Transfer student reflects on changing career paths to pursue passion for political science

December 6, 2021

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

From a young age, Alyssa Foster has closely followed current events and politics. This fall, Alyssa Foster will receive a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University. Download Full Image

“When I was a little kid, I remember watching the news and being interested in elections and things like that,” Foster said. “After a while I came to the conclusion that the only way to really make a difference or to have an impact is to do it yourself and get involved. I saw so much wrong with the world and things that needed to be changed.”

Now, the soon-to-be Arizona State University graduate is beginning her career in politics with the Office of Gov. Doug Ducey. Foster first became connected to the governor’s office through the School of Politics and Global Studies’ Arizona Legislative and Government Internship Program, a universitywide program that provides an opportunity for students to work full time at a state agency for one semester. 

In her internship with the Office of Boards and Commissions that began in January 2021, she assisted with a number of projects including vetting and finding people for specific positions on state boards. Her internship was extended, and in May, Foster was offered a full-time position as the Office of Boards and Commissions project and program specialist for the Governor’s Office.

“I never really felt like an intern,” she said. “I immediately felt I was a part of the team and that the work that I was doing was making a difference. The interns that we take on are so important to our office. I think when we hear internship we think, ‘Oh, those interns get the coffee and run errands and answer phones and stuff.’ That's not how this internship is at all. You are immediately a very important part of the team. You are doing the work. I thought that was really cool.”

Although political science has always been a passion of hers, the Arizona native said her career path wasn’t always clear. After graduating high school in 2007, she attended community college in Arizona and in Portland, Oregon. She then found a successful career in the restaurant industry, but after 11 years decided it was time for a change.

“I didn't have a lot of direction. I didn't know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was doing very well and had no other reason to stop what I was doing or go back to school until I did. I moved to Portland, started taking classes and then finished up my associate degree. As soon as that was done, I came right back and found ASU and decided that was the best way to finish up.”

This fall, Foster will receive a bachelor’s degree in political science from ASU. Here, she shares more about her Sun Devil story.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: ASU just had the best program. Arizona has great schools, but ASU had such an easy program for taking in community college classes and not only from Maricopa Community Colleges. I had taken community college classes in Portland, and those transferred no problem. 

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

A: I think the hardest thing was working full time while at ASU. I didn't have the luxury of not working. I have bills to pay, so I couldn't just focus on school 100%. I had to balance 40-hour workweeks with taking on a full schedule of classes as well. But I have a great support system including a longtime boyfriend. My family's kind of scattered everywhere, but I had that one person to cling to who I could rely on and trust to have my back through everything.

I think going back to school as an adult, as opposed to going to a four-year college right out of high school, I had a lot of anxiety as far as being out of practice with school. I was like, “I'm going to mess this up. I'm going to fail, I’m not good at this.” So I did the minimum, I showed up and followed instructions and asked questions. After a little while I was like, “Oh OK, well, I'm doing OK.”

Q: Were there any opportunities that positively impacted your ASU experience?

A: The most important one was the Arizona legislative internship that I learned about at the very last minute, applied and interned in the governor's office and ended up getting hired on full time. It’s awesome to get an internship anywhere, but the partnership that exists between the Legislature, the Governor's Office and ASU is really incredible. The fact that I was able to participate and was still able to earn credits on top of that — that was make or break for me. I was able to earn 12 credits. The internship didn't set me back with graduating or anything so that was huge.

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

A: I had so many fantastic teachers. Tara Lennon, who facilitates the Arizona legislative interns and helps with the applications and the interview process, was just so phenomenal in guiding us through that process. I remember being so intimidated by all of this, because you're working at the Arizona Capitol and the governor is there. I asked her so many questions like, “What do I wear? My hair is bleached blonde; do I need to tone it down?” I remember her just telling me, “You need to be yourself. That's what's important. Don't try and be anyone you're not. They're normal people too.” That advice really serves me well. I'm silly and goofy and I have bleached-blonde hair, but I fit in pretty quickly anyway.

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

A: I think students and people in my age range, we're obviously ambitious, but I think that can be a fault in some ways. You want to do the best, you want to make people proud. But you should not be afraid to put yourself first. … Don't be afraid to say no. You need to make yourself proud first before you make anyone else proud or go above and beyond for anyone else.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm fulfilling the goal that I set out to when I started at ASU. I feel like I really am making a difference, and I love the work. I love the people. It's so funny coming from the private sector, you're serving customers and shareholders and it's all about the stock and the money. But working for the state, your customers are your neighbors and there are no shareholders. It's really just about making your state and your community a better place. You're working for real people and making a real difference. I also can't wait to pay it forward when the next round of ASU interns comes through here. It'd be cool to come full circle in that way.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

Path to PhD started with a small planetarium and an intro astronomy course

December 6, 2021

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

In his junior year of high school in Nashua, New Hampshire, Greg Vance enrolled in an introductory astronomy class that captured his imagination. While learning the night sky from his high school’s small planetarium, his physics teacher pointed out that studying astronomy required a lot of the same knowledge covered in physics class. PhD graduate Greg Vance PhD graduate Greg Vance. Download Full Image

Since then, Vance earned his bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College in physics and mathematics with a minor in astronomy in 2015. This December, Vance will graduate with a PhD in astrophysics from the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The decision to attend ASU was partially based on Vance’s parents and brother moving to the Phoenix area in pursuit of warmer weather, drawing him to Tempe. Having his family nearby and not having to shovel snow anymore was certainly appealing. But the cross-disciplinary environment of ASU also had strong appeal.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the School of Earth and Space Exploration made it feel like a unique and interesting place to pursue a PhD in astrophysics, in contrast to the standard physics or astronomy departments at most universities,” said Vance. “I was intrigued by the supernova simulation research of Professor Patrick Young, who eventually became my PhD adviser.”

In the six-plus years working together with Young, Vance learned how to apply programming skills to solve research problems, how to ask big scientific questions, and how to write scholarly journal papers.

“But the most important lesson,” says Vance, “is that he taught me how to be patient and understanding, not only with others, but also with myself.” 

Young said, “Greg embraced the spirit of our school by extending his work on supernovae from simulations to observational messengers ranging from elusive subatomic particles to meteoritic grains of dust predating our solar system, solving some stubborn scientific problems on the way.”

During his studies at ASU, Vance was awarded the Summer Exploration Graduate Fellowship and the Graduate College Completion Fellowship as an outstanding graduate student. After graduation, Vance would like to work in data science or software development or may consider positions providing software support for researchers.

Vance shared a few thoughts about his time at ASU.

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

Answer: In the classroom, I was surprised to learn that computer programming was a much larger part of modern astrophysics than much of my past education had led me to believe.  It's not just equations on blackboards. Numerical computing and scientific visualization are important skills for making sense of large datasets, too. Outside the classroom, I was surprised to learn just how many professional astronomers aren't night owls. I'm a decently nocturnal person, but the school’s astronomy classes for grad students are all at 9 or 10 a.m., while the graduate geology classes are in the afternoon!

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

A: Make sure to pause along the way to help others, especially when you're feeling ahead. One day, when you're really falling behind, you'll appreciate the people who stop and make time to help you out. Otherwise, just keep your goals straight. Make sure you know why you're doing what you're doing and where you're going with it, instead of just doing it because you're doing it.

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

A: I like to eat lunch sitting on the north-facing balcony on the side of the College Avenue Commons building. It's a great spot to stay in the shade and watch the planes fly past "A" Mountain on their way to Sky Harbor Airport.

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

A: Many of the biggest problems in today's world are deep social issues like racism and poverty, and I'm sure that motivated people in nonprofit organizations dedicated to fighting these problems could do a lot of good with a $40 million charitable donation. If I'm tackling the problem myself, I think my skills mean that I'm best equipped to address something like climate change. Investing in renewable energies, developing carbon-capture technology and scouring data to find more sustainable and efficient ways to solve problems — these are the moves we have to make as a species to prevent catastrophe occurring within my lifetime. 

Catherine Shappell

Digital communications specialist, School of Earth and Space Exploration