Graduate aims to strengthen families by helping those affected by adverse childhood effects

Jennifer Nakagawa in her ASU cap and gown

Image provided by Jennifer Nakagawa.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Sometimes our experiences in life give us a kind of determination that can’t be stopped. Jennifer Nakagawa, is proving that our circumstances in life don’t determine our outcome.

As a teen mom, Nakagawa worked really hard towards providing a stable life for her and her son. This meant putting off college so she could work to earn a living. She never thought she’d be able to get a college education, but always wished she could.

In 2016, she lost her sister, who came from the same background but took a very different path in life. She witnessed her sister's eight kids go through the foster care system and started to volunteer to help foster youth in her community. This planted the seed for her wanting to do something more with youth in need.

While working at Starbucks, she would often encourage her younger coworkers to take advantage of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. Many took her advice and later encouraged Nakagawa to also go to college through the program. With the support of her family and husband, she decided to pursue her dream of earning a college degree.

Nakagawa is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in family and human development, along with minors in social welfare and justice studies. Nakagawa's achievement and all of her accomplishments along the way are a stunning example of persistence in following your dreams, no matter what life brings you.

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

Answer: I wouldn’t say there was one specific “aha” moment for me, but several moments throughout my life have contributed to my decision to study family and human development. The event that motivated me to finally commit to returning to school to earn my degree was in 2016 after the loss of my sister. After her death I began to volunteer as a court appointed special advocate working with foster youth in my community of San Joaquin County. Seeing the struggles of families in crisis and the issues within the system, I decided I wanted to do more than just volunteer. I want to contribute to the growth and empowerment of youth in need, but also to support preventative measures and policies for families, which is why I chose to double minor in justice studies and social welfare.  

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

A: I have always considered myself to be an inclusive individual who cares about social justice and equality. Throughout my academic journey here at ASU I was surprised to learn how little I actually knew about racial and social justice and at how truly passionate I am about being more than an ally standing in solidarity with modern civil rights movements, but taking action, speaking up and being a co-conspirator in the fight for social, racial and economic equality. I am grateful for the in-depth learning of intersectionality, specifically because it has helped me to think more critically about the complexities of populations, policies, systems and their interconnectedness.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I am a 15-year partner with Starbucks Coffee Company. After years of championing the Starbucks College Achievement Plan for partners I have worked with, and putting our oldest son through college  — he is a first-generation college graduate and we have another son that will one day go to college — one of my partners and my husband, Tosh, challenged me to take my own advice and pursue my dream of earning a degree through ASU. ASU’s partnership with Starbucks and creating access and opportunity for partners to earn a degree in higher education is one of the many reasons ASU continues to be the most innovative university in the nation.  

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

A: I have learned so many lessons from so many professors over these last four years, but Dr. Jodi Swanson is and has been the most influential, inspiring and motivational professor I have worked with. She has taught me about the importance of education; challenging yourself to grow; not only thinking critically but to reflect on those thoughts; building a community; of being seen and of seeing others. Here in my final semester at ASU, I have experienced some heavy trials. Dr. Swanson has taught me that my education is my own, that it can never be taken from me, but more importantly my education is not the only thing that defines me. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a professor so vested in my personal, academic and professional growth. I have seen this behavior from Dr. Swanson with every student she comes into contact with. She shows up and she connects in a meaningful way. I hope to do the same.      

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

A: This is tough because I am also a mom. Higher education is a privilege and you are going to get out of it what you put into it, so take advantage of this opportunity to learn about yourself, what you believe in, what you stand for, and be self-full — it is not selfish — in making decisions about your future. Take advantage of all the wrap-around services ASU offers to aid in your success. Work with your academic adviser; I cannot praise Lisa Barth enough for the support she has given me all these years. Utilize your success coach. Reach out when you are in challenging times because there are so many resources available to you. ASU is truly dedicated to your academic career’s success.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying? 

A: When I started ASU, I would set up and study at my kitchen table. My husband helped me transform our oldest son’s bedroom to an office/guest room after he went away to college. I have motivational quotes, tranquil blue walls, an oil diffuser, two screens and a sitting/standing desk that I have spent many hours studying at. The best part is that I can walk away and close the door until the next study session.

Q: What are your plans for after graduation?

A: I am committed to furthering my education and earning a master’s in social work. Currently I am in the process of applying to graduate schools. However, life is a journey, and we as human beings are constantly changing and adapting throughout the journey. I am sure that as I continue to evolve in my academic career, I will learn more about the field of social work and the many avenues that are available, and my desired position is likely to change.

More importantly to me is that my career reflects my heart and fulfils my life’s ambition to meet individuals and families where they are, to support their efforts in achieving their goals, to empower them, to be a part of changing policies that create access and opportunity that contribute to thriving lives and equality. It may sound clichéd, but I truly do want to be the change in the world I wish to see, and it is my hope that in doing so, my behavior would be a model to those I encounter — inspiring and motivating them to make small and mighty changes in the lives of the people they meet and the world we live in. I am an optimist at heart, and I believe we can collectively create positive change. 

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

A: I will say that in today’s economy, I do not believe $40 million is enough to solve any of the problems on our planet. That said, I do believe it is a great way to start something locally in your own community that could contribute to the ripple effect of change in the world. For me, because I am so passionate about investing in the youth of today for the future of tomorrow, I think we need to focus on preventative measures that strengthen families.

What we have learned about adverse childhood effects and how they contribute to both physical and mental health disparities, it is important that we continue research as well as utilize this information to support adults/youth that have been affected by ACEs. This work is complex and complicated by the fact that it requires both intervention and prevention methods to create generational and institutional change. Building a local community model inclusive of resources, support and research that can be scaled to a larger model to impact change would be my ideal use of funds.  

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