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

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.


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.

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.

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