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ASU Online alumna overcomes adversity, becomes advocate for military families

Shannon Zellner celebrates her graduation, dressed in a cap and gown in a snowy Japan

Shannon Zellner earned her degree in sociology via ASU Online while living in Japan after her husband was stationed there. She now works a victim advocate with the Family Advocacy Program on base, using her sociology expertise to support active-duty service members and their spouses, partners and families. Photo courtesy of Shannon Zellner

May 17, 2024

Editor's note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. For National Military Appreciation Month, we’re sharing the story of a military family advocate’s journey across the globe.

When Shannon Zellner, a military spouse, got the call that she, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter would be moving to Japan in 2019, a single thought went through her head: “Will I have to hold out yet again on my dreams and aspirations?”

Tired of dead-end jobs, the North Dakota resident had just scheduled an advising appointment with a local college to finish her degree — a move that would open up new career opportunities. Now she was flying across the world to start a new life. 

Unwilling to give up on her goals, Zellner searched for online colleges and found ASU Online. She pored over online reviews, met with academic advisors and was accepted to the program — all before leaving for Japan.

Finally, Zellner could finish school and pursue a better life through a bachelor’s degree in sociology. For her, the prospect of delving into the social sciences was a long-awaited opportunity.

Shannon Zellner posing in front of the American flag on a military base in Japan.
Shannon Zellner

“As a young girl, I was always interested in ‘why’ and ‘how’ people are different,” she says. “I made lots of friends with people from all over the world, and when I took an introduction course to sociology, I would find myself reading the textbook for fun.”

The journey to her degree, however, would be far from easy. 

Persevering through unexpected circumstances

As Zellner worked through her degree, she knew it would be tough, as she had to juggle the roles of a full-time employee, student and mother, sometimes while her husband was on deployment.

But unexpectedly, during her senior year in April 2022, Zellner's father fell seriously ill. She flew back to the United States in time to see him, and he passed on the same day she arrived. It was a devastating loss. 

Then, on the flight back to Japan, fate stepped in once more.

“I don’t know what compelled me to do this, but — I took a pregnancy test with me on the airplane,” she says. “Thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean, in a tiny airplane bathroom, I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant.”

As she grappled with the loss of her father, the pregnancy was a surprise, but she dug down deep and kept her eye on the degree.

“I battled with severe depression with the loss of my father. It affected me … and I was a high-risk pregnancy,” she says. “Despite this, I pressed on with my senior year.”

“I saw a counselor and started therapy. I delved into giving back to the military community. I dedicated my senior year to studying and applying my education to the Key Spouse Program in the Air Force.”

This attitude of resilience and determination saw her through. Months later, Zellner did what she set out to do and more: Not only did she earn her bachelor’s degree, but she did it with flying colors, graduating with perfect grades. She gave birth to her baby one week later.

Shannon Zellner celebrates her graduation, dressed in a cap and gown in a snowy Japan
Shannon Zellner earned her Bachelor of Science in sociology in 2022 from the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. A week later, she gave birth. Courtesy photo

The same day she welcomed her new daughter to the world, she found out she was selected as the Joan Orr Spouse of the Year in the Fifth Air Force, a prestigious award presented by the community she cared deeply about.

“This was a huge accomplishment,” she says. “I was so honored I won, let alone was nominated for the recognition. It was a great day.”

Securing the job of her dreams

In November 2023, Zellner and her family relocated to Okinawa, Japan, where she began applying for jobs in her degree field. She faced setbacks due to a lack of job experience, but then a position opened up as a victim advocate with the Family Advocacy Program on base. 

Taking the advice of a friend, she updated her resume to emphasize her volunteer work and degree, which included Working with Military Families courses such as FAS 410: Military Family Systems in a Democracy and a final project called "The Importance of Understanding Children and Strategizing for Military Children During Deployments.” She got the job.

“During my interview … I spoke about how my education and drive to serve the military community would be an asset to the agency,” she says. “Every question they had, I had a foundation of knowledge because of my degree in sociology. My answers really impressed them, and despite being the underdog, I was selected for the position. Education is powerful, and the application of it can and will go a long way.”

Now Zellner uses her sociology expertise to support active-duty service members and their spouses, partners and families. Her work entails preventing adult-initiated abuse, ensuring victim safety and providing treatment for those impacted by abuse through advocacy, counseling and educational services.

It’s the kind of career she once could have only dreamed of.

“This is my first ‘white collar’ job,” Zellner says. “I have always worked in food, retail and services. To think it all started with me thinking it would be a good idea to go back to school in Minot, North Dakota, to here in Okinawa getting to use my education to serve the community I love so deeply — with a career ASU helped me get — is surreal.

“I made it. I finally made it, and I look forward to all the possibilities coming my way because of ASU and my perseverance.”

With her next academic achievement on the horizon — a master’s degree in social work from ASU Online on track for a 2026 graduation — Zellner has a few words for other students persevering through tough times:

“Keep going and always remember your ‘why.’ Hang on to what led you to your decision to pursue higher education. There is space for you. And if you see that there is no space for you, make space! You got this!

“No me haré pequeña para que tú te sientas grande. Sigue adelante, amiga. Tu perteneces aquí,” she adds, which translates to “I will not make myself small so that you feel big. Keep going, friend. You belong here.”

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