Outstanding Graduate finds community at ASU after caring for ill parents for six years

Stephanie Pham, spring 2021, outstanding graduate, School of Community Resources and Development

Stephanie Pham is the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate for the School of Community Resources and Development. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Pham


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

Stephanie Pham says she never doubted her decision to take six years off from school and work to be a full-time caregiver to her parents, each of whom had been diagnosed with different forms of cancer. When she enrolled at ASU as an undergraduate, at first the student from Temecula, California, felt alone.

“When I moved here I knew no one, so it forced me to get involved and really develop and be part of the community here at ASU,” said Pham, the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Community Resources and Development, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. “It is within this school that I found people who became family and my community. This school has become my second home, so when it came time to look at grad schools, although I was offered many great opportunities to continue education elsewhere, my heart and gut told me that I am not done with ASU.”

Pham, who is receiving a Bachelor of Science in nonprofit leadership and management, said her experience as a volunteer led to her decision to dedicate her career to helping the less fortunate.

“Being a first-generation Asian American, raised by refugee parents, from an early age my parents instilled in me and my siblings the value of hard work, service, gratitude and paying it forward. We volunteered in our community growing up, and by the time I was old enough to do service projects on my own, they came second nature to me,” she said. “There was never an ‘aha’ moment, as I have always had the passion to serve my community. But I do remember the moment feeling I wasn’t living my true purpose.”

She was listening to an anatomy and physiology class lecture about all the bones in the foot and started to daydream about the volunteer work she was involved in.

“Fast-forward one year later: I was sitting in Anne Kotleba’s voluntary action course at ASU and I remember listening to the lecture, being completely engaged. For the first time, my heart was glowing, and I knew I was finally in the right place where I needed to be.” 

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

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

Answer: That I went into this sector thinking that I would make such a great impact or change. But really, “big philanthropy” is a detriment to the social sector as the divide in wealth inequality deepens. The 1% are giving billions, while they have seen a decrease in the amount of individual giving from the average American. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t stop or solve the issue. We need to work on a systemic level together to make long-lasting, grand-scale changes. 

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

A: This is so hard to just choose one person. I am a firm believer that the community you surround yourself with is one that should challenge you to think critically and be your best version of yourself. I have that here at ASU. So many professors who have touched my life and lessons that they have imparted on me stretch far beyond the walls of UCENT that I will carry with me forever. 

  • Gordon Shockley is someone who challenged me the most in his classes to think critically and look at things from various perspectives and to never to accept anything at face value, all while rocking out to Iron Maiden in class.
  • Eric Legg spoke my love language of Excel spreadsheets and program evaluation. He showed me everything is quantifiable and methods of data collection to evaluate the efficiency of programs at my work.
  • John Scola in fundraising and development taught me that donors are far more than a donation; that my goal is to build relationships and how to tell the story of our beneficiaries.
  • Sandra Price taught me how to put the hard work in creating a nonprofit from scratch and all the hard work that goes into innovating ways to make the world a better place.
  • Rebekka Goodman taught us that sustainability is more than saving the Earth; (it’s) how we look and build communities and infrastructure to best serve our population.
  • Jamie Valderrama taught me the importance of mindfulness and stress management. This was the easiest and the hardest course I took at ASU. It really pushed me to have a deeper meaning and understanding of myself.
  • Ginger Spencer’s class taught me the importance of being surrounded by great leaders and mentors, and gave me a deeper understanding of my leadership style and how to use my innate characteristics to effectively lead.
  • Mara Mann taught me that accounting can be fun and financial management is more than just the wellness of the organization. Financial literacy is a pivotal role in operating a nonprofit ethically.  
  • Eileen Eisen-Cohen is a friend and mentor. I was never a student of hers; we met by chance on campus at an event, and we shared a passion for quantifying emotional data, mostly sharing stories about life and suffering great losses.   
  • Manny Padia shared with me the importance of relying on my community at ASU and pushing me to really make the most of my experience here. It was those words of wisdom that led me to join the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Student Association at ASU (NLASA).
  • It was through the NLASA that Anne Kotleba became not just a mentor, but a champion and friend. She taught me the power of voluntary action begins with simply believing in yourself and in the mission of your passions. Learning from her life lessons, kindness, compassion and friendship are what inspired me to be fearless in everything I pursue and to have passion for my cause.  

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

A: Take this time to really discover yourself and your passions. Doesn’t matter where you are at in your life, school or career, you are never too old to find something that makes your heart glow.  

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

A: My favorite place to study was the fifth floor of the law library on the downtown campus. It was a hidden gem. There is an outdoor courtyard with beautiful trees to study under and twinkly lights (that are rarely on at night), and the environment is everything for me.  

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have applied to the Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration degree programs at ASU. I will also continue to work at both my jobs. I am the programs coordinator at the Children’s Skin Disease Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of children with life-threatening and chronic skin disease and their families by offering wonderful experiences that will enrich their lives and empower them to have a childhood without limits. I am also the volunteer and service coordinator at Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children, whose mission is to provide social, emotional and financial support directly to families managing the health and well-being of a loved one with pediatric cancer. 

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

A: I would focus on global health and primary education. I wholeheartedly agree that children are our future. If we do not invest in their health and education, we will set ourselves up for more issues down the line. Studies have shown malnutrition plays a large role in the overall health and mental well-being of a child. Without the proper nutrients and care during the developmental stages, long-term physical issues may hinder the child from reaching their fullest potential. Eliminating these issues would aid in the development and prosperity of impoverished communities, improving basic human rights and promoting stability.

Pham received the following scholarships:

  • Elizabeth S. Schade Scholarship
  • John D. “Jack” Armstrong Scholarship
  • 2019 Ortho Dermatologics Aspire Higher Scholarship

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