Dean’s Medalist reflects on her journey from language aficionado to accomplished Spanish graduate


Portrait of ASU grad Kaley Danks.

Kaley Danks, courtesy photo

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

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University has selected Kaley Danks, a double major in Spanish and biological sciences (biology and society), as the fall 2023 Dean’s Medalist for the School of International Letters and Cultures. 

Danks began taking Spanish classes when she was 11 years old and enjoyed learning the language so much that she decided to stick with it. She even had the opportunity to serve at a Spanish-speaking mission for her church where she lived in Idaho for a year and a half. During this time, Danks spent significant time on potato farms with migrant farmworkers, which helped strengthen her Spanish-speaking skills in addition to her Spanish classes in college. 

Danks always wanted to attend ASU because it was close to home and offered a variety of classes that were of interest to her. She was especially interested in Barrett, The Honors College, which gives students additional opportunities to enhance their education at ASU. She was also interested in ASU's language department.

“The foreign language department here at ASU is really good, so it’s pretty easy to take classes from there because it’s super fun," she said.

Last year, Danks had the opportunity to participate in ASU’s Policy Design Studio and Internship program for one semester in Washington, D.C., an experience she called “incredible.” According to the ASU internship website, students from all majors have the chance to play the role of the U.S. embassy, discussing events in real time, coming up with solutions and meeting with different experts, such as military officers and senior diplomats.

“I learned a lot about how to stand up for myself, which sounds kind of interesting, but when you’re in Washington and there’s these big people around you, you have to set your own path for sure,” Danks said. “It was a huge learning experience. I’d never been in that position before where I had to advocate for myself like that.”

Danks is currently applying to law school in hopes of using her Spanish-speaking skills to make a difference in the Arizona community. 

“I really hope that I can use my Spanish in my legal career. Especially in Arizona, there’s so many people that need access to legal services that don’t speak English,” she said.

Read more about her undergrad experience at ASU below.

Question: What is the biggest lesson that you learned in college?

Answer: I’ve had a lot of experiences where I tried really, really hard and the outcomes didn’t turn out, which was frustrating, but I learned that if I think I can do something and I fail, I can’t let that be it. I have to get back up and keep trying. I realized that I was going to have integrity in myself and believe that I could do it. And so I got up and I pushed and pushed and pushed. I didn’t try new stuff because I was scared that I was gonna be bad at it, but now I feel like I’m willing to work through the “being bad” stage until I get where I want to go.

Q: What advice would you give to first-year students who are just starting out at ASU?

A: My advice is to try anything that interests you. As far as extracurriculars and courses go, ASU has so many different opportunities because it’s a big university. There’s a seemingly infinite number of clubs and courses, and you don’t have to be confined to the courses that are in your major map. ASU leaves you room so that you can take other courses that interest you. I feel like I learned how to take advantage of everything that ASU offers, and I think every student needs to learn how to do that because you’re only in college once. This is a time where you have 24/7 access to all kinds of interests, hobbies and different friends, and I feel like anyone would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t explore. 

Q: Can you tell me about a professor that inspired you or impacted you in some way?

A: Sophia Fernandez was one of the best professors ever. That’s the class that I probably remember the most from, and I took it maybe two years ago. Her teaching will always stand out to me. My other professor was Cezar Medeiros, and he teaches Portuguese. He is the most encouraging professor you will ever meet. I don’t think there was a single day I went to class that he didn’t say, “You guys are doing so good. You’re learning so much.” And this way is just like basic Portuguese. I was learning how to say "cat" and "dog" and construct basic sentences, but he just always made sure that we knew he was so proud of us and he saw our effort, and it just makes you want to learn. It makes you want to try hard. He was also a very fun professor.

Q: If you were given $40 million, what would you do with that money?

A: I want to be successful in my career because I want to be able to give back to people. I came to ASU on a scholarship, and that’s the only way that I was able to afford this education. Even being in state, it’s still really expensive for me. And that’s just how it is for college education. And so I didn’t know how I was gonna be able to manage that, but I was blessed enough to find a scholarship donor (ASU New American University President’s Scholarship and the Beus Family Scholarship) who believed in me and my abilities. And from that, I have gained such an appreciation. I didn’t have to work full time while I was studying because I knew that my school was taken care of, so I could focus on my grades and explore college. That’s something I’m so grateful for and really want to give other people that same experience that I had because I know that very few people can go to college and not have to take out a loan.

Q: What is your fondest memory from your time here at ASU?

A: My husband and I started dating here at ASU and we used to ride our longboards around campus at night. And that’s something that I’ll always remember. It's just when it’s quiet and dark outside and we have been studying all day and then decided to go out and just ride longboards when the weather’s cool and you’re out with somebody that you love and just having a fun time.

Q: What was your proudest moment in your college career?

A: I think being on the verge of graduating. I am very proud of that. But there was one semester that was so difficult and I had a lot going on. I was planning my wedding and I was doing the internship and it was away from home. To come home from that and have my grades turn out well that semester, have my wedding go really well and finish with an internship, I was just so proud of what I had learned in juggling all of those different responsibilities.

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