actually committed to ASU solely because of this; I never set foot in Arizona until my orientation, three months before my first semester. The endless opportunities and resources that I was able to take advantage of are why I stayed and continued to choose ASU, though. There were a few times that I seriously considered transferring and pursuing a different career, but I ultimately chose ASU time and time again because of the community I had found and the unique opportunities that I would not have found elsewhere. I felt that I had a lot of potential for growth and ASU was the perfect place for me to take advantage of that; I was absolutely right.

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

A: Kevin Wright has, by far, been the most influential professor that I’ve met at ASU. He has taught me lessons about the value of mentorship, the power of embracing failure, and he single-handedly facilitated opportunities that pushed me to be more open-minded. One of the most powerful lessons, however, has been the importance of authenticity. I think that Dr. Wright teaches this without the intention to do so; he simply leads his life in an authentic way and inspires those around him to do the same. Dr. Wright is transparent in the way that he asserts his values and fearlessly lives up to them. He is authentic across all situations and with all audiences.

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

A: You get out of your college experience what you put into it. It is easy to drift through your time in college just doing the bare essentials to pass classes and graduate. It is harder to really be present in your classes and engage with the material, but it truly does pay off. When I started to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the outside world and to things that were more directly applicable to my own life, I started seeing connections everywhere. My most valuable experiences in college were outside of the classroom, but they would not have been possible if I hadn’t pushed myself to get as much out of each class as possible, to venture out of my comfort zone and to get involved in different opportunities that were presented to me.

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

A: I would put the money towards the coronavirus pandemic that is happening worldwide right now. Specifically, I would invest the money towards efforts coming up with a vaccine so that people can stay healthy and health care workers can recuperate from the madness of the past few weeks. This pandemic is negatively affecting mental health, financial stability, physical health and so much more for everyone. I would say that it has also opened our eyes to the importance of social, human connection, and I think that everyone is really craving to get back to that. I know I am.

Another reason, which hits closer to home, is so that graduations for high school and college seniors throughout the country can proceed as originally planned. There are very few rites of passage or cultural ceremonies in America that mark critical transitions in our lives; school graduations are one of the only ones that come to mind. To universities, a virtual graduation for one semester may just be a bump in the road that is soon forgotten about. But to thousands of graduates, the absence of a graduation in the traditional sense is a gaping hole in our transition to adulthood. This important ceremony celebrates all of our hard work and accomplishments. The alternatives, including virtual graduation and combined ceremonies in the fall, simply do not measure up.

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