School of Life Sciences adviser receives national award

September 16, 2021

The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) has awarded Serena Christianson for her outstanding accomplishments as an academic success advising coordinator in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. 

Christianson is the fifth adviser from ASU to win this award from NACADA, which aims to “recognize outstanding advising throughout higher education” and applaud advisers for their efforts. ASU alum wins national award School of Life Sciences advising coordinator Serena Christianson graduated from ASU with a doctorate of education in leadership and innovation, and she is the fifth adviser from ASU to win this award from NACADA. Photo courtesy of Serena Christianson

Christianson brings a wealth of experience to her role. In addition to her undergraduate studies in business administration and communication, she has an MBA with an emphasis in leadership and just graduated from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU with a doctorate of education in leadership and innovation. For her dissertation, she reconfigured a career development course strategy to fit the unique needs of an online science degree program. 

Before coming to ASU, she was a program coordinator and assistant professor of business at Williston State College, North Dakota. 

“I left my teaching job because I wanted to gain further real-world experience to enhance my teaching ability, which led me to roles involving marketing, business development and entrepreneurship,” she said. 

Love of teaching and higher education prompted her to make a change, and she joined the School of Life Sciences advising team in 2017. 

“I am very fortunate to work in an environment where I’ve been trusted to expand our career and internship programming with very few barriers,” she said. “I think that speaks to the nature of science — being curious, experimenting and learning from past attempts, and continuing to move forward.” 

Jennifer Gibbs, assistant director of undergraduate advising for the school, praised Christianson's work.

“Serena Christianson is a fantastic academic adviser, instructor and colleague,” Gibbs said. “She consistently goes above and beyond for her advisees and is committed to developing our students as successful professionals in their field and as people.”

NACADA has over 12,000 members that represent higher education institutions across the world. Its annual Global Award Program awardees are nominated by their colleagues, and Christianson said that being able to read through the letters and recommendations of her students and peers has been a validating and humbling experience. 

“This award is a great recognition of what (the school) has done to expand options for our students and how the culture has shifted and is still shifting as a whole,” she said. 

“I will never forget in my interview, when Scot (Schoenborn, associate director of academic services) asked me if I thought that science students could only go to medical school or work in a lab with a science degree, and immediately I laughed and said ‘No! I’m not a scientist, but you cannot tell me those are the only two options,’ and he said, ‘Great, because we’re looking for someone to shatter that image.’

“My goal from day one has been to break that perception by being a change agent, and it hasn’t been a linear, smooth process,” she said. 

Among the school's advisers, Christianson became known as one who could handle even the most difficult student cases. 

“I am unafraid to have those hard conversations relating to finding the right major and career pathways because I truly believe there is a right fit for everyone and it’s our job as advisers to be able to have those conversations with students, a balance of tough love and motivation and inspiration,” she said. 

“I really see our role as one to anticipate the questions, spark inspiration, provide suggestions and being a sounding board for ideas along the way.”

Christianson has worked with both online and on-campus students, and she shared that she is constantly proud of the growth and hard work she witnesses in her student’s journeys. 

“I joke that our students are bleeding hearts, but they really are — no matter if it’s saving the environment, plants, animals or humans, our students have such big hearts and really want to make the world a better place,” she said. “From internships involving neuroscience therapy at a boxing club to working with top researchers at Harvard Medical School, I am so amazed at how our students are so committed to improving our world.” 

When asked what advice she would give to students to guide their academic journey, Christianson recommended adhering to the definition of success established by poet Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

“You don’t have to be passionate about it,” Christianson clarified, “because I realize that puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on you. I suggest pursuing activities that you enjoy but are also things you are good at, and if you don’t know what that means — keep exploring, keep trying, keep playing.

“In the end, you are the one who has this degree and this experience, so it’s up to you to determine what this experience entails, and there are a lot of avenues to explore, so why not challenge yourself and enjoy the ride while you’re at it?”

One way students can do that is to ask for help, leveraging their network of fellow students, teachers, friends and — of course — advisers. 

Written with assistance from ASU School of Life Sciences communications aide Hayden Cunningham. 

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences


Valley schools celebrate GEAR UP Week 2021

Program provides tutoring and mentorship to same cohort for seven years to increase college readiness

September 16, 2021

For students who need support for college readiness, consistency is key, especially given the education disruptions of the past two years. Having the steady support of mentors, tutors and friends is exactly what 3,000 local 10th graders who participate in GEAR UP are celebrating this month.

Tolleson Union High School 10th grader Malachi Burress, who has been a GEAR UP student since his seventh-grade year at Maryland Elementary School, said that the program has already helped him a lot. Students in masks doing a STEM project ASU GEAR UP students build their own working headphones for a hands-on STEM project. Download Full Image

“My experience in GEAR UP has been fun. Every time I struggle they have been there to support. They are willing to work with me,” he said.

Malachi attended summer programs inspired by the program: the GEAR UP Summer Institute, a remote program, and Barrett Summer Scholars, an annual camp at Arizona State University, where he learned more about how college works. His favorite subjects are history and science, and he’s thinking about college as well as the NBA for his future. The GEAR UP community has been there for him since seventh grade and will continue providing support throughout high school and one year beyond, thanks to the $7 million grant that ASU earned from the U.S. Department of Education to bring GEAR UP to Arizona students. 

“They help me out in life because they showed me what I have to do in order to get into college, and they are willing to work with me to get to college,” he said.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a federally funded program whose goals are to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides academic support and intervention by way of tutoring and mentoring, increasing college readiness, raising graduation rates and educating students and families about postsecondary options, preparation and financing. 

During National GEAR UP Week, Sept. 20–24, GEAR UP at Arizona State University will join thousands of students, parents, teachers, partners and college-access professionals from across the nation to celebrate GEAR UP’s successes and raise awareness about the positive impact of the program. ASU will host events for students and families to promote that #GearUpWorks, including scavenger hunts, mood boards and discussions around inspiration, travel, obstacles to education, career aspirations and more. Schools will earn participation points throughout the week, and the winners will be awarded the Territorial Cup, a nod to ASU’s longstanding football rivalry with the University of Arizona. Other prizes throughout the week include an Amazon Fire Tablet, an Amazon Echo Dot, an ASU college swag bag, Powerbeats headphones and a Roku streaming stick. 

Tempe High School sophomore Chris Hernandez said that the GEAR UP tutors help many of his classmates in math and English and that the program helps improve his grades. 

“They are really cool people!” he said. “(They) helped me pass my classes during interventions and summer school. Sometimes how they explain things is clearer than what my teachers teach in the classroom.”

James Reinhardt, Tempe High academic interventionist and special education teacher, said GEAR UP is a great fit for Tempe High for not only tutoring help but mentorship and near-peer support. 

“Only being a few years removed from high school, GEAR UP tutors can relate to our kids on a level that our teachers often can’t. I am always hearing tutors tell our students about their college experiences and how what they are doing in class will help them be successful in college,” Reinhardt said. “They are able to relate to a student’s struggles in class and help them find the motivation to keep improving. A large number of Tempe High students who go to college are the first to do so in their family, so having an extra person in their lives who is familiar with what it takes to navigate college is extremely valuable.”

About 430 sophomores are affected by GEAR UP at Tempe High, and Reinhardt said that the feedback from staff and students has been amazing, especially with the resources that GEAR UP provided virtually in the past two years.   

“GEAR UP tutors led over 100 virtual tutoring sessions, group and one-on-one, in multiple subjects throughout last year. These sessions proved to be very effective in helping students remediate and get extra help on topics they had missed or were struggling with,” he said. “GEAR UP was involved in the planning of the sessions and even made phone calls home to parents encouraging them to help their students attend the sessions. It was very successful and a major highlight of a tough year for our students and teachers.” 

Districts participating in the GEAR UP grant include Tempe Elementary, Tempe Union, Mesa Public Schools, Pendergast Elementary, Tolleson Elementary, Tolleson Union, Glendale Elementary, Washington Elementary and Glendale Union. Community partners include the Be A Leader Foundation, APS, Glendale Community College, the Arizona College Access Network, MidFirst Bank, Mesa Counts on College, Tempe College Connect and many others who are committed to improving postsecondary outcomes for Arizona students and families. Many of these partners also contribute to the Achieve60AZ goal that by 2030 60% of Arizona adults will hold a postsecondary credential or degree. 

At Westwood High School in Mesa, more than 900 sophomores and their parents feel supported by GEAR UP, said Katie Gardner, assistant principal over activities and freshmen.

GEAR UP has been an amazing resource to help our students fulfill the promise that we as Mesa Public Schools are committed to: Every student is known by name, served by strength and need and graduates ready for college, career and community,” she said. “GEAR UP's mission is aligned with that. We work hand in hand with our GEAR UP partners to fulfill this promise every day!” 

Gardner said that ASU’s presence gives more validity to the school’s work because GEAR UP is supporting what the school does for families. She said collaborating for student success has been very rewarding, especially when GEAR UP tutors helped students earn more than 1,000 credits that had been lost during COVID-19. 

“Our GEAR UP partners jumped right into our school and have had an attitude of servant leadership that has opened the hearts of our staff. They are truly partners on our campus, and we are happy to get to work with them!” Gardner said. 

Westwood sophomore Adina Turnbow, who has been a GEAR UP student since her seventh-grade year at Kino Junior High School, said that GEAR UP has provided different supplies and support systems, including gifts at Christmas. Her favorite GEAR UP memory so far was building headphones at the GEAR UP Summer Institute. Science and English language arts are her favorite subjects in school. After high school, she plans to join the military or go to college for information technology. 

Adina’s mother, Carlene Palmer, said that she hopes Adina develops support, encouragement and a feeling of self-worth from the program. Palmer said that she has enjoyed the family GEAR UP activities especially so far. 

“They are very supportive and encouraging to my children who are in the program. Though I do have younger children, and I wish they could participate in the activities the other children do — I am thankful they have the family activities,” she said. 

GEAR UP is also an opportunity for current ASU students to learn and give back to K–12 students. Ashley O’Dell, a junior at ASU studying secondary education and English, works at Washington High School as an English tutor. She has been with GEAR UP for almost two years and said she felt a strong connection right away when she compared the resources that GEAR UP kids had to what she had access to as a kid. She saw the contrast even more starkly during school closures.

“Many students had issues having a stable internet connection or even finding technology that supported the assignments they needed to complete,” O’Dell said. “Going to school online during a pandemic is difficult, but the extra stress that the students I worked with had with technical and financial difficulties made it even harder on them. Thankfully, I was able to reach out to many of the students so they were able to have someone who looked around their own age to connect with. The conversations I had with the students were very enjoyable, and I will never forget how thankful the students felt.” 

ASU medical studies sophomore Noor Al Turaihy also works for GEAR UP at Washington High School as a tutor; she also describes herself as a mentor for students and “a motivator when they need it.” She said she loves not only the friendly work environment but also the direct impact she can see from the work. 

“My experience with GEAR UP has all been positive so far, because I have seen firsthand how much of an impact it makes on the students, in their academics as well as their personal attitudes,” she said.

ASU GEAR UP Executive Director Jennifer Murphy said that GEAR UP is a program that provides a direct impact on families’ lives and Arizona’s goals for higher education.

“The mentorship and inspiration that students receive through this program is so meaningful to students, to families and to school communities,” she said. “Access ASU is so honored to be able to work with schools to bring more resources to Arizona families. We see the impact every day, and we’re thrilled to celebrate it during GEAR UP Week and every week.” 

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services