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Graduate fulfills educational goals overseas through ASU Online


December 05, 2022

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

It was 2019, and Shannon Zellner was living in North Dakota with her 2-year-old daughter when she decided it was time to return to school to finish her degree. 

“It was time to get really serious about going back to school,” Zellner said. “I was tired of working a dead-end job.” 

Selfie of Shannon Zellner wearing graduation regalia.
Shannon Zellner

Her husband, a member of the Air Force, was deployed at the time when he called her from overseas on the day she was scheduled to meet with a college advisor. He had received orders, and they were relocating to Japan at the end of the year.

Zellner recalls asking herself, “Would I have to hold out yet again on my dreams and aspirations?” 

As a military spouse and mother, she was already well-versed in pivoting. She decided she could still finish her degree if the program was online.

At the urging of her mom and several friends, the Colorado Springs native researched schools and reached out to academic advisors. Her search led her to  Arizona State University. She enrolled in the sociology (BS) degree program offered through ASU Online, and by January 2020, she was taking her first classes in a foreign country.

Going back to school came with challenges. She was raising a toddler while living abroad. Then, soon after moving to Japan, her husband was deployed to Iraq. 

But quitting wasn’t an option. She had a lot of cheerleaders in her corner. Her dad was really proud that she went back to school and her husband was a huge advocate for her to accomplish her dream. Plus, her motivation to finish her degree was bigger than just getting out of a dead-end career. 

“My daughter kept me going,” she said. “I would work at my dining table with my laptop and my (at the time) 3-year-old would join me with her ‘laptop’ and do homework with me.”

Zellner worked full time while pursuing her degree. When the pandemic hit, she says she doubled down, putting all of her energy into school and adding summer classes to her full workload. By her third year, she quit her job so she could focus on volunteer opportunities to build her resume.

It was during an introductory course to sociology that Zellner discovered her love for social sciences.

“I was shocked that social sciences was a thing. It was my thing,” she said. “I realized I could take my curiosity of different social aspects of the world and apply them to my own intersectionalities and others.”

Alden Weight, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, remembers Zellner fondly. 

“I found Shannon an inquisitive, diligent, thorough, open-minded, accepting, inclusive and compassionate student,” he said. “It was a delight to teach her.  She clearly enjoyed learning and exploring.” 

Zellner delved deep into the subject matter and made connections that few students in the class make, Weight added.

“She did what most successful online students do: Engage the material and instruction on a human level,” he said.

Zellner applied her coursework to her military life when she became a "key spouse" for her husband’s squadron in January 2022, reaching out to other military spouses and their families living on Misawa Air Base, where they are currently stationed, to support them in different areas of their life. 

The U.S. Air and Space Force Key Spouse Program is “an official Unit Family Readiness Program designed to enhance readiness and establish a sense of community. Key spouses are volunteers appointed by the unit commander that serve as a conduit of information providing resources to Air Force families.” 

“This was right on the money of what I would love to put my time, energy, compassion and education into,” Zellner said.

Her dreams of achieving her educational goals did not come without hardships and heartbreak.

In an unexpected turn of events, Zellner experienced a death in the family not once, but twice. One of those events was the passing of her father. Both occasions called for long trips back to the U.S. 

Despite those challenges and the loss she experienced, she was determined to finish her degree. Thanks to the flexibility of the online program and the support she received from the ASU Online faculty, she was able to do so. 

Whenever she encountered major challenges, Zellner reached out to her professors to adjust deadlines and alternate assignments. She says the connections she made with those instructors have been instrumental to her academic success, including securing the John Hudson Scholarship in 2021 and 2022.

Zellner’s journey has been filled with triumphs, too. She was accepted and inducted into two honor societies, Alpha Kappa Delta and Phi Beta Kappa, and she was able to apply what she learned through her courses to her personal life, allowing her to help others.

“I would love to be a military and family life counselor for the Air Force,” she said. “I have the biggest dream of being a PhD student in sociology.”

This fall, Zellner will graduate summa cum laude with her bachelor's degree in sociology, a minor in Spanish and a minor in family and human development.

What would she have said to her father on graduation day? 

“Soy poderosa, soy educada, soy latina y orgullosa,” Zellner said. “Lo hice, Papi. I did it!” 

Written by Margot LaNoue for ASU Online.

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