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ASU grad uncovers a love of archaeology

ASU graduating student portrait Nicolas Hansen

Nicolas Hansen and family. Photograph courtesy of Nicolas Hansen.

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Nearly two decades after graduating from high school, Nicolas Hansen went back to school as an investment in his family’s future — discovering a passion for archaeology along the way.

Hansen is graduating from Arizona State University this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and as a student with Barrett, The Honors College.

Hansen met his wife at a writing workshop for aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers. He said being a pair of “starving artists” together was fun, but once they were expecting their first child, they decided to invest in education to provide more stability for their growing family.

Starting at a local community college, Hansen was majoring in English but took an elective class called “Buried Cities and Lost Tribes: Old World Archaeology.” He found it so interesting that he changed his major to anthropology.

Once Hansen transferred to ASU, he took two more courses that helped him realize his love for anthropology and archaeology. One was about hunter-gatherers taught by Foundation Professor Curtis Marean, and another was a lithic analysis class taught by Assistant Professor Kathryn Ranhorn.

Now, Hansen is on a path to learn everything he can about stone tool technologies used by our human ancestors. He’s learned a lot already.

He took the initiative to learn flintknapping and completed a research project about heat treatment in jasper, a local gemstone commonly used by past peoples to make tools. The study compared how the stone fractures differently before and after being heated.

The extensive research involved obtaining proper legal permissions, best practices for ethically collecting raw materials here in Arizona, and heating the stones then measuring how they fracture. He presented his findings at the Society for American Archaeology conference this spring.

While parenting and keeping up with schoolwork, Hansen also gains experience by working part time as a field technician with a local archaeology company.

After graduation, Hansen will work full time this summer and return to ASU for graduate school in the fall. He plans to earn a PhD in anthropology and wants to continue his career in academia studying human origins and stone technologies.

Hansen received the Transfer Achievement Award and Nita Siegman Scholarship.

He shared more about his academic journey and experience at ASU.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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

Answer: I have been continuously surprised by the level of mentorship and support I have received as part of the SHESC community. Both my professors and the graduate students I have met have been generous with their time and expertise, offering guidance and assistance that has allowed me to exceed my own expectations and achieve success on a level that would not have been possible on my own.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the Sun Program that guarantees admission for community college transfer students who maintain a certain GPA, and because I was accepted to Barrett, The Honors College. It wasn’t until I arrived and began taking courses that I narrowed the focus of my interests and realized how lucky I was to be at one of the top institutions for studying human origins.

Q: Did you experience a challenge or overcome an obstacle in pursuing your course of study?

A: Aside from being a nontraditional student returning to school after a nearly 20-year hiatus, my first child was born in the first semester of my freshman year. Keeping up with all my courses as a full-time student while also being primary caregiver to an active little boy has not been easy. The challenges of balancing school and family responsibilities has been extremely difficult, and I could not have managed it without the support of my wonderful wife.

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

A: Get involved. Don’t just show up for your classes and turn in your work. Talk to your professors, go to office hours, ask how you can participate in research, ask if you can be part of journal clubs (informal research discussion groups), get to know the graduate students in your field and look for special lectures and presentations outside of class. I was able to complete several research apprenticeships in my time as an undergraduate and I cannot overstate how valuable it has been for me, both in terms of learning experience and in connecting with mentors who have provided guidance and support in countless ways.

Q: What about advice for someone considering returning to school?

A: My advice for anyone else considering a return to higher education is to not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. I could never have navigated these last few years without a community of people out there to guide and assist me through the process. A graduate student named John Murray has really taken me under his wing and been an amazing mentor. He has taken the time to help me with so many things — from my own research project to grad school applications. There are great people out there like John who are willing to support and guide you because they had someone do it for them when they were starting out. I only hope I can be as good a mentor to someone else when my turn comes around.

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