Working mom earns master's degree in communication online to advance her career

November 23, 2020

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

As a single parent of two young boys, Briana Seward would wake up hours before her children to complete her coursework for the Online Master of Arts in Communication program in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at ASU. Briana Seward with her children. Download Full Image

“When you are driven by your passion, it is the reason you jump out of bed in the early hours of the morning,” said Seward, who is also executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona (ASSA).

Seward is typical of many students in the popular online program who juggle their education, their jobs, and their family responsibilities.

“The Online MA in Communication program is geared towards the working professionals who seek to become more competent communicators and more valuable members of their organization,” said Raena Quinlivan, director of the program. “The rigorous graduate coursework we offer applies to the day-to-day functions of the contemporary workplace, much like Briana’s organization.”   

Seward’s capstone project helped parents find solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“Briana was clear in her vision, and used the opportunity working with me to help this vision become reality,” said Lori Bednarchik, an instructor at the Hugh Downs School and Seward’s mentor. “Working with her was fun and inspiring.  I was continuously impressed with how she was able to take small suggestions and turn them into epic changes that resulted in a program that can and will be immediately implemented. I'm so excited to witness the amazing things she will do, and I'm happy that she is part of our Hugh Downs School family.  She will represent our program and the caliber of students we graduate fantastically!”

In August, the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, where Seward is executive director, was
the recipient of an Eegee's Restaurant Coupon Card fundraiser. In addition, ASSA also received
a $20,000 COVID-19 relief grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.
Seward says these funds have helped her organization weather this storm and continue to
provide support and virtual program options for families in need.

We asked Seward, who will be graduating from ASU in December 2020, to answer a few questions about her experience in the program:

Question: What do you like about your job, executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona?

Answer: Connecting with the autism community and providing relevant resources is my purpose, and I know it can be a life-changing act. There is no better feeling than helping a parent breathe a sigh of relief once you have provided the next step for them after their child has received an autism diagnosis.

Q: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study Communication?

A: In 2018, I was a trainee at the University of Arizona’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (ArizonaLEND) leadership training program. Members of my cohort and my mentor developmental pediatrician, Dr. Sydney Rice, inspired me to continue my education and obtain my master’s degree in an area that would support my role in the nonprofit sector.

Q: What made you choose ASU? 

A: I graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2001 and that year moved to New York City to pursue a career in the magazine industry. As an ASU alumna, I have an allegiance to the university and while researching programs, I found ASU’s online degree program to be one of the nation’s most innovative and rewarding.

Q: Is there an ASU faculty member who was particularly influential?  

A: At the beginning of my program, Dr. Ashley Gimbal was incredibly encouraging and accessible. She helped guide and shape my experience at the beginning of my journey. During my capstone project, Dr. Lori Bednarchik championed my work and challenged me to make my project “epic.” These professors played an influential role in my success and made this a gratifying experience.

Q: What were the most useful classes you took?

A: I believe every human should take Communication and Conflict Transformation. It opened my eyes to not view conflict as an uncomfortable situation but to attempt to make it a transformative experience by seeing the issue from the other’s perspective. I was in awe during the Communication and Gender course, which revealed the existing gender disparities in the workplace. I learned how to lean in through reading Sheryl Sandberg’s work and find my seat at the table.

Q: How did this program help prepare you for your current career?

A: My capstone project was a needs assessment for families affected by autism during the pandemic. The data revealed that parents were struggling and overwhelmed with the demands of caretaking and working from home in this “new normal”. What I learned through the research helped position our organization to meet the direct needs of families and positioned us for the future. As a result of the research, ASSA offered virtual programming options to families in need to improve outcomes in trying times. Our organization knew exactly what families needed based on the results of the needs assessment. As a result of my capstone, I was able to evaluate the needs of ASSA and offer an immediate solution.

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

A: I learned more about perspective-taking, investigating how the world operates, and how to think critically. I surprised myself in terms of what I was capable of and through the completion of each course felt more confident in my abilities. Having the opportunity to participate in weekly discussions was one of the most enriching experiences. Dialogue through the course discussion groups provided fresh viewpoints from people around the world and challenged me to find my voice.

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

A: There is no shortage of opportunities that one can attempt to solve if given $40 million. In my role as the executive director of ASSA, I would designate those funds to the autism population as I am aware of the needs. I would provide funding to low-income and underserved autism families that are financially stressed with the cost of therapies. I would help schools increase their resources for their special education departments. I would be ecstatic to hand over a check to Intermountain Academy so they can complete an autism-friendly sensory park in downtown Tucson so families can join one another to build community.

Manager, Marketing and Communication, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication


ASU retiree becomes ASU graduate

November 23, 2020

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

Gina Deane celebrated her retirement in an unconventional way — by pursuing a college degree.  Gina Deane Gina Deane in one of the school’s labs, holding up a School of Human Evolution and Social Change T-shirt she won. Download Full Image

Deane held an incredible variety of roles during her career. The former clinical psychotherapist, IT manager and soon-to-be archaeologist advocates “just exploring.” After her most recent position at Arizona State University’s Business Technology Services, where she worked for 21 years, she decided it was time to pursue a passion she’s always had — archaeology. 

The Phoenix native is graduating in December with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change

She didn’t want the transition from work to retirement to feel too abrupt, so she worked part time as a grocery store bookkeeper while taking archaeology classes.

Having worked two decades at ASU, Deane said, “it’s a good place to work, and an even better place to get an education.” She frequently encouraged her staff to continue their education and personal development at the university.  

As an anthropology student, Deane was involved in several of the school’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeships. In fact, she’s spent so much time in the Teotihuacan Research Lab that she calls it her home away from home. 

Now, she eagerly awaits planned trips to Mexico. After assisting with projects in the lab on campus for two years, Deane is looking forward to visiting the Teotihuacan site. She also is planning to help with an archaeological survey in Mexico with a postdoctoral scholar.

A positive attitude is apparent in this life-long learner, complementing her mantra, “life is what you make of it, friend.”

She shared more about her research and studies at ASU.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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

Answer: I had my “aha” moment when I was just a girl. I watched a documentary on Louis Leakey and his discoveries in Olduvai Gorge, Ethiopia. I was hooked. Even though my career paths took different directions, I never lost my passion for archaeology. As retirement approached, I decided I was going to go for my degree and devote the next chapter of my life to my passion.

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

A: I didn’t think returning to school at my age would be easy, but I found there were several classes I took that really surprised me. I was required to take English, algebra and a language. But, it was part of my curriculum and I persevered. Also, the young students were very accepting of me which was a bit of a surprise. I figured they’d probably have some fun at my expense, but they didn’t. In fact, I made quite a few friends with the younger students.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for its outstanding reputation as a Research 1 institution and for its stance on issues of inclusion and acceptance. Also, having worked for ASU, I knew the curriculum would be first class all the way.

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

A: Many professors have given me great advice and assistance, and taught me what it means to be an archaeologist: Professor Michael E. Smith, Postdoctoral Research Associate Angela Huster, who is also my mentor, Assistant Research Professor Melissa Powell and Associate Professor Christopher Morehart. I’ve worked as an intern for both Smith and Huster for two years in the Teotihuacan Research Lab at SHESC. I’ve learned so much about “Teo,” as we call it, by updating databases, digitizing discovered artifacts and listening to the researchers' adventures.

While spending two semesters interning with Powell, I learned about curatorship of the artifacts, cataloging and sorting, and general museum ethics and practices. 

Morehart has given me the opportunity to view an excavation through the lens of his camera by organizing his excavation photos from his North Mexico Basin site. These experiences have made my education well-rounded and now I feel I can be an asset on any excavation site — surveying, excavating, cleaning, cataloging or sorting.

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

A: If you’re passionate about something, go after that degree! If I can do it at my age, you can do it at your age.

Taylor Woods

Communications program coordinator, School of Human Evolution and Social Change