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Geography Dean's Medalist aims to use education to influence natural world

Cindy Villavicencio

December 09, 2021

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

Cindy Villavicencio has always been acutely aware of her impact on the environment. She drives an alternative-fuel vehicle, actively walks instead of driving when possible, and in 2020 made the conscious decision to pivot careers and return to school to pursue a career path that advocated for the health of our planet. 

“I live my life thinking about how I'm making an impact on the earth,” said Villavicencio, who is graduating this December from Arizona State University Online in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning with a bachelor’s of science in geography and a certificate in geographic information science. “I thought the best way for me to feel fulfilled in my professional career wasn't just through research but to embark into a field that impacted the world around me.”  

Villavicencio, who had previously earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology and master’s degree in survey research from other institutions, says she was drawn to geography for its interdisciplinary nature and the ability to leverage geographic information systems (GIS) to create solutions to environmental problems.

“I thought geography was a great field that I could combine so many types of research,” she said. “I have these values in my personal life, I had this background in anthropology, I’ve seen how research has impacted other students, and it all kind of just clicked for me after so many years.” 

Villavicencio’s passion for the field has shown through her dedication to her studies. She is this semester’s selection by the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning for the Dean’s Medalist Award from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a recognition reserved for the highest achieving students from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. 

Following graduation, Villavicencio will be working in local government with the county of San Bernardino in California as a GIS technician — a role that she secured ahead of graduation and started earlier this month. 

“I am an online student and I didn't think I would be recognized in this way. I am so overwhelmed with emotion,” she said. “Thank you ASU for having an excellent online program. I am so grateful to all the professors who put their time into their lessons, so grateful for the GIS peer mentors, the instructors and the staff who were really welcoming and guided me the whole way. I really feel at peace with where I am in my life.”

Ahead of commencement, we asked Villavicencio a few questions about her time at ASU:

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I saw ASU has plenty of online degrees and was enthusiastic about pursuing a bachelor of science from a reputable school. The reputation pulled me in, plus having the option to have the online degree, ASU was a good choice for me. 

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

A: One of the most important was “wicked problems.” It's a term used to describe how there's a natural resource that's not regulated in the world and it's affecting the communities that surround it. It's a really good way to put things into perspective and think about how we take things for granted.

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

A: I learned a lot about what natural resources mean and what they look like from Professor Erin Saffell. The way her coursework was designed was really excellent. It got to the point and had examples and resources from TV shows and documentaries so students could understand how natural resources are being used. 

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

A: Look at, that is a place to find internships. There are internships for any person in any phase of their life. You could be going to school part-time but you're also a teacher during the day, there’s an internship for you. Even internships for high school students, postgraduates and early career professionals. Look into it. It's so worth the time and you’ll have support from your ASU professors even though you're online. 

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

A: I would tackle women's education. It's really telling what a thriving country and community could be based on how women have been educated and treated. If we tackled that issue, there could be so much more talent in the workforce and it could help improve communities. I think there’s a lot of the issues that we have that could be solved if we educated our girls and our women around the world.

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