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Watts graduate exemplifies public service

Graduating veteran begins emergency management career with agency managing local response to COVID-19 pandemic

Marisa Von Holten
May 10, 2020

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

Marisa Von Holten’s Arizona State University journey took some unexpected twists, turns and setbacks, but her “can do” attitude, spirit of service and perseverance enabled her to not only finish her college degree but also transition to a new public service career.

The former Air Force medic switched majors “a couple of times” at ASU, eventually finding the degree she would march with across the graduation finish line — the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions bachelor of science in public service and public policy, with a focus on emergency management and homeland security, managed by the college’s School of Public Affairs.

As part of the degree program, Von Holten entered into an internship with the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management. That led to a job offer as an emergency management services planner, as the agency activated its emergency operations center to organize the county response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I really like it; I’ve gotten a ton of experience,” said Von Holten, who served in Afghanistan with an Army transportation unit. “We’ve been activated since March 16 in response to coronavirus … March 23 they hired me as a fulltime employee.”

Among the ASU veteran community, the Huntsville, Texas, native is known for being deeply involved with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center outreach team, helping veterans transition to campus life and helping the center execute multiple events throughout the year, including the Veterans Honor Stole ceremonies.

“The stole event has always been my absolute favorite, to see all the veterans graduate each semester,” Von Holten said. “The outreach team has been amazing.”

Von Holten’s involvement with the veterans center spans many initiatives. She served as a spokesperson for a new student orientation video for veterans and helped establish the Women Veterans Club on campus.

During her time at ASU, and before while in military uniform, Von Holten has exemplified work ethic and service. Below she provides more insight into her ASU journey.   

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

Answer: As a prior medic, I missed helping people during times of crisis. I explored a few different career fields outside of medicine including firefighting, but obtaining my degree before returning to work was still a priority. Through that, I found emergency management and realized I could help my community as a whole be prepared for all types of emergencies and disasters. 

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

A: During my time at ASU, I learned that while being a veteran might help open doors and opportunities, that alone is not enough. Meeting other vets, I think sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we can put our military experience on a resume and be a shoo-in; but it's important and vital to recognize that you still have to be able to translate your experiences and put in the work to be successful. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I wanted to be sure that I was using my benefits at a college who cares about me as both a successful student and veteran. Using the internet, I searched for "military-friendly schools" and came across ASU several times. After doing an online tour and speaking with staff at the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, I knew I found what I was looking for. 

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

A: Through his teaching style, Professor Kevin Robinson showed me it is possible to have our guards up but still approach life with an open mind. For that, and the respect he gave us as adults in his courses, I'm grateful to have been instructed by him. 

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

A: I would recommend that students look for job opportunities well before they graduate. That might mean internships, volunteering or simply networking and making job-site visits in your career field aspirations. For me, graduation came quick; and although I now have a job lined up through my last internship, I wish I had done more!

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

A: I loved being at the Tempe campus and having the traditional "college student" experience. I'm going to miss studying in the basement at Hayden Library and walking to classes by the MU or Palm Walk. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: As an expectant mother, I lined graduation up so that it would be within a few weeks of delivering our first child. I was recently employed by Maricopa County's Department of Emergency Management, and after some maternity leave, I'm hopeful to continue my employment serving the Valley!

Top photo: Air Force veteran Marisa Von Holten (second from the right) poses with members of her Army unit in 2014 during a deployment to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Von Holten served as a medic attached to an Army transportation company supplying U.S. troops at forward operating bases throughout eastern Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

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