Graduating with her master’s degree in history, student plunges into the world of research


December 7, 2020

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

Laura Harris Hales grew up on a dairy farm in Idaho with her large family who all shared a love for knowledge. Her memories consist of running barefoot in the grass, lively discussions at the dinner table and living in the country. Laura Harris Hales Laura Harris Hales is graduating with her master’s degree in history with a focus on North American history. Download Full Image

“Think Laura Ingalls Wilder and ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” said Hales. “Despite our closeness to the land, a college education was in the milk we drank. My dad worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a soil physiologist and my mother received her master’s degree in English as a nontraditional student. She was emphatic that her daughters graduate from college before pursuing any other endeavors. She did not need to coax, though, the desire to learn fills my soul and never seems to satiate.”

Hales is graduating with her master’s degree in history with a focus on North American history from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. She stumbled into the world of history unexpectedly about seven years ago and hasn’t turned back.

“I married an amateur historian who has written extensively on the history of religious groups that broke off of the Latter-day Saint Church after they ceased endorsing polygamy as well as on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy,” said Hales. “Shortly after we married, we collaborated on a condensed version of his three-volume tome on Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages.”

This led her to opportunities for speaking engagements, memberships in historical associations and academic conference presentations. A few years later, she invited some respected Latter-day Saint history scholars to collaborate on an anthology of Mormon history topics.

From her research in polygamy, she started a podcast called LDS Perspective Podcast.

“After a presentation in Sweden on Joseph Smith’s plural wives, one of the male audience members bemoaned the fact that there was practically no material on the topic available in his country,” said Hales. “By that time, my husband and I had put together a website that provided essays in written and audio formats. He asked me if I would be able to do the same for other Mormon history topics. When I began my podcast, there was nothing in that medium for those looking for nondevotional material on Latter-day Saint history.”

“The confidence gained while working on my anthology gave me the nerve to seek my first grant to begin producing my show and to get people to listen to it. The response has been more than I ever could have imagined.”

We caught up with Hales to ask her about her time as a graduate student. 

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

Answer: I attended an academic conference about three years ago and realized that I only had limited options in the field without a history degree. I sold the prospect quite easily to myself. Studying the past has always been an avocation. As a teenager, I would drive to the library, retrieve the bound vintage newspapers from the shelves, and gingerly turn the yellowing pages as I read about life in the 1900s. My undergraduate and first master’s degree diverted me from those inclinations, but my public history work steered me back to a familiar path.

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

A: It was a bit surprising to learn the extent to which scholars dispute history. It distills down to a matter of perspective. We do not always know the entire story, so ongoing research adds little brush strokes to a giant portrait of the past.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I had started an on-site program at a local university and the faculty and students did not quite know what to do with me as a nontraditional student. The staff at ASU never made an issue out of my age or questioned my ability to make valuable contributions to the field of history. In addition, I appreciate sharing discussions with cohorts who have a bit of professional experience.

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

A: Dr. Catherine O’Donnell taught me some great writing tips. First, she suggested that a light touch is best when critiquing authors’ works, such as in book reviews. Second, she reinforced the importance of simplicity in providing clarity instead of crowding sentences with clauses. Both pieces of advice have improved my writing.

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

A: Subscribe to Grammarly Plus. It is worth the money. It catches common grammatical errors, and it gives excellent advice on rewording awkward sentences. A history degree is essentially a writing degree with fantastic subject material.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In the immediate future, I plan on polishing a couple of papers for publishing in academic journals. I will also volunteer on a research project headed by several respected historians. I am hoping the internship will open some doors for me.

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

A: Curing COVID-19 would be fabulous.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

Graduating Jewish studies student hopes to build human connection


December 7, 2020

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

Growing up in Winslow, Arizona, Norma Jean Owens loved being around the diverse cultural experiences of pow wows, rodeos and meteor crater tours. But it was her mother’s dedication to helping her and her siblings have a better life in Phoenix that led Owens to pursue her academic studies in different fields. Norma Owens Norma Owens is graduating with a bachelor's degree in Jewish studies, a certificate in Hebrew and a teaching certificate. Download Full Image

“I am motivated by my late mother who did not have a higher-learning experience, but sought refuge in securing residence for her five children in the Phoenix inner-city housing project,” said Owens. “Eventually, she was able to accomplish her goal of purchasing our first home by her strong work ethic and determination.”

Owens started at Arizona State University in the 1980s and met her husband during her sophomore year. After getting married, they home-schooled their five children through the eighth grade. When their last daughter was in high school, she decided to return to complete her degree.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on business and English, 30 years after she began, but she didn’t stop there. Owens returned to ASU to earn a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, a certificate in Hebrew from the School of International Letters and Cultures and a teaching certificate from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Learning the culture and literature provided a global perspective of inclusivity, as the Jewish story can be found in all nations,” said Owens. “The sustainability of global resources such as water, agriculture and ecology, technology and medicine are at the forefront of Jewish research.”

Owens earned a scholarship to the Critical Languages Institute as well as the Jess Schwartz scholarship, Benjamin Goldberg Memorial scholarship and Jenny Norton and Bob Ramsey Religious Study in Israel scholarship.

Along with the scholarships she received as a student, Owens also created Histo-News Club, an academic service club to high school students at ASU in 2017. 

“For the past three years, we guided students in learning historical research by utilizing primary sources and various digitized tools,” said Owens. “The project is in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Museum History Unfolded program in Washington, D.C.”

As an outstanding graduating student this semester, she answered a few questions about her time at ASU.      

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

Answer: I registered for Judaism 101 with Dr. Norbert Samuelson, one of the first courses in my program. He sparked an "aha" lightbulb by his heart and passion of culture and religion coupled with his desire to see each student succeed. He had a back injury that was extremely painful for him to sit and move. He did not let this discomfort hinder the execution of the course, nor the transfer of knowledge to hungry students. He provided amazing feedback that made me grow in confidence to ask engaging questions on specific subjects. He retired the next semester, but his words, voice and passion have remained with me.

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

A: Success is more than an individual process. It requires a tribe of associates giving and receiving to accomplish it.  

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: ASU chose me. In my senior year at Tempe High School, our class was invited to meet several college students. They inspired our class and our counselors helped to register students who found value in the modeling of an ASU college student. I identified with the student in criminal justice studies, as social justice was a strength in this course of study.

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

A: Dr. Hava Samuelson, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been a mentor, a model and an academic inspiration. She taught me to love learning, value education, engage in a lifestyle of activism in interconnectivity and inclusivity and integrate sustainable and ecological opportunities. She would say, "As you acquire your degree, acquire skills, attitudes and values necessary to become a responsible citizen.”

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

A: “Education is not received, it is achieved.” — Anonymous. Each day is an opportunity to grow forward and stretch into success!

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

A: My hangout and place of study was the basement of the Language and Literature Building. It hosts several computer rooms, a podcast room and a critical think tank room with amazing technology. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will teach secondary English virtually as an online teacher.  

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

A: I would tackle "otherism," by investing money in educational programs that build connectivity through projects, community service, camps and peer groups that place students of mixed backgrounds, ethnicities and economic statuses together to build or create a sustainable project that benefits all people.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies