Tragedy did not deter outstanding grad from completing her degree

'I knew he would say to continue,' said student about her husband; she returned to earn master's degree 22 years after receiving bachelor’s

April 29, 2022

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

Just as Sandra Perez started her studies toward a master’s degree in program evaluation and data analytics, her husband, Moises, became ill. He passed away of non-COVID-related causes a short time later, in November 2020. Sandra Perez, Interdisciplinary Programs, spring 2022m Watts College, Outstanding Graduate. Photo courtesy Sandra Perez Sandra Perez, Interdisciplinary Programs, spring 2022 Watts College Outstanding Graduate, with her late husband, Moises. Photo courtesy Sandra Perez Download Full Image

“He was a winner. Everything on his mind he was able to do. He supported my going back to school 200%,” said Perez, the spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate in Interdisciplinary Programs at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, who enrolled 22 years after earning her bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“He had wanted to eventually go back as well. He said, ‘You do it first.’”

But her husband’s death made it difficult for Perez to concentrate on her studies. He died when she was a few assignments into her second class.

“I didn’t want to go back to school. But I began thinking about him and what he would do, and I knew he would say to continue,” she said.

It wasn’t easy. English became Perez’s second language at age 25. But she pressed on.

“To be sincere, the program was a lifesaver for me. The structure gave me short-term goals. Healing is one day at a time, sometimes a moment at a time. I took baby steps,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait any longer.”

Perez said many immigrants who hesitate about returning to school haven’t done it because they do not feel confident enough about the language.

“I would say to them, life is not perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect situation. It is a more mental barrier than a real one,” said Perez, who added she should have returned to school 20 years ago, but didn’t.

“I would like to share my experience to help people decide to go to school, because you’ll never have a perfect situation,” she said. “After all the tears, the suffering, the life-changing events, time flew by, and I finally achieved the dream I had longed for for many years. I look back, and I think my dear husband would be proud of what I have done.”

Read more to learn about Perez’s ASU journey:

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

Answer: I have been working with nonprofit organizations all my life. I have seen good programs disappear or be reduced because their grants were over. Some of these programs could have had their funding renewed, but they did not collect enough information to prove the program was working. That was my "aha" moment. I thought: "Is there a way to help these organizations to collect and use data and get more funding?"

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

A: I learned at ASU that it is never too late to go back to school, or to start school. I have a gap of 22 years since I received my bachelor’s degree, and for many years I thought it would be impossible for me to go back to school.

I always thought that education is a valuable jewel that no one can take away from you. ASU helped me to remember that. When you acquire the knowledge, you are investing in yourself. It is not easy, but it is worth it. ASU gave me confidence, and I know that I can do anything I set my mind to with effort and dedication.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU is an amazing institution. In my mind, there was no other school. ASU has been ranked No. 1 in innovation for many years. ASU offers hundreds of degrees in person and online. For full-time workers, online is a great option.

I think program evaluation and data analytics is a unique program. I always thought about it as a hybrid program. I learned tools to measure the effectiveness of a program using data and statistical formulas. With my STEM education background and my nonprofit employment experience, this program was what I was looking for.

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

Sandra Perez, Interdisciplinary Programs, spring 2022, Watts College, Outstanding Graduate. Photo courtesy Sandra Perez

Sandra Perez. Photo courtesy Sandra Perez

A: Sometimes you feel a little isolated while being an online student. However, all my teachers were excellent, professional and always willing to help out. Professors Jamison Crawford, Malcolm GogginAnthony HowellRobert KramerDavid Schlinkert, David Selby and Courtney Stowers — I want to thank each one of them, as they all helped me to learn new skills. An important lesson was that online education is as good as education in person. If you have questions, just ask. ASU professors will help answer questions and clarify doubts.

A special thank you to Jesse Lecy. He is the director of my degree program. Dr. Lecy was always there to help us. He oversees the core classes and assists us when we have questions. Thank you so much for all your help!

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

A: Just set your mind to think about short-term goals — one assignment at a time. A week at a time. If you see all the courses you need to complete, it will be very overwhelming. Do not use your energy thinking about all the years you will be spending at school.

Q: As an online student, what was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: Being an online student and working from home because of the pandemic makes you sit for a long time. There is a spot at home next to a window where I sat when I read. It helped me focus. I also played instrumental music when there was noise around.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I would like to keep working with nonprofit organizations to write grants. With the tools I learned at ASU, I can help at different levels.

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

A: This is a very difficult question. I have worked with at-risk adolescents and teenagers with challenging behaviors. That money would create programs for this population to help them learn new skills, create memorable experiences and help them to feel confident and safe. Strong teenagers create stronger communities. This could create a social change. After all, children are our future.    

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Recreation studies fascinated outstanding grad enough to change majors

Learned that people need leisure and play to maintain their health

April 29, 2022

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

Tanner Smith said she often fields questions about her degree program in parks and recreation from people who mistakenly believe it’s literally all fun and games. Questions like: “Is it like the TV show ‘Parks and Recreation’?” Tanner Smith, School of Community Resources and Development, spring 202,2 Watts College, Outstanding Graduate. Tanner Smith, School of Community Resources and Development, spring 2022 Watts College Outstanding Graduate. Photo courtesy Tanner Smith Download Full Image

Smith said she has had plenty of practice replying, since she once asked questions like that herself. (The answer, by the way, is, “No, not entirely.”)

The spring 2022 Outstanding Graduate from the School of Community Resources and Development said after learning about her field, people appreciate it as a serious study of essential elements for healthy living.

“Parks and recreation is very important, not only for adolescents, but adults. Everyone needs a source of recreation,” said Smith, who earned her Bachelor of Science degree in parks and recreation management with a certificate in special events management.

The resident of Glendale, Arizona, started at ASU majoring in biological sciences, but wasn’t happy with it. During her freshman year she took a parks and recreation class, PRM 120: Leisure and Quality of Life, that changed her outlook.

“I remember we were working on a module about the importance of play and finding your ‘flow state,’ which refers to being fully immersed in an activity and being so involved that you lose all track of time,” Smith said. “This concept immediately caught my attention and I felt a genuine excitement about learning more.”

Smith changed majors. While she didn’t become anything like the show’s lead character Leslie Knope, she learned the value that recreation offers everyone.

Smith said the popular TV comedy did get a few things right.

“Our reality is attending city hall meetings, organizing special events and interacting with community members,” she said. “From my experience, the parks and recreation field is full of individuals with the same personality and passion that many of the characters on the show had. We might not get up to the same shenanigans that they did, but we really do have fun while we are at work.”

Read on to learn more about Smith’s ASU journey:

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

Answer: I went to very small schools when I was younger, so I knew the same 10 or 15 people growing up. All of my classroom settings sadly looked the same. ASU opened a million doors into the world around me. I have met people from a plethora of different religious, spiritual, racial and cultural backgrounds who all have a different perspective to share. The value in that alone is immense. I could never have a closed mind while being here.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I knew after I finished high school I wanted to attend college, I just had no idea what major I wanted to pursue. ASU was close enough to home and offered me the best financial aid package. I have always loved school and knew I wanted to continue my education, and I am happy I ended up at ASU.

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

A: I appreciate all of the faculty I was able to interact with in my program. It almost feels wrong to not shout out each of them, since they all played a major role in my development. I want to thank Eric Legg for teaching me many important lessons while at ASU and for being an exemplary leader. I took on a lot during my undergraduate days while balancing three jobs, and I tried my best to not get overwhelmed. In many ways, Professor Legg encouraged me to keep pushing through and his consistent feedback motivated me along the way — more than he probably knows. A lesson I learned from him was to always say yes to every opportunity that comes my way because I will never know what it might lead to. He reminded me why I have such a passion for learning and why self-efficacy matters to me.

In addition, I would like to shout out Dale Larsen for being a source of positivity and creator of genuine connection, especially as we navigated classes during the pandemic. Professor Larsen has always been eager to connect myself and fellow students to opportunities that align with our career interests and introduce us to individuals to build our network.

Both of them invested in me and I appreciate them for the confidence they helped me build. I think back on myself freshman year and remember feeling so timid, without a sense of self-identity. The faculty at Watts College helped me tap into my own potential and instilled in me a flourishing self-confidence, strong work ethic and eagerness for the field.

Q:  So what important things about parks and recreation should someone whose awareness doesn’t go too far beyond the TV show know?

A: Human beings’ need for leisure and play stems back to recess in grade school and earlier as a key component toward maintaining mental and physical health. These concepts have quite a bit of science behind them. People have to decide to include recreational activities in their lives, because it can’t be done for them. Daily life can get stressful, so participating in recreational activities that we enjoy can enhance our quality of life. This is why recreation is such a necessary field. Leisure activities such as art, music or sport can help us strengthen our physical, emotional and mental well-being.

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

A: Try to enjoy your time in school without any pressure. College is a very fun time and will be the source of some of your best memories down the line. It would be a disservice to yourself to spend each day with an immense weight on your shoulders. Give yourself permission to not hold back, not take things too seriously and to be as authentic as you can be.

Q: What was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?

A: On the Downtown Phoenix campus, I spent a lot of time at Fillmore Coffee Co. or in the UCENT (University Center) library study rooms. I also spent large amounts of time on the ASU shuttles as commuting took up a lot of my days. The shuttle ride is nice to listen to music and ponder life, I think I even cried once or twice on there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: This is a tough question. I have a lot of ideas for what I want to do after graduation and my list of passions continues to grow. I always thought when I reached this point in my academic journey I would have my exact career picked out, but I can’t say that I do. All I know for sure is that after graduation, I hope to be working somewhere that makes me happy and allows me to positively impact my community. Security and happiness are my top two priorities after graduation.

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

A: As a parks and recreation student, I have learned what to consider when building a healthy community and there are a lot of factors that go into lessening the health gaps caused by differences in income, race, education and location. Simply put, I would want to use the money to increase access to health care. I wish I could provide every human being with access to quality health care as well as the safety and reassurance that they can access it when they need it.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions