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First-gen grad earns dual degrees in anthropology, history from ASU


Raelene Vasquez stands with family

Raelene Velasquez is pictured with her son Xavier Rodriguez, left, and husband Felix Rodriguez, right. Velasquez graduated this fall with dual degrees in anthropology and history from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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December 17, 2020

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

This fall, Raelene Velasquez became the first in her family to graduate from a university, earning dual degrees in anthropology and history from Arizona State University. In her pursuit of higher education, Velasquez overcame a number of obstacles.

At 18 years old, Velasquez married her first husband and dropped out of college. Soon after, she became a single mother and providing for her son became her sole focus.

“I became a single mother at the age of 20 and providing for my son was all I thought about. I met my current husband when I was 23 and he was mine and my son's blessing,” Velasquez said. “He became the father my son needed and my partner in life.”

Velasquez’s husband was in the Navy and stationed overseas, so she often found herself alone, raising her son. She said she discussed returning to school, but when her husband left the Navy, he began his academic journey first.

“I waited and let him get his education started. At the end of 2017, I told my husband I wasn't going to wait anymore and I wanted to start school,” she said. “His response was ‘Absolutely, you deserve it.’ So, my journey began and in three years I was able to complete both degrees and graduate with honors. Neither of my parents graduated from college so this was also a very big achievement for my family.”

Velasquez shared more about her experience at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Question: How did you overcome the obstacles you experienced on your path to ASU? 

Answer: I was 32 when I started so I had been out of school for just over 10 years. I had to study harder than normal so that I could stay on top of everything. My anxiety caught up with me more often than I thought it would. Having my success coach and tutoring available on a regular basis really gave me some peace of mind and helped me get through difficult moments.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My friend’s sister earned her degree online and she had nothing but good things to say about ASU. I looked it up and when I had my first conversation with an adviser it just felt right.

Q: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study anthropology and history? 

A: I have always been fascinated by history, so that was a given as a major for me, but when I realized I could get a second degree I told my adviser I was interested in ancient civilizations and digging up the past and he suggested anthropology. It just sounded fun so I added that and I am so glad that I did. I have so many questions about my own heritage and culture so I think that is why I am so fascinated with history and studying ancient civilizations and cultures. One day I hope to learn my paternal origins and where we are from so that I can have some closure and have the answers to all of my questions.

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

A: In studying anthropology, I learned that there are so many ways to learn about a person through their remains and through that person, we can also learn about different cultures and civilizations. I was very excited and surprised to learn about the extensive research that ASU is involved with and the professors who have made amazing discoveries.

Q: Were there any clubs or organizations that positively impacted your ASU experience? 

A: American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS) was a great group for me to be a part of. Having their support and words of encouragement throughout my journey made me feel like I belonged and that I fit in.

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

A: You will come across some days where you feel like quitting and like it's too much to handle, but you have to push through those difficult days and remember that the things you have to work the hardest for give you the greatest reward. Be confident and believe in your ability to accomplish anything you put your mind to. Celebrate your small wins and be proud of every accomplishment, you deserve it!

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I plan to start my master's degree in January in special education. I love working with at-risk youth, and many of them have needs that have gone overlooked or unnoticed. I want to make a difference in the future of our society and show them that despite where they come from they can still be someone and achieve their goals.

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