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First-gen Sun Devil and Victoria Foundation awardee dedicates her career to lifting up other students

Sylvia Symonds in her doctoral hood and robe at ASU's Tempe campus

Victoria Foundation Award winner Sylvia Symonds is also celebrating earning her doctorate during fall 2020 commencement.

December 10, 2020

When Sylvia Symonds sees the students affected by her extensive work on building access to higher education for low-income and first-generation students, she sees herself. 

“I’m not so different than so many of our students who are doing everything they can to achieve their higher education goals,” Symonds said. 

Symonds, who is the associate vice president for outreach for Access ASU, earned the 2020 Edith Sayre Auslander Outstanding Support of Hispanic Issues in Higher Education Award from the Victoria Foundation. A virtual ceremony held Nov. 18 honored her alongside the other awardees, which included fellow Sun Devils and professors Jean M. Andino and Sarah Amira De La Garza

Symonds said she is deeply honored by the award because of the work it acknowledges and because of the foundation’s history. 

“The Victoria Foundation Awards has been a longtime favorite of mine, not only because it is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the great work going on in our community but also because of what the foundation stands for. Knowing that the Victoria Foundation was named for Pete Garcia's mother has special meaning to me,” Symonds said.

Pete Garcia was a longtime community leader who led Chicanos Por La Causa for more than 20 years.

Symonds was raised by a single mother who came to the United States from Mexico as a girl. Her mother learned English quickly so she could go to high school and began working full-time cleaning houses before working at Motorola and later for 20 years at ASU. 

“Although she never had the opportunity to go to college, my mom and other family members set an expectation that I would go to college from a very young age,” Symonds said. 

After years of working — cleaning houses and offices since age 13 and working various fast food and student employment jobs in college — Symonds graduated from Arizona State University with a BA in political science and history. She went on to earn her MA in political science from California State University, Fullerton and recently completed her PhD in educational policy and evaluation from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. 

“Even through all these various jobs, my mom never let me lose sight of the fact that I needed to graduate from college to have access to opportunities she could only dream about,” she said. 

Symonds began her higher education career at Cal State, Fullerton, where she was the director of the Southern California Urban Debate League, dedicated to increasing opportunities for underserved high school students to compete in policy debate, the co-director of forensics and taught debate, which she had excelled in during her undergraduate work at ASU. In 2007 she began coordinating the TRIO Student Support Services Program at South Mountain Community College before returning to her Sun Devil roots to work with Educational Outreach and Student Services, including leadership roles with TRIO and Access ASU. 

Under Symonds’ leadership, Access ASU created Future Sun Devil Family Day, bilingual events hosted at all ASU campuses during the academic year that offer families the opportunity to learn key information for college preparation. She was also instrumental in leading a team to expand summer program offerings for students from diverse backgrounds as well as securing two high-dollar grants to improve higher education outcomes for low-income students: the $7 million GEAR UP grant and the $8.7 million Network for School Improvement grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

She has made significant contributions to advancing tech tools for high school students and families via ASU’s me3, an online interactive major and career quiz that students can take to explore their interests, options and future, and Ask Benji, the first texting chatbot supporting FAFSA completion for high school students.

“For the last 20 years I’ve had the honor and privilege to walk alongside many first-generation, low-income and students of color as they pursue their goals of graduating with their college degrees. These students bring many assets with them, including resilience, passion, creativity and an abiding commitment to pay it forward to their families and communities,” she said. “Going to college changed my life. ... As a community we must continue to create on-ramps for more underrepresented students to access higher education and to successfully graduate with their degree or credential.”

Symonds was nominated for her Victoria Foundation award by her colleagues at Access ASU. Vice President for Outreach Partnerships Edmundo Hidalgo said Symonds is passionate about access and success for students and that her strong work ethic, intelligence and passion for serving low-income students make her a strong example of what a higher education leader should embody.

“In many ways Sylvia looks at every young person as herself and wants to make sure they have the opportunities she had and that they don’t struggle as much as she struggled in her journey,” he said. “Her engagement with students is to not only reassure them and their families but also to help them shape that vision and that dream. They see someone like her and what she can accomplish through education; they see that they can as well.”

Hidalgo pointed out that last year, her team served more than 120,000 students, families and educators and saw increases in students enrolling directly to ASU from school districts who partner with Access ASU. He admires that Symonds makes sure to mentor students and instill in them the value that they should give back to the community and lift up those who are coming up behind them. 

“It’s beyond a job; it’s a personal passion for her. It’s that individuals have to do good,” he said. 

The specific award Symonds earned was also significant, Hidalgo said. It was named for former Arizona Board of Regents member Edith Sayre Auslander, who created opportunities for underrepresented communities. 

“She was someone who collaborated to make sure that resources, capacity and focus ultimately helped alter universities to have a diverse student population,” Hidalgo said. “We saw the work and commitment that Sylvia represents. She’s a collaborator and brings others to the table for the benefit of not only ASU but also those students and their families.”

Hidalgo said the history of the foundation is also notable relating to Symonds’ work. The Victoria Foundation was created to identify and recognize individuals who are truly making a difference in our community. He said the individuals who were recognized alongside Symonds are also esteemed.

“Sylvia not only represents those same accomplishments, but in her young career she’s following in the footsteps of many of the women who were also recognized as honorees. It’s a great recognition and also one that inspires us to do more and do better. That’s what this will represent for Sylvia and the opportunity to grow and have more impact,” he said. 

There’s more to come from Symonds and from Access ASU, which is a key contributor to statewide initiatives such as Achieve60AZ, Project Benji and more and collaborates with a long list of community partners to find the most innovative and effective ways to reach students and change lives through education. 

“Leaders from K–12 postsecondary institutions, nonprofit organizations, foundations, private sector and government are already engaging in helping move our postsecondary attainment goal via the great work of Achieve60AZ among other local, regional and statewide initiatives,” she said. “It is going to take all of us to ensure that our Arizona students have the opportunities they deserve.”

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