Arizona native, first-generation college student graduates from ASU with 4 degrees

May 10, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Vanessa Aguiar knows firsthand what it means to represent family and be a catalyst for change. Vanessa Aguiar poses in an outdoor setting wearing her graduation gown, cap and stole. Vanessa Aguiar is graduating this spring with degrees in French, global studies, philosophy and political science. Photo by Andrea Chavez Download Full Image

Attending and completing college as a first-generation student poses significant challenges and is an enormous accomplishment for any student. But Aguiar went above and beyond, earning degrees in French, global studies, philosophy and political science.

Aguiar was born to immigrant farmworkers in the border town of San Luis, Arizona, south of Yuma. Learning the value of hard work through her parents’ dedication and the values they instilled in her, she wanted to be a beacon of hope for her family and many others.

When she began her first year at Arizona State University to pursue a global studies degree, she developed interests in political science and philosophy.

She turned to her academic advisor to see if it was feasible to add additional majors.

“My advisor was very supportive of adding the two majors,” she said. “Then, sophomore year, I took a French class and was strongly interested in adding that subject. That’s how I ended up with four majors.”

The learning didn’t stop there. Despite her sophomore year being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aguiar took part in virtual internships with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing the next generation of Latino leaders.

Aguiar also spent most of her four years in several leadership and professional roles at the university, mainly as a financial aid representative, a policy analyst for ASU Knowledge Enterprise and a counselor in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

But one of the most profound accomplishments on her long list of achievements was her time as a UCLA Law Fellow the summer before her junior year. Aiming to be a lawyer one day, Aguiar was one of two out-of-state fellows in the program. They welcomed her into the program and gave her an insight into law school.

Here, she speaks about her time at ASU.

Question: How did you manage a challenging course load?

Answer: It was tough. A lot was going on during the early years of college, with some personal issues and navigating the pandemic. I think I was trying to pile a lot on to forget about it and quickly figured out it wasn’t healthy. I needed to step back and focus only on what I loved to do.

Q: What does it mean for you to be a first-generation college student and represent your family in that way?

A: It might feel funny, but I’m part of ending a cycle. Knowing firsthand what it takes to accomplish and figure everything out on your own is a special thing. It is remarkable to be able to dedicate each one of my degrees to each member of my family because we are a family of four.

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU?

A: It’s not wrong to know yourself and your limits and when it is enough and that too much is too much. I learned not to be afraid to quit or pause things when life gets too crazy.

Q: Why did you decide to attend ASU?

A: It was the wisest decision financially, but when I visited the three state universities, ASU felt the most comforting, and my heart belonged there. But also the representation of diversity, sharing my stories with others like me and hearing advice from others to balance it out.

Q: What advice would you give an incoming first-year student?

A: Two things: Do not be afraid to know yourself and be your authentic self. Second, do not compare yourself to others. Whatever a person is doing is already enough.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m moving to Washington, D.C., to work with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute this summer. I will be a fellow with them for the first few months and work on Capitol Hill. I have the option to transfer to a federal agency.

Q: How do you think all these fields of study mesh together?

A: They have been merging this whole time. In my law school classes, I learned many laws were started in France; some of the most famous philosophers are French. At least, I think these studies opened my perspective to different ways of thinking.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I want to be an intellectual property law attorney in the entertainment or fashion industry. One day I hope to merge them because I am interested in politics as well.

Stephen Perez

Marketing and Communications Coordinator, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

ASU grad bridges gap between science, practice

May 10, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Prior to coming to Arizona State University, Florian Schneider thought he was done with academia. He had already received an undergraduate and graduate degree in meteorology from Leipzig University in Germany and believed his school days were behind him. However, an experience he had with some other solo travelers while on vacation was just the push he needed to dive back into the world of academic research. Florian smiling at the camera wearing an ASU hat, a pink shirt and a green neck gaiter with an ocean in the background Florian Schneider is graduating with a PhD in sustainability from the School of Sustainability housed within the ASU College of Global Futures. Download Full Image

“When you are with strangers that you meet for a very brief time, you can be so open and transparent with them,” Schneider said. “It’s one of the most fascinating dynamics between human beings.”

Their conversations spanned a variety of topics, including some of Schneider’s past research and work. His new acquaintances picked up on his passion and remarked on his tendency to share information in an educational yet conversational way. One went so far as to directly ask why he wasn’t in academia.

“They were in medical school, and I thought it was so different — one path is service-oriented, one is education-oriented,” Schneider said. 

After that, he did some reflecting and eventually reached out to some different programs that aligned with his interests in exploring the human aspect of sustainability in urban spaces. This is what led him to his PhD supervisor and eventually to ASU.

Schneider is graduating with a PhD in sustainability from the School of Sustainability housed within the ASU College of Global Futures. Read on to learn more about his experiences at ASU in his own words.

Question: Why did you choose to attend ASU?

Answer: I didn't; ASU chose me. Or let's say, ASU chose my advisor. I was in contact with the chair of my PhD committee, applying to a PhD at Temple University in Philadelphia where she was located at the time. What I didn’t know was that she had applied for tenure-track positions here at ASU because this is where she was originally from. Then in June 2018, she told me, “Hey, I resigned from my position at Temple. But you know what, you can come with me to ASU if you want.” There were two great programs: sustainability or ... urban planning. I decided that sustainability fit better with my ideals. 

Q: Tell me a little bit more about your background and what drew you to sustainability.

A: I'm originally from Germany, born and raised in the area of Bonn. Just south of it. I grew up in a rural environment — I recognize this even more now that I'm living here and talking to all of you. When I was young I was a scout, and so I was out and about all the time, affected by weather and storms and climate. It always fascinated me. I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology, climate science and atmospheric science. 

Throughout that time, climate change was a big factor, and I recognize that climate change is a big chunk of sustainability. Both are complex issues that are highly intertwined with one another and have multiple interdependencies with other fields — nutrition, survivability, social injustices, etc. I decided to come here, and this program better aligned with my sustainability and climate change perspectives. Before this, I studied climate change in the Arctic. I went from a very cold place to a very warm place. My hope was to focus on the people, to take a step back from the computer and focus on how these things impact us and other living beings around us in a social, environmental and economic manner. 

Here at the school, I find myself working not only with quantitative science but including mixed methods and qualitative science, interviewing people instead of just collecting environmental heat data. Working with the city and community instead of just sitting in front of my computer. Actually interacting with the people out there and not just staying in my little bubble of the university is valuable. We’re not just looking at the data and finding statistical significance, but we’re actually valuing every individual voice and those perspectives. It’s something that (the School of) Sustainability and Arizona State University really do a great job on.  

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

A: There's not a single one. Almost every professor, faculty or staff member that I've interacted with in this space had some kind of positive influence on me, whether it was emotional or mental support in certain situations or even just administrative help. 

There were unique experiences that some people gave me. I was extremely thankful for the opportunity to go in 2019 with Professor (Rob) Melnick to Hong Kong as my study abroad in the summer. It was the last time that this study was offered because afterward, Hong Kong was shut down by China. This made this opportunity even more unique — to experience this very different culture and extremely urban space. Another unique experience was the interplay of different committee members for my PhD and the way they valued positive experiences and provided feedback, but in a different way. The professors, Professor (Ariane) Middel, my chair, and Professor (Jennifer) Vanos, my sustainability committee member, were definitely guiding forces throughout my academic career at ASU from the first moment I met both of them in fall of 2018. 

What I’m really glad about with all of this, whether it’s faculty members that I’ve worked with, or staff members, I think I can call all of them my friends. In Germany, saying friend is a different thing than in the U.S., and I can really say I can call them friends. I got to make these personal connections with all of them while being in a professional environment, and that’s so unique. I’m really glad about how much positivity has existed in this space over the years. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm deeply interested in being a mediator between science and practice — the best use of my skill set and the research that I've done, whether it's purely quantitative or qualitative, or working with communities, working with cities, across departments. … This skill set and experience come in handy when communicating between those entities. My hope is to further educate myself in the direction of policy so we can have change happening at local, federal and state governmental levels. I would like to see funding going to communities and going towards research that focuses on people. Another factor is being able to translate this research into action or, even better, to create research that is readily actionable. That can only be done with people, and that’s where I want to be, in a space where I can work with people from all these different entities and help them create actionable research.

Q: Did you have a favorite spot on campus for studying, for socializing or just for pondering life around ASU?

A: Here at Tempe campus, I favored the Secret Garden at times, for calm moments. At Polytechnic I just loved the general campus and how wherever I was sitting, usually outside if it wasn’t high summer, I could be close to nature. I miss the trees, and at Polytechnic, I could really reconnect to nature because the campus is designed with nature, especially native nature, in mind. It’s a beautiful campus. Poly and Tempe have these two spots that really energize me. I’ve also had the chance to visit West campus and collect data there myself. It’s a beautiful campus, too — I think West and Poly are both beautiful in their own ways. I’ve been to the Washington, D.C., campus building. It has a unique vibe — being close to the (National) Mall allows you to go for a quick stroll. ASU becomes a world entity in that space. 

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

A: I think the best use of $40 million is investing in education that allows equitable access. I know that $40 million is not much when you think about construction or something like that. The building we’re sitting in right now has to be almost $200 million itself. That’s not really the point, but when we think about $40 million, it’s a lot of money for an individual. Having access, getting a degree in whatever field you like; these things help you to prosper — not just yourself, but also your family and your community. We could use $40 million in different places for different programs, but we need education in spaces for everyone to create these pathways. $40 million? Give it to the people. Invest in people.

Dana Peters

Communications specialist , College of Global Futures