First in social work, then in public administration, ASU grad was struck by desire to serve those who struggle

April 23, 2021

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

Tiffany Thornhill remembers deciding to pursue degrees in the fields that she did — social work as an undergraduate and social work and public administration as a concurrent graduate student — at two key moments in her life. Tiffany Thornhill, spring 2021, outstanding graduate, School of Public Affairs Tiffany Thornhill is the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate for the School of Public Affairs. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Thornhill Download Full Image

“I was working as an administrative assistant and realized that there was no room for myself to grow or evolve within the company as I only had a GED. So I decided to go back to school,” said Thornhill, the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Public Affairs, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“When I entered higher education I remembered a promise I made to myself when I was going through a rough patch in my life. Honestly, my life until probably around five years ago was rough. My childhood, teenage years and early adulthood were tragic and traumatic,” she said. “While going through all those challenges I was also searching for and praying for someone to see me underneath my struggles and lend a helping hand. No one ever did. It was then that I realized I needed to become the person I needed, but never had. There are so many people lost within the cracks of society and disregarded or deemed unworthy of help. I believe everyone deserves a chance to better themselves regardless of their past transgressions. That is why I ultimately pursued social work and became a helping professional.”

The Portland, Oregon, native’s second moment led her to focus her attention on addressing social and racial injustice while pursuing the degree she is receiving this year, a Master of Public Administration degree. She received her Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in May 2020.

“I began to dig into policy and realized there is an abundance of administrative evils working within the American administrative system. That is where I found a passion for understanding historical trauma as it relates to the Constitution and the various subsequent realms of structural racism and systemic oppression,” Thornhill said. “It was the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Dion Johnson that triggered my ‘aha moment’ and subsequent passion to dig deep into the historical injustices and traumas of the past. Understanding that will inform a framework or theory that can and will address the administrative evils within the American public administration system.”

Read on to learn more about Thornhill’s ASU journey:

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

Answer: I went on a service learning study abroad trip to Ghana while pursuing my MSW. Before I went to Ghana, I would allow others to speak over me, interrupt me and shut me down in classes when my thoughts or perspectives would be challenged. I only did that to avoid confrontation and keep the peace. While I was in Ghana, I realized that life is too short and time is not endless. I am valuable, my perspective is valid and I am not going to allow anyone to silence me or shut me down because they don’t agree with me. I’ve always been one to want to hear others’ perspectives, especially when they didn’t align with mine. But I didn’t set that standard for myself and the contributions I make. Africa changed that for me. I came home and began to assert myself even when I was nervous or afraid to speak. I’m extremely grateful for that experience and feel empowered to be the voice for not only myself but for others who have lost their voice and can’t find it. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was a Maricopa Nina Scholar with the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars program and had the opportunity to apply for the Passport program at ASU. I applied and was accepted into the program as an ASU Nina Scholar while pursuing my undergraduate degree. My tuition was fully paid for. I then transitioned directly into an advanced-standing concurrent MSW and Master of Public Administration program with Watts College. So I think it's safe to say that ASU chose me instead of me choosing it. 

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


  • During my bachelor of social work undergraduate journey, Brett Petersen taught me that compassion can take you a long way, even among people who don’t typically like you.
  • For my nonprofit leadership management minor, John Scola taught me the power and magic of everything fundraising and philanthropy.
  • During my MSW journey, Liz Athens taught me about my determination to help. She helped me see that I have a passion for helping humanity and maximizing my efforts to get the most done.
  • Sen. Kyrsten Sinema taught me to find the middle ground even when you disagree and to be open to hearing things from people I don’t agree with or even like.
  • During my MPA journey, Joanna Lucio taught me that perseverance will pay off along the way and to never lose sight of my dream, no matter what job I end up taking. Joshua Uebelherr taught me that statistics can be explained in layman’s terms, Elisa Bienenstock taught me to seek to understand the correlation and variance. Akheil Singla taught me that my perspective is important and needed in the spaces I’ve showed up in.
  • During my trip to Ghana, Duku Anokye (Nana) with the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences taught me that I, too, am strong, valuable and powerful. It was watching her strength, poise and beauty that empowered my understanding of my value and essence. Thank you, Nana!

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

A: Prioritize your responsibilities, both academic and personal. It’s so easy to get burnt out and catch senioritis, but that last semester is the most important one. It’s the culmination of your entire journey and your chance to showcase your skills and what you’ve learned. It’s so easy to conk out at the end and pump out mediocre work. You never know who’s watching you and paying attention to your efforts. Also, ASU is known for “innovation.” What is it that you are innovating? What change are you bringing and what addition can you make to fill a void or gap? If you figure this out, your passion will drive you and you will do amazing things in the world. Don’t judge yourself, and learn from your mistakes. The most important thing to understand about learning is it’s more about the process than the content. If you can understand the process of learning, you’ll be able to grasp whatever content that is presented to you. 

Q: Where was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?

A: Before COVID-19, my favorite place to meet friends and hang out would either be on the first floor of the University Center or on the second floor near the study rooms by the information desk and freight elevator. It was always a bit quieter and more peaceful over there. But, to be honest, I didn’t have much time to hang out on campus and study. Since COVID-19, my favorite place to study and meet with friends would have to be … Zoom! LOL

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning to work in the field for a year or two before applying for a doctoral program. I have a few research focuses and need some practical experience to help either narrow them down to one or combine them into one. I’m hoping to either work at a nonprofit organization, in higher education (at ASU) or in a public service organization (city, county, state). I’m also working with the National Association of Black Social Workers on establishing a local chapter here in Arizona. I have been honored with the role of president for our upcoming Valley Metro Association of Black Social Workers. A team of amazing helping professionals of Black African ancestry and I are currently recruiting charter members to assist us with our chapter affiliation. Anyone interested in joining can send us an email at:

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

A: I would tackle historical trauma and its detrimental effects on humanity ... economically, societally, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There are several ways to tackle this, but it first starts with understanding the detrimental impact settler colonialism has had on the people in America. There is no way to go back to where we were and fix things, but incorporating Indigenous practices into society will help bring healing and restoration to the pain and suffering humanity has endured for such a long time. Understanding the Indigenous aspects of culture, food, spirituality, family and education can provide the necessary paradigm shift needed to address the various disparities for those unable to obtain their Indigenous medicines and food. This will take a lot of time and effort as negative externalities of colonization include racism, sexism, substance abuse, murder, domestic violence, broken families, economic oppression, adverse health outcomes, illiteracy, classism, misogyny, housing instability, etc. There must be a complete restructuring of how society has operated for hundreds of years. But first, racism has to be exposed, addressed and dismantled.

In all honesty, $40 million would just scratch the surface in this area. Community organizations both for-profit and not-for-profit will need to be established to address each need individually, while understanding the intersectionality of them and seeking to educate society toward a place of healing and restructuring. There may already be agencies and organizations working to address these issues, but they lack funding and resources to further their visions and missions. A lot of that $40 million would definitely go to philanthropic efforts that help push forward the missions of already established nonprofit agencies addressing these disparities.

Thornhill served as a graduate service assistant as a Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholar.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Second-generation Sun Devil on how extracurricular opportunities enriched her college experience

April 23, 2021

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

Rachel Caldwell comes from a family of Sun Devils: Both of her parents are alumni, and her mom works at the university. Now, it’s Caldwell’s turn to carry on the legacy — this spring, she will graduate from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and women and gender studies with a minor in history and a disability studies certificate.  This spring, Rachel Caldwell will graduate from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and women and gender studies with a minor in history and a disability studies certificate. Download Full Image

In her senior year of high school she realized she had a passion for political science, and her interest in the topic only continued to grow through courses she took and other extracurricular opportunities she participated in at ASU, including Sun Devil Mock Trial, ASU's collegiate mock trial team.

“I had so many amazing opportunities to travel across the West Coast and improve my public speaking skills. Constantly performing in front of others helped boost my confidence,” she said. “I improved my ability to understand criminal and civil trials by constructing arguments, memorizing the Federal Rules of Evidence and practicing courtroom procedures. Aside from the professional development experience this provided, the five or six road trips I took to competitions each year fostered strong friendships with my teammates.”

She also participated in Undergraduate Student Government on the Tempe campus for two years, first as the director of government affairs and then as a senator for Barrett, The Honors College and co-chair of the Committee on University Affairs. 

“All of these experiences helped me connect with my community at ASU and introduced me to some very good friends,” she said. “The other Undergraduate Student Government members really pushed me to go to more social events and convinced me to go to my first ASU football game where we stood in the front row and guarded the 'A' during homecoming.”

She said working as an intern and an assistant research analyst in the Arizona Senate through the Legislative Internship Program during her last couple of semesters also helped her gain the skills needed to apply for law school, with a career goal of becoming a constitutional lawyer.

Caldwell shared more about her experiences at ASU and her advice for current students.

Question: Did you experience any obstacles along your way? If yes, how did you overcome them?

Answer: Yes, I have anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which made completing school during the pandemic so much harder. However, I am very fortunate to have had access to mental health services because of my insurance. It is very important to clarify that I’m not “overcoming” anxiety and OCD, because that perpetuates negative stigma associated with disability, but rather working within and making it through an educational structure that was not designed to be accommodating for people’s mental health. I co-founded the Accessibility Coalition, and having that community of support has helped me in so many different ways, especially dealing with the social stigma of mental health conditions and learning new mechanisms to manage my anxiety. I am so happy to have worked with all of the passionate students in my classes and clubs to develop this coalition into what it is today. This experience really showed me that persistence and hard work can lead to positive outcomes and helped me appreciate my anxiety and OCD and talk about it openly with others who had similar experiences instead of trying to hide it out of shame. It also educated me about people who had very different experiences with disability.

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

A: Dr. Breanne Fahs taught me to embrace tensions and contradictions — the unclear and sometimes uncomfortable gray areas of life — and to think critically about my own life and freedom of expression, for which I am very grateful. 

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

A: Don’t be afraid to try new things — clubs, friendships, classes, etc. — because each leap of faith will bring so many amazing experiences and insights. If something doesn’t work out, don’t think that your second option or third option will be a worse experience. It will just be a different one and lead you to exactly where you need to be. Make sure to balance work and social time. Your experiences with your friends and peers are so important, and if I’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that you could lose those experiences at any moment. Don’t take them for granted.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will continue working at the Arizona Senate as an assistant research analyst. I eventually hope to apply for law school and become a constitutional lawyer. 

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences