College success is all in the family


Emma Greguska

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here .

Nine years ago, Christine Besaw found herself the sole provider for her two young children, working for minimum wage and scraping by with help from state assistance. Then, one day, she had a realization.

“I didn’t want to be there anymore,” she said. So Christine (above left) began taking courses at ASU while her daughter Courtney, then 12, looked on.

It would appear that witnessing her mother’s fight to rise above her circumstances and succeed roused a similar desire in Courtney. As a teenager at Tempe High, Courtney became involved in CompuGirls , a nationally recognized program that encourages young girls from under-resourced school districts to partake in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. She rode that wave of empowerment through to college, where she followed in her mother’s footsteps, attending ASU, and continued to mentor students through CompuGirls.

Now, both Christine and Courtney are graduating from ASU — it will be the second time for Christine, who earned her bachelor’s in family and human development from ASU in 2011.

This May, Christine will receive her master’s in counseling, while Courtney will be receiving dual bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and psychology.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Christine: I had a professor who once joked that people go into counseling to fix themselves. And I don’t think that that is entirely too far from the truth in my case.

I think the “aha” moment for me as an undergrad was when somebody suggested I take a women’s studies class (which I minored in). That was kind of a random thing that’s now really informed my whole worldview. In counseling you kind of pick different theories that inform your counseling style, and feminist theory is definitely one that informs my counseling style now. It has really shaped the way I look at the world and the way I conceptualize clients.

Courtney: I picked my second major [psychology] because it sounded interesting. For anthropology, I don’t think it was until I was in my second semester sophomore year or my first semester junior year when I was taking more in-depth subject matter classes when I thought, “This is really cool. Of course I picked [anthropology] for a good reason!”

Q: Courtney, you were in seventh grade when your mom began college at ASU. What was that like for you?

Courtney: I don’t know why but it was kind of like a joke in middle school, like, “Your mom’s in college!” As if it was an insult. I kind of didn’t get it, but then after a while, I was just like, “You know what, screw you guys. Yeah, my mom’s in college!” [laughs] So I thought it was cool. Especially during high school because my mom graduated when I was finishing my junior year of high school, so we went through most of high school doing homework together.

Christine: She tutored me in math. Really. It’s not my forte.

Courtney: Whereas, for some reason, it clicks for my brain.

Q: Were there any benefits to being in college and high school at the same time?

Christine: It was cool because I brought my kids on campus sometimes, like when I would go pick up books at the bookstore. So they were familiar with that and with the campus in general, which is good because it can seem so overwhelming.

Courtney: I thought the bowling alley was the coolest thing. I haven’t used it since, but it’s still cool.

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

Christine: When I started college, I didn’t realize the personal growth that would take place.

Courtney: You kind of stole my response, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot in college. … The reason I picked both of my majors is because I really like studying people; I think people are really fascinating. Every time I take a psych class or an anthropology class, I learn something new about humans and then kind of relate that back to my personal life or the people that I know. (I always joke with my boyfriend that I can psychoanalyze him.) But I feel like it’s given me a new appreciation for how people are vastly different and why people do the things that they do.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

Christine: It was convenient. I also received the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholarship . I had a friend who received that particular scholarship, and she really encouraged me to apply for it. That was a bad time for me; I had just gotten divorced, my self-esteem was really low. I had a lot of help getting into school. Once I was there, I took off but even my first semester, I was like, “What am I doing here?”

I remember wanting to buy an ASU T-shirt to show my pride but not knowing if I would be able to make it [to graduation]. So I didn’t buy one for a long time. And then, each semester, I got more confident and ended up graduating summa cum laude.

Q: Do you have that ASU T-shirt now?

Christine: I do! Several, actually. In various stages of wear.

Christine Besaw (left) and daughter Courtney will both be graduating in May from ASU. Photos by Ben Moffat/ASU Now

Q: How about you, Courtney, why did you choose to attend ASU?

Courtney: Probably the major reason I picked ASU was because I had an in with CompuGirls. They set me up with a research apprenticeship, or what they call a “research experience.” So that was what kind of pushed me over the edge. And I got into Barrett [the Honors College] . And ASU has a good anthropology program, which was my first major going in.

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

Christine: Create relationships with faculty, with your professors, because you just never know what opportunities may arise from that. Networking is really important. I used to think “networking” was kind of a dirty word, like it was something business people do that’s shady, but it can lead to really cool experiences.

Courtney: Yeah. Going off of that, just to soak it all in while you can, and try to do as much as you are physically able to do. I definitely push myself over my limit sometimes trying to do too many things because I want to do as much as possible. … So don’t overwork yourself, because I’ve definitely done that, and I know that it’s not fun and your grades will suffer. But just try to do as much as you can. Get active in different programs, apprenticeships, research positions… Talk to your professors, because you never know, they might email you and say, “Hey, I need a TA, would you be interested?” And then you can put that on your resume. And if nothing else, you get to talk to them and learn more about what they do in their field and get more information about what you want to do, too.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot on campus?

Courtney: I like the Coor computer lab. I don’t know why, I like that better than the library. It’s smaller. Usually if I have to do homework, I’ll go there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

Christine: Eventually I’d like to open my own private practice. Family counseling is something that’s really interesting to me and something I’ve done a lot of during my internship. I had a yearlong internship at Total Life Counseling [in Gilbert, Arizona] working with couples and families, so that would be my focus.

Courtney: I’m taking a gap year but I’ll be working and doing other stuff; I won’t just be doing nothing! But I’m taking a gap year for a variety of reasons, then I’m applying to graduate school. The program that I’m going to be applying to is a straight PhD program, so it’s a really big commitment and it’s going to be a lot more schooling. So part of the reason I’m taking a gap year is because I want to take a year off from school. I’ve been in school the last 16 years of my life, so I want to take a year before committing another really intensive five or six years. Save up some money and really focus on my applications, because I wouldn’t have been able to this year while also trying to finish my undergrad and go to work and everything else. And I’m going to Belize for two weeks this summer to do an archaeology field school because the PhD I’ll be applying for is in archaeology. So I’m really excited about that.

Q: Where are you applying for grad school?

Courtney: That is an excellent question. I haven’t done as much research as I’d like yet, but I promised my mother that I’ll be applying to ASU. They have a good program here. I’ve also looked at UCLA, the University of New Mexico and Columbia. So we’ll see.

Q: If someone gave you a bunch of money to solve one problem in the world, what would it be?

Courtney: One of the things I’m most passionate about is getting low-income students into college. I have a lot of friends who either started college and dropped out or just didn’t go because it costs a lot of money, and it’s a lot of work if you have to work in addition to going to school, and I know what that’s like. [When I was younger] we were on state assistance, and … we didn’t have a lot of money. If things had stayed that way throughout high school, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to go to college when I did. And I see a lot of students — especially working with CompuGirls, where we work with a lot of inner-city schools — who don’t even think about [college] or don’t really consider it as an option.

Christine: I think it’s great to get people to go to college and to aim higher, but I think that realistically, we also need people to do all kinds of jobs. … So a living wage for everyone would be [what I’d solve].