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ASU Local celebrates a globetrotting community advocate among its 1st graduates

Nikki lines up with smiling friends on snowy landscape

Psychology major Nikki Leon (second from the top) enjoying a snowy day with friends in Angelus Oaks, California.

April 26, 2022

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

Nikki Leon is one of the first students to graduate from ASU Local in Los Angeles — ASU’s hybrid university experience.

MORE: NFL podcast creator among first in ASU Local graduating class

Before choosing her field of study, she was pursuing a child development degree at a community college. However, her passion for understanding the human mind and the thinking process led her to foundational psychology courses. This, in turn, changed the direction of her college focus. 

“After I realized child development wasn’t the route for me, I explored various avenues and psychology was the one that just clicked,” she said. “I find that I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of who I am as a person.” 

To help her fund her education, Leon was awarded the ASU Local Scholarship, the ASU Local First 50 scholarship, the ASU Summer University Grant, among other grants. This type of support allows Leon — and most ASU Local students — to continue onward in their college journey.

We caught up with Leon as she prepared for this year’s groundbreaking graduation and learned more about her compelling experience at ASU Local.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU Local that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: Ever since I graduated from high school, I’ve been in and out of school for financial and other reasons. Going to school wasn’t my main priority or something I thought I could excel in. I felt that school was where I needed to do my best — always be on the top. Growing up, my parents always pushed my siblings and me to excel, to get all A’s. That structure of what I needed to do or be was imprinted in my head. Attending ASU Local gave me a different perspective.

The hybrid modality opened my eyes to the possibility that academics aren’t necessarily the most crucial part. What’s so great about the program is that it incorporates networking outside of school. They bring in professionals, facilitate workshops and help us excel beyond academics. I’ve been able to build character and develop other attributes for my future success. Worklife is not only about my grades or how well I did in school. It is about the connections I make, how I carry myself, the different aspects of my persona, and my ability to communicate effectively and perform multiple tasks that I wouldn’t necessarily have learned how to achieve in the classroom. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU Local?

A: I’m a transfer student. After community college, I explored schools that offered psychology majors locally. ASU Local was the school that reached out to me first, and I was super grateful for that. Generally, one has to go through a lengthy application process. I did not want to deal with the anxiety of waiting to find out if I was accepted. ASU became the school I wanted to attend because of how welcoming it was. Enrollment Director Taylor Pineda called me and explained the entire program. She shared what ASU Local had to offer and what I could gain from the hybrid university experience. It was fate; it happened at the right time and moment. 

Q: Which professor or coach taught you the most important lesson at ASU Local?

A: Raquel Perez was my success coach when I started — she was wonderful! However, my current coach, Stefan Kennerly, has had the most significant impact on my ASU experience. We’ve had many conversations and he always takes the time to listen to my concerns, giving me the time to process everything. I’m not always great at responding to messages but he is patient, understanding, kind, flexible and keeps up with me. He helps without pushing. Stefan taught me that people outside my immediate circle also care about my success — in and out of school.

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

A: Know who you are. By discovering who you are first, you avoid having others define you. Growing up, I thought I was the person everybody thought I was. Going through school and learning about other people’s life experiences and knowledge — our coaches and classmates — has helped me give myself more credit than I used to. I can see a different perspective in my life that has helped me and pushed me to want to complete my degree. I’ve moved on to be the person I can see myself becoming instead being someone who is defined by what others say I can or cannot be or become. 

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

A: There is a small meeting room on the first floor of the Herald Examiner Building with a pleasant atmosphere and plenty of sunlight. My friends and I hang out there almost daily. That room has seen our friendships grow: we have lunch there and talk about school and life. I feel very comfortable in that space, and always gravitate towards it. Citywise, I enjoy going to a coffee or tea shop near my home to study. 

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

A: I would finance solutions that support displaced communities — specifically, orphaned children, refugees and youth in foster care. I know it takes more than $40 million to tackle this problem. However, through my volunteer and missionary work locally and internationally, I’ve witnessed the tremendous positive impact of seed funding. I would not necessarily invest these funds in food, clothing and other basic needs as local governments, NGOs and businesses most commonly sponsor these. I would instead invest in education programs tailored to these communities, including staff to run them, for the most significant and long-term impact. 

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