Switching major 2 weeks before starting at ASU proved right choice for grad

April 22, 2021

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

Just two weeks before she moved into her freshman dorm at ASU, Carson Swisher surprised her mother with an announcement that would alter the course of her future: She was changing majors. She wanted to study criminal justice. Carson Swisher, spring 2021, outstanding graduate, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Carson Swisher, spring 2021 outstanding graduate, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Photo courtesy Carson Swisher Download Full Image

“Funny enough, I had originally applied to ASU as a kinesiology major. I wanted to become a chiropractor or physical therapist,” said Swisher, of Point Pleasant Borough, New Jersey. “My reasoning then was that I thought criminal justice was a field that was constantly evolving and applicable. With current events this is something that has shown true.”

Swisher, the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice with a certificate in correctional studies, said that decision proved itself to be the right one during her second year at ASU.

“I began an internship as an AmeriCorps member in the Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix,” she said. “Seeing what I was learning about in classes in real life and having the chance to fully engage with the community changed my perspective. I felt that I was no longer completing my degree for myself, but for those who I would eventually be responsible to help and advocate for. My ‘aha’ moment more or less came in the form of recognizing that significant social change comes from those in this field and I am grateful to be a part of it.”

Swisher, who is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in criminology and criminal justice, said she decided to attend ASU for a couple of reasons, at least.

One was it was different than anything she had experienced, “and I wanted to see more than just New Jersey,” she said.

“Even though I love the beach and wanted to have family close, I felt that for personal growth I needed to immerse myself in independence and figure out what it is like to be successful on my own. Looking back, I’m surprised at how mature my decision actually was and I am thankful for my past self.”

The other reason? It didn’t hurt that her stepfather attended ASU.

“So hearing him talk about football games, campus and the culture of a big school motivated me to go for it.”

Read on to learn more about Swisher’s ASU experiences and how her time her has her making some rather big career plans:

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

Answer: Something that changed my perspective was when I began teaching ASU 101. It is much different than being a student, because you must be actively aware of your students, especially during their first semester. The transition to higher education is different than anything they have experienced before. As a peer-instructor, I went through a major learning curve. The diversity that each student brought from their past experiences was extremely valuable and it was my responsibility to foster an environment where students were comfortable to share. I have learned so much from my students, not only about them, but about myself as well. 

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

A: Doug Wilkey taught me many important lessons during my time at ASU, but the most important was to come into the field of criminal justice – and life in general – with an open mind. I took classes in race, ethnicity and crime as well as in domestic violence with Professor Wilkey. Especially in criminal justice, we tend to correlate offenders with negative characteristics and even put the sole blame on them. If this major taught me anything, it is that everyone in the system has a story – that often does not get told. 

The analogy looks like this: The root of a problem is hidden under the soil. If you dig you can see it, but most only take the time to look at the leaves and branches of the tree. We see people going into the system and committing crime, but often do not dig deeper to understand why, or better yet, how we can successfully help them. Applying this to your own life, having an open mind that allows you to see people, without making assumptions, allows for more growth and understanding to happen. 

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

A: The biggest piece of advice I could give someone, as cliché as it sounds, is to take advantage of all the opportunities around you. Even if you do not think that you are qualified for the position or are nervous about joining a new club, it never hurts to try. I think a lot of the time we discount how valuable we are, we all bring something to the table. I got rejected from many different internships and jobs that I applied for, but I used all of the interviews and information learned when another opportunity arose. My motto has always been to be comfortable being uncomfortable. If I stayed within my safety zone of comfort, I probably would not have come across the country to ASU. I think to nicely sum up my advice: Go for it. You learn something from everyone you meet and life tends to be unpredictable. 

To back up what I’m saying, I interviewed to be a community assistant my freshman year. During the interview, Amanda Andrew of the Watts College staff, with whom I had the privilege of working, thought that I would be perfect, instead, for being a peer instructor for ASU 101. Although I didn’t get the position I originally went in for, the position I ended up with was absolutely amazing. I’ve been a peer-instructor for the past two years! 

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

A: My favorite spot on campus was either the GLV (Greek Leadership Village) or Songbird Coffee & Tea House in downtown Phoenix. I spent a lot of time in the GLV my freshman year at ASU because it was on the Tempe campus. As a downtown student, I didn’t have any classes in Tempe, so it was like a little escape from school, even though it was still a part of campus. Songbird was my absolute favorite place to study before the pandemic. Especially during my freshman year when I didn’t have a car, it was a quick walk from the dorms. They have picnic tables and bird feeders in the front of the shop so it is a really nice environment. All of their food is made in-house and I made it a goal to try a different type of tea each time I went — prickly pear is my favorite. It’s funny looking back now at how many applications and assignments I turned in at those tables!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have been accepted into the 4+1 — technically 3+1 because I am graduating a year early — Master of Science in criminology and criminal justice program at ASU. I started the program this past fall and will be graduating in May 2022 with my master’s degree. I intend on pursuing a thesis but haven’t chosen my research topic yet, although I have a few in mind. There are so many new areas in the field that need a larger literature base and I would love to contribute. After finishing my master’s degree I plan on attending law school, hopefully at Sandra Day O’Connor, at ASU. They have programs where I could take a year of classes in California or Washington, D.C. I would love to relocate again and experience a new environment and new opportunities. I would like to work in the legal system as a prosecutor and then a judge. I’ve realized during this past year that a large interest of mine is constitutional law and human rights violations. 

I would love to work for an organization such as the Innocence Project or the American Civil Liberties Union, as well, because I think that I would thrive defending people in the niche cases they deal with. Especially with everything that has happened in the past few years, we need people in the system who are open to change and fighting solely for the interests of those whom the system is meant to serve. My dream job would be to become a United States Supreme Court Justice. I don’t want to sell myself short, so I’m setting big goals because there is no reason that I could not accomplish them if I put the work in. 

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

A: I would invest it in the correctional system. Many programs that have proven to be successful suffer because there is a lack of funds. In order for rehabilitation programs to function properly they need to be implemented fully so people are given the proper chance to be successful. The funds could be used to create better educational opportunities leading to more people upon release having completed their GED or other certifications. It could also be used towards mental health, addiction and similar programs that are targeted at truly working to support and work through those issues. I also would use it for the education of guards and prison administration. Training guards in specialized areas will allow for more constructive responses to situations and more positive outcomes. There are obviously thousands of social issues that I could have chosen, but I believe that people who are incarcerated must be humanized and given the chance to reintegrate into society. If people are made to feel important and valued rather than “less than” because they committed a crime, I would make a strong argument that recidivism would decrease. 

Mark J. Scarp

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


Outstanding undergraduate finds rebirth at ASU and sweet spot between science and art in user experience

April 22, 2021

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

Sanjana Ponnada, the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts’ Outstanding Undergraduate for 2020-2021, never planned on attending ASU, “but transferring to ASU has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in the journey of getting my life back on track,” said Ponnada. ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Outstanding Undergraduate for 2020-2021 Sanjana Ponnada For technical communication major Sanjana Ponnada, Outstanding Undergraduate in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts for 2020-2021, a summer internship with State Farm led to a full-time position as UX designer, her dream job. Download Full Image

“I struggled a bit at my previous university,’” explained the technical communication major who is graduating with the concentration in user experience. “There was dissonance between what I liked and what I was studying, and I felt directionless about where I was headed once I realized things weren’t working out.”

In search of a fresh start, she left her past in the rearview mirror and discovered hope at ASU. Her exposure to the school charter during orientation had profound impact:

“A university ‘measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed ...’ For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of purpose and belonging again,” Ponnada recalled. “The inclusivity and commitment to its students has continuously left me in awe during my time here.

“The encouragement I’ve received from the faculty and my peers has been such a driving force to the success I’ve been able to achieve,” she added. “I found courage in the belief that ASU had in me that I could thrive. Through them, I gradually saw the changes in me as I pursued newer, more fulfilling dreams.

“I felt a tingle in my fingertips when I learned about design,” continued Ponnada, “and there was a spark in my eye when I began to look at the world in a new light. I not only discovered my passion in this area, but also refined my skills and grew into a stronger creative. I’m now working as a full-time designer in a Fortune 50 company, able to do what I love and feel like it was meant for me.

“This university has fostered my rebirth, like a phoenix that rises from the ashes,” concluded Ponnada, who made the Dean’s List every semester at ASU; in fact, her GPA never dipped below 4.0. “I owe a lot of who I am to ASU — it was a crucible of transformation for me as a student, designer and person.”        

Sanjana Ponnada shared these additional reflections with ASU News about her journey.

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

Answer: It's hard to pinpoint a single instance when it felt like things fell into place. It was more like a wave built up on the horizon — a gentle one, but one that was a long time coming. Ever since I was little, I was really good at two things: asking questions and getting my hands messy. As I grew, these interests manifested themselves into my passions for both the sciences and arts. They're seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, but with a good hard look, you'd be surprised to see how harmonious they are. Both are explorations of what it means to be human and how we make sense of our universe (and our place in it).

In my quest to find the best of both worlds, user experience (UX) design stood out to me as a field hovering in the sweet spot between these two sides of myself. As a designer, we get to poke around and ask questions. At the same time, we also get to color outside the lines and come up with creative solutions on how to solve those problems.

Design already permeates everything we do and how we live. And with how much technology has become a part of our daily lives, it's exciting to have a small part in building experiences to positively impact people. As Robert Peters once said, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” I get very sparkly-eyed to be able to have a small piece of that — to not only create things but to contribute to a future for all of us.

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

A: Discipline triumphs over motivation. Those of us in creative fields tend to place a lot of importance on perfectionism and idealism. To no one's surprise, real life isn't as clear-cut as we'd like. Sometimes we get thrown curveballs. I've had my share of challenges as a student, from overwhelmingly full class schedules to demanding internships and extracurriculars. With every struggle, I came to realize there’s only one thing I can control in life: myself.

This mindset completely shifted how I view things. I began to worry less about what's out of my hands and stay focused on what I can do. And when the going gets tough, I run on autopilot to let my habits sustain me and keep going anyway. This helped me find peace with myself. You just need to persist, even when you don't want to. Sometimes it's the only way through.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU and what was it?

A: My user experience professor, Dr. Tatiana Batova, was profoundly influential. Not only did I learn foundational principles for my degree, but she also taught me to prioritize curiosity and taught me to believe in myself more.

After grading our final capstone project, Dr. Batova commented that my work was a good candidate for the ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication’s student research competition and suggested that I apply. I signed up on a whim. Over several months, she invested a lot of support throughout conference preparations and the publication process. I poured myself into my work, which focused on analyzing the effectiveness of the online COVID-19 symptom self-checker created by the CDC, and extended this assignment into a full-fledged research endeavor. I shockingly made it to the final round and achieved first place in the undergraduate division, representing ASU.

Dr. Batova not only saw potential, but steadily motivated me to challenge myself toward growth and, eventually, surreal success. She has shown me how to cast aside the outcome-driven mindset and embrace the journey — and all its possibilities.

Q: Did you have any internships, student worker positions or research experiences that were important to you?

A: I had the amazing opportunity to work as a UX design intern at State Farm last summer, and I'm so grateful that I could learn from some of the most talented leaders in the field right now. Despite the challenges of the remote position, the company made every one of the interns feel welcome and celebrated. This experience was my first exposure to my career choice in the real world, so it was incredibly eye-opening to see how it all functions in its natural habitat. From mobile app design to AR/VR, I got to work on a diverse set of projects to apply and further refine my skills. Collaborating with other designers and understanding their thought process was immensely rewarding as an aspiring creative as well.

This role will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first time seeing my design actually implemented. In college, we work with a lot of made-up clients and random businesses for assignment purposes. But I remember when I first saw the app my team and I designed available in the iOS App Store. It sent chills down my back realizing that thousands of users would be downloading and using what I helped create. And I can't put into words how fulfilling it was to see my work in its tangible form like that, and I'll always be thankful for State Farm for allowing me to learn and experience these milestones. I've picked up a lot along the way that I'm sure I will carry with me as a designer for a long while.

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

A: Susan Sontag once wrote, "I like to feel dumb. That's how I know that there's more in the world than me." College is usually a time in our lives where we are confronted with a lot of unknowns. It can be anything from having a hard time wrapping your head around a concept from class to being totally lost on how to file your taxes. Be OK with feeling dumb. Laugh at yourself a bit, embrace growth and listen well. Not just to your professors, but to the people and places you find yourself in.

Also, that one thing? Whatever you're putting off? Do it now, not later.

Q: What was your favorite place for power studying?  

A: Enduring the full force of the pandemic in late spring was especially tough. After being stuck inside for the better part of two months, I started spending a lot of time in my backyard. Specifically a hammock, usually with ice cream. Whether it was wrapping up a project, calling in for a work meeting or just sitting still, it provided a sweet little oasis in a very uncertain world. The trees would rustle, tiny lizards would scurry around and, for a brief moment, everything was normal.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was offered a full-time position following my internship with State Farm, so I'm currently working my dream job as a UX designer right now! I'm looking into applying for a master’s in human-computer interaction (or a similar area of study) very soon. There's still quite a bit for me to see and do, and I'm excited for what's in store.

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

A: Climate change. Our environment has an enormous impact on our lives as we know it: health, access to resources, biodiversity, natural disasters, global disparity and injustice, etc. There are a lot of problems we need to address, and it's important to note that most of these are interconnected. For example, environmental risks like pollution directly threaten marginalized communities, and food waste is one of the leading factors of world hunger. Investing the resources to begin addressing these issues surrounding sustainability will develop a solid foundation for other solutions, as well as propel humanity in the right direction. Saving the planet (literally) is a good step towards saving the planet (as a whole). This is the only home we’ve ever known.

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts