Graduate's advice: Don't artificially separate who you are and what you do

Mikko Hallikainen head and shoulder picture

Image provided by Mikko Hallikainen


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

Mikko Hallikainen, who is graduating this spring with dual degrees in sociology and geography, a minor in sustainability and a certificate in geographic information science, advises incoming students to find ways to intersect your interests with your studies to really have a meaningful college experience.

Hallikainen received the New American University Scholarship Provost Award all four years of his undergraduate program and Ray Henkel Scholarship Award from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning for getting the highest-ranked grade point average of any graduating senior, which was a meaningful award for him because he said it has pushed him to pursue graduate school.

“Mikko is a student you can always count on for thoughtful responses and engagement, and the quality of his work is outstanding,” said Connor Sheehan, one of Mikko’s former professors and his honor’s thesis adviser.

Hallikainen hopes to intersect his interests in geography and sociology to research how technology affects human development. He feels online communication is becoming more and more dominant as our main source of communicating, especially since there are no constraints geographically. He is interested in learning how this online culture affects our world.

Hallikainen says is looking forward in pursuing graduate school in the future and hopes to make an impact with his research. Here he talks a little more about his experience at ASU.

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

Answer: In my freshman year of high school, myself and a handful of other freshmen got placed into an AP Human Geography class through a scheduling error. Despite freshmen normally not being allowed to take AP classes, we were given the option to stay as the issue was not discovered until about a month in. It was a real watershed moment for me, not only seeing that the field of geography involved more than remembering countries and capitals, but visceral understanding that the scientific method can be used to study human beings and the cultures they produce. That class introduced me to the means, methods, and results of serious social science and convinced me that it was a field worth pursuing.

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

A: It’s not something I learned in the classroom, but while I was at ASU, I learned that exercise can be a ton of fun, but you need to shop around. Early on I had a hard time working up the motivation to get regular exercise because I was mostly during monotonous routines like jogging or push-ups in my dorm room. Later, I picked up a bike to get around campus and I started to work out more just because it was more fun to bike then it was to jog. During the pandemic, I ended up acquiring a set of rollerblades and now I can’t wait to get a work out in. If you find an exercise that's fun you will end up with a far better workout then if you use an exercise that is more intensive but boring or a chore.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: It's not very glamorous but a lot of my choice to go to ASU was financial. On top of in-state tuition, my mother worked as a university employee at the time, which reduced my tuition significantly. When it came down to a final decision, it was between UC Santa Barbara at a great personal expense or ASU with the aforementioned benefits and a provost scholarship to boot. In hindsight, I can safely say that I made the right decision.

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

A: I have had a number of amazing mentors while attending ASU who have all taught me incredibly important things, both related to their course material and applicable to life more generally. The ones that come to mind most immediately are Dr. Cassandra Cotton, Dr. Dylan Connor and Dr. Connor Sheehan. Professor Cotton was instrumental in my decision to apply for graduate school, not only solidifying my interest in pursuing research through her research methods class, but helping me throughout the application process. Professors Connor and Sheehan have also been incredibly supportive, both through advising for my honor thesis, and teaching me how to do intensive statistical and qualitative analysis and encouraging me to apply those skills towards my personal interests.

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

A: In terms of pre-college advice, I would relay the words of wisdom I received from one of my high school teachers: “College is one of the most expensive things you will ever buy, but if you spend these four years in high school really applying yourself and staying focused, you can get the university to pay you to show up.”

In terms of advice for undergraduates, I would say don’t artificially separate who you are and what you do. Over the course of my degree I must have written a half dozen papers and projects that linked to personal interests, including my honors thesis on the geography of metal music. There are almost always ways to apply your academic skills and knowledge towards personal interests, the results of such endeavors will be some of the most rewarding of your time in college.

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

A: Bar none, my favorite spot on campus is Hayden Library room C5. Every Wednesday the room hosts the ASU Album Listening Club, which has been one of the most enriching and supportive communities I have ever been a part of. It’s formatted like a book club, but instead of reading a book each week you listen to an album from a rotating set of genres that the club votes on. The club has not only greatly expanded my music tastes, but introduced me to some of the best people I have known over the last four years.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I know that post-graduation I want to pursue research. I am specifically interested in studying the internet, both as a distinct form of communication, but also as the chief generator and diffuser of culture across the globe in the modern era. Growing up in one of the first entirely connected generations, the internet and the culture it produces have been an ingrained part of my entire life and I want to be able to apply the social and geographic research skills I acquired in college towards better understanding the means and mechanism of that cultural landscape. Right now, I am still in the process of working out whether that means going to grad school immediately after graduating or spending a few years getting my feet wet in a work environment, but I am hopeful for the future in either case. 

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

A: The bummer with taking so many sustainability and sociology classes that discuss wicked problems is that you learn there are very few major issues that could be solved by throwing $40 million at them. While I don’t think it could come close to completely solving the issue, I think I would put the funds towards advocating for trans rights and the betterment of conditions for LGBTQ+ people more generally. The hostility with which trans people are treated on an individual and legislative level is untenable, especially as their mere existence has become an issue of fraught political debate. $40 million can’t solve the issue — it's doubtful that any amount of money could “solve” systemic discrimination —but it's money that could go to advocacy, organizations and charities that push us closer to a more equal future.

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