From ‘unschooled’ to undergraduate: How first-gen ASU student persevered to earn communication degree

April 19, 2021

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

For many first-generation students, navigating the world of academia can be challenging and filled with unknowns. For Molly Joy Lode, the task was made even more complicated by the fact she was raised in an “unschooling” environment, meaning she had no formal education growing up. Molly Joy Lode stands in her cap and gown on ASU Tempe campus Molly Joy Lode will graduate this spring with her bachelor's degree in communication from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Download Full Image

Before transferring to Arizona State University, Lode completed her GED – relying on YouTube to learn math – and attended a community college.

“I'm not gonna lie, it was very difficult. Growing up, I never learned any math beyond my basic times tables, so learning the math portion of the GED was definitely challenging,” said Lode.

Lode, who will graduate this spring with her bachelor’s degree in communication from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said she always loved the idea of learning and academia as a child but lacked the context to pursue it. Then at 18, she married someone from her church.

“I figured I would never go to college, and I thought I would have to rely on a spouse to make ends meet. But then after a few months of that, it just wasn't working out. Something just kind of clicked in me. And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I need to make a change here. I want to be independent. I want to be educated,’” she said. "I left that relationship because he did not want me to have an education. He told me that he would divorce me if I got smarter than him, so I just divorced him and went to school instead."

From there Lode said she decided to throw herself right into the fire — she left her hometown of Helena, Montana, sought out a large institution, and quickly worked to learn the social dynamics of how to be successful in a classroom, how to make friends and how to live a life with structure and deadlines.

“I was able to adapt, I don't know how, but I was able to figure it out,” she said. “It was definitely very difficult though.”

Despite the difficulty, Lode has a message of encouragement for others with similar backgrounds: You can do it.

“If there's anybody out there who has a similar background to me, maybe they didn't have much education growing up or their parents were unschoolers like mine were or maybe they are disadvantaged and didn't have access to a good school system or something like that … if there are people out there with those kinds of backgrounds, wondering if they can make it through college, I want them to know that it is possible. If I can do it, they can do it.”

Lode shared more about her experiences at ASU.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I wanted warm weather, of course, so that was a huge draw. I was also kind of attracted to the idea of being at a very big public university. I thought I would throw myself right in and see what it was like to be in a city and around a lot of people.

Q: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study communication or what drew you to the degree program?

A: While studying engineering, I was working with a team and loved writing the reports. I really loved communicating between people and deciphering the engineer-speak and putting it into presentations and boiling down information into easy-to-read things. And that's when I realized that while I loved engineering, what I excelled most in was communication and I realized I could be successful as a technical communicator.

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

A: My first semester here was very overwhelming, I was coming from a small town and of course I was fairly lonely growing up, so I never had been around the number of people that ASU has. The first semester, I pretty much couldn't handle it. I was hiding in my apartment and was dealing with a lot of anxiety about it, but slowly I started to come out of my shell and was able to walk to class without feeling overwhelmed. Being here has helped me to feel more comfortable in the world in general, because there's just such a high volume of people here and so many different, diverse people, so it gave me a good cross section of humanity in general where I could just learn how to be comfortable in pretty much any environment. Now as I'm graduating, I feel like I'm equipped to go work anywhere in the world because I've been exposed to so many different cultures and so many different ideas and ways of being.

Q: How did you overcome the obstacles you experienced along your journey?

A: The No. 1 biggest obstacle I encountered was my own mental health. I was struggling with a lot of anxiety when I first moved here and that remained fairly consistent even up until now. I still struggle with anxiety quite a lot. The mental health services here at ASU have really been just amazing. The counseling services I have used throughout my time here connected to all sorts of really good resources. Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services really helped me out a lot too with getting the accommodations I needed to succeed.

Q: Did you receive any scholarships or financial support while at ASU? If yes, how did those impact your experience?

A: I got a Pell grant but my biggest contributor has been vocational rehab through the state of Arizona. I was able to get assistance because they were aware of my unconventional background and wanted to help me become a productive member of society, so they funded most of my education. It meant the world to me because trying to acclimate to being in a university after having virtually no experience in that environment and dealing with mental health issues while worrying about living expenses and things like that was the last thing that I wanted on my plate. Having that aid to get through school comfortably was incredibly important. I don't think I would have made it this far without that assistance.

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

A: The ASU Outdoors Club connected me with all sorts of amazing hiking experiences. I got to go spelunking for the first time, and the club was a very enriching aspect of ASU for me.

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

A: Professor Steven Corman taught me to be forgiving of myself. He didn't specifically coach me on this, but rather the grace that he consistently extended to me when I was struggling with my work had a huge impact on the way I treated myself. He really showed me the value of cutting myself some slack when necessary. Also Professor Jeffrey Kassing, he was the first professor to suggest graduate school to me. It meant a lot to know that someone saw that potential in me and it completely changed my perception of what my future may hold for me.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I would like to attend graduate school this August and earn my Master of Science in technical communication. It is my dream to work as a project manager and communicator in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries. My goal is to create methods of communication and education that are inclusive of all educational backgrounds and skill levels so that anyone interested in STEM can have a fair chance to participate meaningfully. I believe that facilitating cohesion and collaboration between people of all abilities and backgrounds is the key to true innovation in STEM. If I can one day give a voice or an opportunity to someone who may otherwise be overlooked (perhaps because of a background similar to my own), it will be all worth it.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Active military member, student graduates with two degrees, eye toward a doctorate

April 19, 2021

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

Chad Brack grew up on a small farm just outside the city of Duncan, Oklahoma. Both of his parents were teachers and encouraged him to take his education seriously. After graduating in 1996 as co-valedictorian, Brack received a full academic scholarship to Oklahoma State University. Chad Brack Chad Brack is earning concurrent bachelor's degrees in religious studies and philosophy. Download Full Image

“Going to college was never something I questioned,” Brack said. “My family and I simply assumed that earning a degree would be my next step after high school. That said, I wasn’t sure who or what I wanted to be. I changed my major several times and graduated in 2001 with a Bachelor of Science degree in international business with minors in marketing and German, but business did not appeal to me.”

He continued to work as a kitchen supervisor until 2003 when he decided to enlist in the Army. At the time he enlisted, he joined a new program that guaranteed him a chance to try out for special forces assessment and selection after successfully completing infantry school and the basic airborne course.

“I signed up mainly to learn something about myself and to gain some life experience,” Brack said. “I wanted to challenge myself in a new way by testing my mental and physical fortitude. Somehow, I’ve ended up remaining on active duty for nearly 18 years at this point.” 

During the duration of his career, he was assigned to special operations units at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, deployed to Afghanistan five times and decided to enroll in school once again with the aid of the Montgomery GI Bill.

Brack has remained an active military member while earning his concurrent bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies online from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

“Figuring out how to balance work and school was certainly a challenge,” Brack said. “Fortunately for me, since starting classes at ASU, I’ve been in positions that did not require me to deploy or travel frequently. I spent most of my spare time studying, especially during the weekends, because I wanted to engage with classroom materials as fully as possible.”

While at ASU, Brack earned the SHPRS Friends of Philosophy Scholarship, SHPRS Teaching Assistantship and the Bennie Adkins Foundation Educational Scholarship.

Brack is graduating this semester with his degrees and will be retiring from the military in two years. We caught up with him to talk about his experience at ASU and about his future plans.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: Even from a young age, I’ve always been interested in philosophy and religion but not necessarily in an academic sense. In 2014, while working on a research project for National Defense University, I became familiar with the philosophical literature related to the epistemology of conspiracy theories. Around the same time, I subscribed to Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s Closer to Truth, a series in which Kuhn discusses philosophy, religion and science with the world’s leading scholars. I was hooked. I knew pursuing a PhD in philosophy was the right path for me, so I developed a plan to accomplish that goal. Earning a bachelor’s degree in the discipline was the first step in my plan because I knew formal study in philosophy would give me the necessary background to succeed in graduate school. This is what led me to ASU’s online program. One year later, I declared a concurrent degree in religious studies because I enjoyed my coursework so much and the religious studies offerings looked incredibly interesting.

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

A: A better question would be, “What is something that did not surprise you or change your perspective?” I already had a bachelor’s degree when I joined ASU, so I got to waive all general requirements. That meant I could focus exclusively on courses related to my majors. I cannot think of a single course that didn’t challenge me or my views in some way. My philosophy courses were simply outstanding. They taught me to think more critically and to argue with rigor and clarity. My religious studies classes were inspirational and transformative. They gave me a completely new perspective on religion and spirituality. To say that the two courses of study changed me as a person would be an understatement. A more concrete example of how my perspective shifted would be my newfound appreciation for ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. After taking four courses related to the subject, I’ve come away with respect and admiration for how incredibly influential and innovative these ancient philosophers were. I’m also fascinated by Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, such as Hindu Vedic teachings and Buddhist conceptions of self and consciousness.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for two reasons. First, ASU had by far the best program for my needs. I compared ASU’s course offerings with several other online philosophy programs, and ASU blew the others out of the water. ASU offers a large and diverse selection of courses every session, so I was able to take exactly the courses I wanted, exactly when I wanted to take them. I could not have done that with any other program. I also liked ASU’s style of online classes because I could work through course content according to my own schedule as opposed to being locked into specific meeting times. Second, the ASU advisers won me over, especially Tamara Petersen, who was my enrollment adviser. Tamara took the time to talk me through the process, to answer all my questions, and to get me admitted in time to start classes on short notice. She took an active interest in my goals, unlike the people I talked to at other schools. The academic advisers at SHPRS were also great. I always felt confident that Michael Currey, Amy Kaiman and Manisha Master would be there for me when I needed them.

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

A: Without question, Dr. Thad Botham was my most influential professor. During my first semester, I took Thad’s PHI 300 course on philosophical argumentation and exposition. His class is outstanding because it teaches students how to extract, understand and formulate arguments, which is an essential skill in the discipline. Later, I took Thad’s PHI 318 course on philosophy of religion. Thad took me under his wing and became a true mentor when I told him about my interest in pursuing a PhD. He even arranged for me to be a teaching assistant in his PHI 300 and PHI 318 courses the next summer, which was a valuable and rewarding experience. Thad wasn’t my only influential professor, though. In the philosophy department, Dr. Tom Blackson, Dr. Jeff Watson and Dr. Sandra Woien each inspired me in different ways. Tom’s seminars on ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy honed my ability to engage with academic scholarship. Jeff’s courses on metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind were some of the most thorough, interesting and challenging courses I’ve taken. Sandra’s seminar on Stoicism encouraged me to think about philosophy in a different way and hosted the best peer discussions of any class. In the religious studies department, Dr. Doe Daughtrey taught me to think carefully about which categories of study apply to specific projects, and Dr. Janet Carleton demonstrated the power of a multidisciplinary approach in her outstanding course on ritual, symbol and myth. Dr. Charles Barfoot, Dr. Joel Gereboff and Dr. Shawn McAvoy gave me the leeway to explore my own interests in every assignment and they each encouraged me to continue my studies in graduate school. I can’t say which lesson was the most “important,” but all of them were valuable to me. SHPRS has some truly great teachers and excellent course content.

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

A: I have four pieces of “best” advice. First, take your classes seriously. I’ve found that the more work you put in, the more you learn. Second, have a work plan whether that means dedicating a certain amount of time to study every night or setting up a detailed schedule. The better organized you are, the easier it will be to accomplish your tasks. Third, know yourself. If you tend to procrastinate, make sure you take that into consideration. If you’re a slow reader or a slow writer, plan for that too. I’ve had to adjust my own study schedule several times over the last couple of years to better match my actual study habits. Finally, exercise. I can get a little obsessive with my projects, so I’ve had to force myself to take exercise breaks. I’ve found that doing some physical activity always helps me to reenergize, but it never hurts my progress.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite study spot is at home on my couch next to my dogs. I need a quiet place without distractions, so I wouldn’t dream of trying to study in public. Don’t tell my boss, but I also snuck in some study time at work.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to start working on a writing sample for PhD applications. My wife recently completed her MD/PhD at the University of Kentucky and will be moving to the University of California, San Diego, to begin her residency this summer. When I retire from the military in 2023, I will join my wife in San Diego and, hopefully, start a PhD program at UCSD or another school in the area.

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

A: There are a host of problems plaguing the creatures on our planet, many of which result from human carelessness or recklessness. I’m not sure $40 million would go very far toward solving any of those issues, but $40 million could definitely help to protect the planet as a whole. I would donate the money to the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to detecting asteroids and protecting Earth from impacts. The B612 Foundation aims to build and launch a heliocentric space observatory capable of locating and tracking potentially deadly asteroids before it’s too late. In my opinion, that is a worthy cause; it might just save us all.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies