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Coast Guard veteran combines fitness passion with academic pursuit

May 3, 2021

Teachers College grad seeks to make a difference in youth health

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

Student veteran Conner Acri credits the U.S. Coast Guard with instilling in him the drive to tackle any challenge life throws at him, and this semester the Kansas City, Missouri, native has done just that as he completes an educational journey at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus.

Acri graduates this spring from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College with a Bachelor of Arts in secondary education with an emphasis in physical education — a degree that aligns with his fitness passion and will enable him to teach youth about healthy lifestyles.

During his time in the Coast Guard, Acri saw teammates get kicked out of the service for failing to meet weight standards, something that he laments as preventable. The notion that long distance running — disliked by many — was seen as the only way to shed pounds compounded the predicament.

“That’s part of the reason I chose physical education, because I want to teach these kids that there are more options than running your butt off every day to stay in shape and live a physically active life,” Acri said. “I want to get them while they’re still young and show them, so when they get older they don’t have those issues I was seeing in the military, people losing their jobs over not knowing how to stay healthy.”

Acri spent four years in uniform serving aboard two Coast Guard cutters, including the 418-foot USCGC James, where he served as an operations specialist and a “plankowner” — a naval term referring to individuals who are the original crewmembers of a newly commissioned ship. His travels took him to many places, including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the Panama Canal; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and other U.S. ports.

Traveling through Arizona on his way to a new duty station piqued Acri’s interest in the Grand Canyon State. After leaving the Coast Guard he applied to schools in California, Colorado and Arizona. Acri chose ASU and started classes online in the summer of 2018 before moving to Tempe. He has no regrets.

“It’s a great school, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Acri said. “I’ve met a lot of friends, a lot of good people. I loved it so much, I decided to stay in Arizona.”

Acri shared answers to questions about his ASU journey, life and what the future holds for him.

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

Answer: I have always enjoyed playing sports since I was as young as I can remember. I didn’t really think about becoming a physical educator until about a year before I got out of the Coast Guard in 2016. The reason I chose this field is because when my kids start to go to school, I like the schedule because it would give me a lot of time to spend with them, and also the benefits that I could give to high school aged students. I saw a lot of shipmates getting written up or even kicked out of the Coast Guard for not knowing how to maintain their weight and live a healthy lifestyle. So, this is a big part of why I chose this field so I would have the opportunity to teach my students all of the different ways that there are to stay physically active. I want to show students that sports and running miles and miles a day is not the only way to be physically active, especially here in Arizona.

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

A: People help other people. Sometimes people get really caught up in the news and that can very quickly make you lose hope in other humans. My experience here at ASU is that people helping other people is still very alive and well.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was stationed in California for a while serving and absolutely loved the scenery there. I drove through Phoenix as I was driving to my next duty station and really enjoyed the people and scenery here as well. As I researched colleges that offered my degree, I ended back up in the Phoenix area. I ended up going on tours to different schools in Colorado, California and Arizona. By the end of all of the tours Arizona State won hands down. Everyone I ran into seemed to be nice and it also seemed like a lot of people had the same hobbies as me which made it my first choice.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU or left the most positive impression on you?

A: Janet Barrone. She was one of my professors my first semester here at ASU. The way she taught the class and connected with her students really made an impression on me. It made me very excited to become a physical education teacher. No matter the class she always had a positive attitude, and she was the teacher you would feel comfortable talking to if you had any issues inside or outside of school.

Q: What was your favorite spot-on campus to study, relax or contemplate life?

A: My first semester here at ASU I lived at University Towers. Just south of University Towers there is a restaurant called Pitchforks & Corks. I think the fact that is was so convenient to where I lived and they also had good music playing most of the time made it the ideal place to study and get my work done.

Q: What are your plans after graduation and beyond?

A: I am going straight into the Master of Physical Education starting summer 2021. My dad decided to move here in February to be closer to me and his new grandson and wants us to go into business together and open a replacement windows company. We have officially decided on the name of the company and we are working to get it up and running this summer.

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

A: I would say the water crisis, but I think that would cost more than $40 million. If not that then I would want to do something for shelter/homeless dogs. I have always been a dog lover and am really passionate about adopting dogs and giving them good homes. So, I would find a way to make a difference with the shelter dogs.

 Top photo: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter James in Charleston, South Carolina (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of CGC James)

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Outstanding math student earns Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize


May 3, 2021

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

Jackson Carpenter is the recipient of the 2021 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive. He is graduating this month with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and a minor in Spanish. Jackson Carpenter Jackson Carpenter has earned the 2021 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize. Download Full Image

Carpenter is a Phoenix native and attended the International Baccalaureate program at North High School. His parents worked in education while he was growing up, and his father currently teaches history at North. With his parents both alumni, Carpenter was naturally attracted to Arizona State University. Barrett, The Honors College was a big draw along with the generous New American University National Merit Scholarship he was awarded.

Although his first few semesters of college were interesting, he didn’t truly understand what advanced mathematics would look like until he took an honors section of MAT 300 Mathematical Structures with Don Jones, associate professor of mathematics and associate director of undergraduate programs in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“Jackson wrote picture-perfect, elegant proofs — a rarity among MAT 300 students,” said Jones.

Jones quickly became a mentor, and Carpenter continued to sign up for classes he taught. In his MAT 371 class, Jones supervised an honors contract on Dedekind cuts, Carpenter’s first exposure to mathematical writing and doing something in the realm of extracurricular research.

During the summer after his sophomore year, Carpenter participated in his first REU (research experience for undergraduates) through the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) at ASU, which focuses on topics of epidemiological modeling and applied mathematics. This program gave him a taste of what it means to do research at the graduate level, collaborating with a research team and even submitting work to scientific journals. His group was selected to present at the 2019 Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Conference, and in November he traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, to present their research poster. He is the co-author on a manuscript on social and environmental influences and intervention programs on the dynamics of homelessness, which is currently under review for publication

In spring 2020, Carpenter traveled to Mexico City, Mexico, to study abroad at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He took math classes in Spanish, mixing his mathematics major with Spanish minor.

“Being fully submerged in a foreign society was shocking, but it was even more refreshing to see the universality of math and how it transcends cultural and geographical boundaries,” said Carpenter. “The friends I made at the College of Sciences at UNAM were some of the most talented mathematicians I’ve met. A different native language had no impact on their mathematical aptitude. This is one truth I will carry with me throughout my mathematical career.”

Carpenter’s senior year at ASU was consumed with the completion of his undergraduate Barrett honors thesis. He again worked with Jones, and also professor John Quigg, on a textbook/supplement for MAT 370 and similar courses in the realm of introductory real analysis.

“I was certainly very impressed with Jackson’s quick and sure progress writing his thesis. At every meeting he would have a new chapter written, and it was always quite polished,” said Quigg.

With his experience working at various tutoring centers around campus, Carpenter wanted his thesis to focus on a class that does not receive as much recognition as the calculus sequence.

“In a way, my thesis was a much longer version of my honors contract that I did for MAT 371 and is something that I am very proud of. I hope to keep it with me as a living document for future mathematical endeavors,” said Carpenter.

The Charles Wexler Awards were established in 1977, in memory of Professor Charles Wexler, with a gift from his wife, Helen, to honor his accomplishments in the field of mathematics and his contributions to the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Wexler was the founding chairman of the Department of Mathematics at ASU. At the time of his retirement, he had accumulated 47 years of service, the longest period of faculty service in the university’s history. In 1977, the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center was named after Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university from 1930 until 1977.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 44th annual Charles Wexler Awards ceremony was changed to a smaller online format. Jonathan Wexler, son of Charles Wexler, was able to join from Sunnyvale, California, via Zoom.

Carpenter is graduating with an excellent cumulative GPA of 4.16. This is even more impressive given the challenging courses he has taken, including groups, graphs, complex analysis, advanced linear algebra, abstract algebra, real analysis, numerical analysis, topology, partial differential equations at the undergraduate level, and real analysis at the graduate level.

“Mr. Carpenter is an outstanding student and a most deserving winner of the Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize,” said Donatella Danielli, professor and director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Carpenter will be pursuing a PhD in mathematics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. First, he has another REU this summer (that was delayed due to the pandemic) at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

“I am so pleased to have gone to ASU for my undergraduate degree. I have learned that education is what I make of it, regardless of where it happens,” said Carpenter. “I plan on taking the rich, varied experiences ASU has offered with me to Boulder, Colorado, in the fall and start the next stage of my educational career.”

We asked Carpenter to share more about his journey as a Sun Devil.

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

Answer: It may seem cliché, but I knew math was my favorite subject since early elementary school. It was the subject that I knew I was the best at and it was always the homework that I wanted to do first when getting home from school. In high school, with more of a perception of what college was, I knew that math was the subject that I wanted to focus on and learn more about.

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

A: My half-semester — thanks to the pandemic — of studying abroad in Mexico City was one of the most eye-opening experiences I had studying math. As all of my math classes were given in Spanish, I was able to truly test my skills in math but also my Spanish fluency. What I took away from this experience was understanding the universality of mathematics. Language and geographic boundaries had no effect on the mathematical aptitude of the friends I made while abroad. I gained a much wider perspective of math in an international context.

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

A: I'm not sure this was a lesson he ever explicitly taught, but Dr. Don Jones always presented material formally but never without a fair share of levity. I would like to think Dr. Jones has informed my teaching style while tutoring and how I approach learning math in general: while still formal, mathematics does not need to be boring.

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

A: Don't be afraid to reach out for help, whether that be to friends, professors, advisers, tutoring centers, etc. Asking for help is by no means an admission of weakness or stupidity. Sometimes a different person's perspective or understanding of a topic may sync better with how you learn.

Q: What is most misunderstood about mathematics by the general public? 

A: I think that most people easily write themselves off as "not good at math" and abandon any attempt at learning it. Math, like any sport or activity, takes effort and practice in order to become proficient. I would like people to understand that no one understands difficult math concepts instantly.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I always enjoyed sitting in the breezeways of Wexler hall working on homework or studying between classes. Seeing friends and professors milling about solidified the feeling of community in the department. My favorite place on campus is probably the Social Sciences building just south of the LL building. Its greenery and cool, shaded environment was always a nice escape from the heat. 

Q: Do you identify as part of any underrepresented group in mathematics? If so, how has that impacted your experience?

A: I do identify as part of the LGBT community, and although it didn’t make much of an impact in my studies or work environments, mainly because I never brought it up, I would like to see more queer representation in STEM in general. I hope to be a bit more vocal about my sexuality in the future and show other queer mathematics students that there are people like them out there.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time, when not studying or doing school-related tasks?

A: Playing the clarinet was always a creative escape for me during high school and college. I intend to get involved in playing music again in grad school, hopefully after things are "back to normal" pandemic-wise. During the pandemic, I've been trying to keep up with all of the Netflix original series coming out, some of my favorites being “Ratched” and “The Queen's Gambit,” for sure.

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

A: After hearing the tragic news of Arkansas banning treatment for transgender youth, I would like to focus on providing support for the vulnerable trans communities across the country, whether through legislation reform or providing free treatment and hormone therapy.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

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