First-gen ASU student finds her calling in serving vulnerable communities

First-generation ASU student Kara Gardner found her calling in serving vulnerable communities.


In her first year at Arizona State University, first-generation student Kara Gardner was a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Upon taking a course on gender and communication in her first semester, her passion for science quickly evolved to address societal issues.

“In the class we had one conversation that distinctly stands out to me. We were talking about gender problems with the military, specifically the fitness tests and standards that must be met to qualify to serve,” Gardner said. “My teacher said, ‘Why is that the standard?’ That stood out to me and that was when I really started questioning every structure and all of the narratives that I've been told.

“Once I started asking the question of who benefits from my beliefs — that really changed how I see and process the world. This veil was kind of lifted and I saw insidious events of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia. I think once I started uncovering that, I started gaining interest in all of these various facets.”

This experience prompted her to explore different majors that better incorporated the technical aspects and societal impacts of science. With the help of her adviser, Gardner discovered the biology and society program in the School of Life Sciences.

With her change of major, she found ways to explore her many varying interests through courses, internships and volunteer opportunities — many of which address equity and issues facing vulnerable populations. 

As a volunteer with Gathering Humanity, a local nonprofit that provides essential goods to those experiencing resettlement and to other community members in need, Gardner serves as a leader in assisting the local refugee population. She was also selected as a Barrett, The Honors College at ASU student participant in ASU’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, where she worked closely with residents at the Maricopa Reentry Center addressing feminism and issues of toxic masculinity in the community.

“I’ve tried to dabble in all these different areas and I’ve found that that's where I feel my fire inside — when I work for those sort of organizations and have these kinds of experiences. So wherever that may take me, that's where I'm motivated, at least right now,” she said.

Gardner had also planned on studying abroad in Seville, Spain, in early 2021 to work on becoming fluent in Spanish, but her plans were thwarted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this setback, she has remained optimistic and still aspires to one day study abroad with hopes to eventually serve in the Peace Corps.

“I'm a planner by nature but I've learned from COVID that plans often are spoiled. From that I’ve learned resiliency and being able to quickly transition when things don't work out as planned,” she said.

Now, as she nears completion of her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a justice studies minor, Gardner is eager to pursue a master’s degree in bioscience ethics, policy and law. 

In her master’s degree program, Gardner will research the intersection of bioethics law and regulations and birth control technology, specifically focusing on long-acting reversible contraception and the lack of male birth control on the market. Her research will be supported by a $15,000 scholarship from The Next Edison Foundation.

Gardner shared her experiences, advice for students and plans for the future.

Question: What skills or experiences have you gained from your time in The College that will help you achieve your future goals in life?

Answer: I think the biggest thing about being in The College is my own self-refinement that I've experienced in the way that I think about things, the beliefs that I hold and how I question myself. A lot of that has to do with the people I've been introduced to and the connections that I've made and that exposure to very diverse ways of thinking, backgrounds and experiences. Perseverance has also been a huge skill gained from doing research to getting my first "C" when I was a freshman. Having those humbling moments and then pushing through them really helped me to grow. The only way I was able to do that was through the network that I created and the support system I was able to fall back on. In addition, I’ve improved my writing skills and communication skills through scholarship applications, research and assignments. I think all of those skills that I've learned will absolutely help me wherever I go. 

Q: Have you encountered any challenges during your time at ASU? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: I've worked several jobs at the same time throughout my time at ASU, a lot of restaurant jobs and I was a residential assistant. I’ve worked other on-campus desk jobs and summer jobs to pull it all together. I normally work at least one, if not two, jobs and that's on top of the unpaid tutoring, teaching or volunteering I’m doing. So balancing all of that has been challenging at times. I also had some challenges working through my thesis. I've done research before, but I hadn't done qualitative research before. It was stressful to learn a different practice of research in the middle of doing all my other coursework. But I was able to get through it through the support system that I created. Relying on people to know more than me and being kind of humble in that and actually asking for help and not being intimidated to say that I really have no idea what I’m doing. It's a learning process and if you're doing it right you should at some point not know what you're doing.

Q: How will the Next Edison Foundation scholarship make a difference in your college experience?

A: I'm still shocked about it and so grateful for it. I'm a first-generation college student so it's a blessing to have been considered. I don't have words to express the stress and anxiety alleviated with this scholarship. I would have spent hundreds of hours in a restaurant trying to make tips and make ends meet trying to pay off loans. The whole point of grad school is to immerse yourself in your research or your applied project so I'm absolutely thrilled to just be able to immerse myself in what I'm researching and really spend the time refining my thoughts and getting drafts out earlier and getting into the research process more. It's changed my life and it's definitely altered my path and what I considered possible.

Q: What advice would you give to new students or what do you wish you had known coming into The College?

A: Take a few minutes every day to look at what's going on at ASU and see what sparks your interest. Go to just one meeting or email someone for a syllabus for a class that you're interested in. Get that exposure to different ideas and fields while you can. Don't be afraid to ask questions. The worst thing that can happen is someone says no, and then you're back to where you started. You're going to regret the things you don't ask for instead of being like, “Well, I'm glad I asked.” Also if something doesn't feel right, change it. I didn't feel right with my major and I felt very constricted and that I should do this to make other people proud, I should do this because I told other people about it. But you have to think about yourself. What will make you proud? What will make you radiate? What will make you feel satisfied in the time and the resources and the money that you're spending?

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: I’m unsure, I think a lot of it depends on my openness to different opportunities to try different things and where I go to law school, because that kind of sets the foundation for what sort of networking I'm able to do and what sort of opportunities are presented to me through either the people that I meet or what I'm able to do at the school. I think it also depends on how my Peace Corps journey shapes me in terms of if some other passion of mine is ignited while I'm there, or if I really fall in love with working abroad with vulnerable populations. It really is kind of up in the air right now.

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