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Online student finds opportunities, community at ASU

After struggling with math in community college, Shawna Brechbill now thriving in ASU Online biological sciences program


Portrait of ASU Online student Shawna Brechbill wearing sunglasses and sitting by the ocean with her laptop, some paper and a coffee.

Shawna Brechbill is an ASU Online student majoring in biological sciences and a participant in Barrett Honors College Online. Photo courtesy Shawna Brechbill

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January 20, 2023

Shawna Brechbill worked as an emergency medical technician and paramedic in the East Bay and North Bay communities near San Francisco, California, for nine years before deciding to change course and pursue a bachelor’s degree.

But the transition wasn’t easy for the 39-year-old who struggled with math in community college, failing algebra three times.

She has a learning disability called dyscalculia that went undiagnosed until a couple of years ago. Dyscalculia, sometimes called “number dyslexia” or “math dyslexia,” is a math learning disability that impairs an individual’s ability to learn number-related concepts, do calculations, problem-solve and grasp basic math skills.

Finally having a name and explanation of what was holding her back prompted her to work on strategies for learning and applying math skills.

Brechbill is now an Arizona State University student majoring in biological sciences with a certificate in evolutionary medicine through ASU Online. She also is in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU’s online program and is on track to graduate this May.

“Now, as an adult, I can see it had nothing to do with being unintelligent, but with how my brain works,” she said, adding that she has passed university courses in calculus, organic chemistry and physics.

She works full time as a manager for a Starbucks in Northern California and takes 12 to 18 credits per semester. She receives assistance through the company’s College Achievement Plan, which pays for tuition and the honors college fee. So far, about $60,000 in tuition has been covered, while Brechbill pays for books and course fees.

“Being an online student has been perfect for me. It allows me to have flexibility in how I pursue my education. I wanted to dig in and make it happen, and the ASU and Barrett online programs help me to do that,” said Brechbill, who lives in Nevada City, California, a small mountain town and artistic community.

“Being a part of Barrett completely changed how I engage as a student. Barrett has helped me feel like an actual student at ASU. I’m part of a smaller community, and I have so much more attention from faculty and staff,” she said, adding, “Barrett makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something academic and significant. Also, I can say I’m an honors student and I’m really proud of that.”

Brechbill also is in the Barrett Undergraduate Research Fellows Program, where she is working on a project called "Intelligently predicting viral spillover risks from bats and other wild mammals,” which is funded by the National Institutes of Health and supervised at ASU by Assistant Professors Beckett Sterner and Nathan Upham. The project focuses on transmission or “viral spillover” of wildlife viruses to humans. 

As part of an undergraduate team, she researches and reviews articles on the topic and extracts and compiles data.

That’s not the only research project Brechbill has worked on. For her honors thesis, she collaborated with teachers in Zimbabwe and Zambia to create curriculum to help students aged 12 to 18 recognize medical disinformation and misinformation online.

“What prompted the project is that the cost of data is incredible high. They (students) can get information on WhatsApp and Facebook, which offer their data for free. But there’s lots of disinformation and misinformation on these platforms, and access to the internet is very costly and unaffordable, so there’s a barrier to them accessing information for fact-checking,” she said.

The number three figures prominently in her educational journey: “I’ve been with Starbucks three years in May. I will graduate three days prior to my three-year anniversary with Starbucks,” Brechbill said.

“There have been challenges along the way, but overall it’s been an incredible experience and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be a part of it."

Brechbill already is working on graduate school applications and hopes to begin graduate school in fall 2023.

She wants to focus on One Health, which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a “collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment.”

Put more simply, “It’s the future of global health preparedness and emerging health looking at the whole picture of health,” Brechbill said.

She has applied for a Fulbright award to study for a master’s degree in One Health at the Royal Veterinary College and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Her longer-term goal is to apply to PhD programs at Cornell University; University of California, Davis; and the University of Washington.

“I want to do fieldwork for emerging diseases at the intersection of humans and wildlife. Barrett and ASU have helped me get there by giving me an education in STEM that’s top notch. Being a Barrett student, it gave me an edge in graduate school applications. I have developed relationships with faculty who have been amazing mentors and given me great recommendations,” she said.

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