Sociology grad plans to fight injustice and inequality through law career

April 19, 2021

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

Ayesha Ahsan attended a STEM high school and always thought she would go into the medical field, but after taking a few classes, she realized she wasn’t happy and couldn’t see herself as a doctor. She knew she wanted to help people but wasn’t sure how. She took a sociology class with Jennifer Harrison and fell in love with the subject. Ayesha Ahsan Photo courtesy of Ayesha Ahsan Download Full Image

“Dr. Harrison was a really big part of my time at ASU,” Ahsan said. “She helped guide me. Sociology really aligned with my interests. Eventually she reached out to me to let me know she noticed the great work I was doing in her classes and asked if I would be a TA for her. It really meant a lot to me for her to see my potential. I really wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”

Ahsan was accepted into the Leadership Scholarship Program and Barrett, The Honors College and is graduating with dual degrees in sociology and economics this spring.

To new students coming to ASU, she says, “I know it’s really overwhelming to see people who look like they know what they want and have their lives together and they have a plan set out. A lot of us are struggling and it’s OK to change plans. Doing what you love and being happy is all that matters.”

Ahsan has answered a few questions about her experience at ASU.

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

Answer: This is a difficult question because I don’t think I experienced a single moment in which everything fell into place for me. My experiences as a woman of color and a first-generation American fueled me to learn about issues of inequity. Sociology was an addition to my economics major, which, while I found fascinating, lacked the “humanized” approach that I was seeking, so sociology felt like a natural fit as it fulfilled my interest in learning about the science behind inequality.

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

A: Despite having a marginalized identity, I grew up in a relatively privileged household. I was not exposed to many of the inequities and the injustices that other marginalized folks are. During my time at ASU, I had the opportunity of meeting people with vastly different backgrounds and experiences than me, and the interactions that I had with those individuals drastically impacted my social and political views. I was surprised to learn about how prevalent many issues are and how they’re not as “distant” as we make them out to be. Racism, food insecurity and education inequity are among the myriad issues prevalent in our own neighborhoods. It may seem like a simple thing to grasp, but I was genuinely shocked to learn precisely how pervasive injustice is. Out of everything I learned during my time at ASU, this is one of the greatest driving forces behind my goal of a career in public service.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up quite close to ASU, so I always knew that I would attend it, at least for my undergraduate degree. I did toy with the idea of attending an out-of-state university and applied to some schools, but ultimately chose ASU because it felt familiar and comfortable. I also was accepted into the Leadership Scholarship Program and Barrett, The Honors College, which ultimately solidified my decision to attend ASU.

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

A: Hands down, Dr. Jennifer Harrison. I have taken many sociology courses with her and had the opportunity to work with her as a teaching assistant and on my honors thesis. In academic settings, we are often guilty of simply discussing and debating theories and moving on. Dr. Harrison always made a point to encourage her students to consider the consequences the ideas we discussed in her courses had on individuals and their communities. This allowed me to gain a much more nuanced understanding of the ideas presented and taught me to center empathy in my work.

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

A: Talk to your professors outside of class! I know it can be intimidating, and I still struggle to do it myself, but when I have done it, I’ve gained wonderful mentors and access to opportunities I would not have otherwise. Those moments filled with nerves and anxiety are almost always worth it.

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

A: The Changemaker Central Space in the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. I worked at Changemaker Central for two years during my time at ASU, so I have spent a lot of time in the space. It’s a great spot to study, have meetings or just relax. It’s open to the entire ASU community, so I highly recommend that anyone looking for a nice spot to hang out stop by!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’ll be starting a Juris Doctor degree program in the fall! I plan on pursuing a career in public interest law. While I’m unsure of what exactly that will look like, I ultimately hope to advocate for and bring justice to marginalized communities through my career.

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

A: This is a challenging question, but I think I would put it towards housing and food insecurity. A lot of the violence and instability that many communities face is due to a lack of access to basic resources, such as shelter and sustenance. In order to address the larger issues that we are being confronted by, we need to address those issues’ root causes. By providing basic resources to communities in need, we can allow them to expand their well-being by pursuing education, employment and other paths to prosperity, rather than forcing them to exhaust their energy on providing basic necessities for themselves and their families.

Shelley Linford

Marketing and Communications Manager, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

ASU grad inspires on and off the court with her 'mamba mentality'

April 19, 2021

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

Martiana Byrd has a passion for basketball and writing. When she was accepted to ASU, she first chose to major in creative writing. She was also offered a basketball coaching position with the city of Tempe. That coaching position sparked another passion: working with youth. Right then, she decided to change her major to family and human development, but committed to never stop writing. Martiana Byrd Martiana Byrd. Download Full Image

“I strongly enjoy working with youth,” she said. “And I absolutely love helping others. I don't know if I would have gotten the idea to change my major when I did if it wasn't for my first opportunity to work for the city of Tempe. Thank you, Keyon Cornejo, for offering me my first job ever and for giving me my ‘alley oop’. That ‘aha’ moment has turned into something magical.”

Byrd has channeled her talent in creative writing to start her own writing business. She also started a Phoenix-based nonprofit for youth called H^2O, which stands for Humility and Hustle Creates Opportunities. Through H^2O, she continues to coach youth sports and facilitate change in the lives of the young people she works with.

Basketball has had a huge influence in Byrd's life. She has looked up to many professional players on and off the court, including Kobe Bryant, whose mantra of the “mamba mentality” has stuck with her. It’s a mentality that demands you live your life without fear and with purpose no matter what happens – the good and the bad. To never quit and to keep going has inspired Byrd in her own life and she uses this mentality to influence those she works with.

A first-generation graduate, she is graduating this spring with a degree in family and human development. Learn more about Byrd as she answers a few questions about her experience at ASU.

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

Answer: I've learned a lot while at ASU but my entire perspective on life is what changed the most. I've changed how I think, how I go about things, and my care for others has increased. In 2012, I moved to Arizona to attend ASU and began creating a new life for myself at the age of 17. If you think about it, that's crazy! I had to figure out this thing called life in an entirely new state, away from all of my family and friends. To be honest, I still don't completely have it all figured out, but ASU has some amazing staff members and students who have helped me along the way. I've learned that there's much more life outside of your hometown. In a way, my perspective on family has changed while at ASU also. I've met some amazing individuals while in Arizona. I've gained several friends and they've turned into my Arizona family. I've invested a lot of my time, energy and love into my Arizona family. Without a doubt, they've always given it right back to me. Now, my perspective on family is that family doesn't always have to share the same blood as you. For me, family is those that care for you, honor you, support you and love you, by choice. Needless to say, I don't know how I would have gotten through this long journey without all of my family and friends. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Where I'm from, there's diversity everywhere you go in the Bay Area. I simply wanted to pick a new home that would replicate the Bay Area in that way. If you didn't know, ASU is the home of diversity. 

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

A: I've never had someone outside of my family and friends that believes in me and supports me as much as Denise Bodman, PhD. It was different for me, but she taught me a lesson, "allow others to do for you as you do for others.” She's been there for me schoolwise, personally and with my businesses. Call me lucky but I'm thrilled because I feel like I finally found a "me" in someone else. Denise's passion and genuine soul is what makes it easy for me to respect, appreciate and have so much love for her. I think ASU made one of the best decisions when they made this delightful woman a part of their team. I didn't know who she was or what I was in for when I first chose her class, but who knew it would be one of the best decisions I've ever made? Denise, may God continue to bless you and your golden heart as you continue to smile bright and be the good in this world. Thank you for being another mentor of mine, by choice. Family!

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

A: The best piece of advice I'd give to those that are still in school and genuinely want to get to the end of their educational journey is to never give up on yourself, even when you feel as if you have nothing else to give. It took me years, along with several difficulties and an abundance of no’s to get here, but I made it. I would also recommend that you build a trustworthy team, because your team that's full of family and friends should and will be the boost of energy that you will need to keep going. Obstacles in life will become harder and your appreciation for things will change. What most don't tell you is there's going to be a burst of changes within yourself. Allow those things to change you, but for the better. Remember, school is a part of your life story, but don't make it your entire life story. What I mean by that is we all need balance in life. I find it helpful to create a schedule and boundaries for school, work and the things you want to do and to stick at it, day by day. My last piece of advice is to never be afraid to use your story along the way. A friend of mine named Kosiba once told me to use my story when it came to building H^2O, its mission and my brands. She told me that I have an exceptional story and that I should use it to help others along the way. I think my story is valuable because I've mastered growth and balance. We all have our own stories and that's just it, it's ours. So, while you're creating your story, have fun. The long and hard days will come while you're still in school and even afterwards but find your balance and boundaries and be willing to grow through it all. Take care of yourself mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. When you have a good balance, growth becomes easier. 

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

A: I had two favorite spots on campus. One was the Memorial Union — and "A" mountain. When I lived on campus, I went up to "A" mountain about twice a week to either work out, read a book, write poetry, think about life or to simply enjoy the view. Occasionally, I will still make my way up to "A" mountain for those same reasons. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Grad school is definitely a part of my plans after graduation. However, I am taking some time off to find a financially stable job where I'm still able to help the youth and to focus more on my businesses before I go back. I have goals for my nonprofit, H^2O. I want to get my own building for H^2O and create basketball/volleyball courts and a soccer field inside. My vision for H^2O is now bigger than I first imagined. I want to find investors that are willing to invest in and support our mission. I want to find grants for my businesses, and I want to provide scholarships for student athletes that want to further their education and have dreams to attend college in their future. My plan is to provide student-athletes with the opportunities I didn't have and the ones they are looking for. I want to do everything in my power to make their transitions to and through college a lot easier than mine. So one day they'll be able to share their story, too. 

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

A: I always say, "If I could help everyone in the world, I would.” I mean that, and I've been on this journey to help as many people as I can for years. If I was given this opportunity, I would help the homeless. Sadly, I don't think $40 million would be enough to completely solve this heartbreaking problem on Earth but it would be a great start.

Shelley Linford

Marketing and Communications Manager, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics