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Community ties inspire grad's passion for global health


Heather Varsalona wears a graduation cap and gown while standing behind the counter at Starbucks and smiling into the camera

Heather Varsalona

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December 01, 2023

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

Heather Varsalona’s goal of getting a college degree has been twenty years in the making. 

This fall, Varsalona will not only graduate with two degrees — global health and communication — she will be able to show her children the results of perseverance and achieving your goals.

As a teenager in 1995, the Kennesaw, Georgia, native started working at Starbucks. When she started her family, balancing life and career became difficult, and she chose to prioritize home life. 

Varsalona thought she’d return to work once her children were old enough to go to school but decided to homeschool them instead. It wasn’t until they reached high school age that she had the chance to think about reentering the workforce and pursuing her dream of going to college. 

Twenty years after she’d left, Varsalona returned to Starbucks and began working for the coffeehouse chain once again. She also enrolled at ASU and began to pursue her degrees through ASU Online, a modality that allowed her to balance her education with family and work demands.

“I knew they offered the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) benefit to the partners,” she said. “One of my personal goals for returning to Starbucks was to get to a space to be able to complete my college degree. Accomplishing this goal has always been in the back of my mind, and the partnership between Starbucks and ASU has helped me reach that dream.”

While at ASU, Varsalona found ways to support her online community, mentoring online students through the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and eventually co-directing the program. 

She also joined the Global Friends Club and Delta Sigma sorority.

Giving back to her community has always been a driving force in Varsalona’s life. Her decision to double-major was inspired by her experiences running a soup kitchen and a desire to help the women and families she met there who were struggling with trauma, family violence and other challenges. 

“The women discussed these issues more than the men,” Varsalona said. “So from my experience with the ladies, I sought out a degree at ASU that addressed health-related issues. One of the first classes I took was Maternal and Child Health. I instantly realized I was on the right path. I am passionate about identifying health disparities and looking for solutions.”

Courses such as Ethics of Eating shed light on food systems, fair farming wages and transportation of food, and Gender and Communications explored the many facets of gender and identity that impact everyday communication. 

“These classes significantly shaped how I look at food systems and what I choose to put on my plate,” Varsalona said. “They helped me think outside of my heteronormative mindset and be a more effective participant in communication on a personal, group and institutional level. They are part of my cumulative choice to pursue a graduate degree in global environmental health.”

We spoke with the new graduate about her experience with ASU Online and her plans for the future.

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

Answer: As a global health student, your degree course track requires a study abroad. I completed my study abroad in Australia in the summer of 2023. I was blown away that the European colonization practices in Australia mirrored that of America. People were forcefully removed from their land, and children were placed in boarding schools where they were “white-washed” into colonial thinking. Aboriginal children were still in the schools as late as the 1960s. Some of our lecturers have living relatives who remember being removed from their family to be placed in the boarding school. 

My perspective of colonization changed after visiting Australia. I originally felt removed from the term “colonizer” because neither I nor my immediate family contributed to the loss of Native lands in America. However, through my study abroad experience, I came to understand the long-term effects of colonization on all Indigenous people. For me, it is a mindset shift from an unconscious bias or passive thought that colonization is not my fault to actively acknowledging the losses Indigenous people experienced and currently face.

Q: Why did you choose ASU Online?

A: ASU was partnered with the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, and I am beyond excited to have experienced a world-class education through ASU Online. 

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

A: There are a few professors who have shaped my ASU journey. Dr. Amber Wutich has been instrumental in helping guide my path in global public health. Dr. Wutich is passionate about water access and scarcity issues and their effects on human health. She and her colleagues at the Culture, Health, and Environment Lab (CHELab) have created opportunities for undergraduate students to understand and participate in social science research. 

I would not have been able to participate in CHELab if it had not been for my statistics professor, Bethany Van Vleet. She helped me embrace a growth mindset of “I don’t know how to do this — yet.” I am by no means a statistician, but I feel confident to be able to apply to graduate school in the field of public health, which requires a strong understanding of statistics. 

The final lesson an ASU professor has taught me is to communicate enthusiasm in all things that you do. Dr. Mary Ann McHugh did an amazing job at conveying a zeal for understanding communication concepts and theory while also making her students feel welcome and engaged in an online platform where you sometimes feel unnoticed. 

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

A: Connect into the many resources that ASU offers. Take the chance and apply for an undergrad intern/research position. Check out Sun Devil Sync. There are so many opportunities to connect with other people from around the world. I have a conversational partner in Japan; I have mentored online students from all over the country; and I have loved participating in an online sorority. 

Also, don’t give up! There are days that are going to be so hard that you may want to lay your head down and cry. It is okay to be in that mental space for a short time, but after a while lift your head up and tell yourself, “I can do this.” Then, on the days when you nail a test or paper, celebrate your accomplishment. You did it! Take the wins and the losses and know that you are changing your future for you. 

Q: What was your favorite location for power studying?

A: I created a study space in my room. I am the type of person who needs a quiet space to be able to concentrate. I have a few plants near my desk, a clock set to Arizona time, inspirational sayings, and pictures that make me happy. One of my new favorite pictures is a pensive photo of a dingo sitting on the beach in K’gari, Australia, looking out at the Pacific Ocean. My dingo friend reminds me that, no matter where you are, you can always look out to the world to see what might be in store for your future. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to apply to graduate school for global health or global environmental health. My end goal is to work in the NGO public health space regarding health disparities relating to environmental determinants.  

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

A: I would jump headlong into WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene — research and programming. Women and children are most significantly affected by access to clean, safe water.

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