‘Sun Devil for life’: ASU student finds reinvention online

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

If there was one thing for which Arizona State University student Sean Duffey was not prepared, it was feeling that he was not prepared.

“When I was a young undergraduate student,” he said, “I had a level of confidence that was neither rational nor supported by my work.”

Duffey, a high school English and creative writing teacher in Denver, had sailed through his undergraduate curriculum, gotten a job, and considered his own education complete.

Then: an awakening. Fifteen years after earning a bachelor’s degree, Duffey began a graduate program through ASU Online.

This time, something was different.

“[When] I found myself finally prepared to take on the challenge of returning to school, whatever confidence I had exuded in youth was no longer present,” he said. “I second-guessed most of my assignments and often stressed about the very difficulties I assure my own students are normal. ’Learning is difficult,’ I tell them, and if it is not difficult, they are in the wrong place. However, I found it difficult to take my own advice.”

Floundering, Duffey reached out to his advisers and professors in the Department of English and found the support he needed.

“All my stresses were assuaged when each and every professor made it clear that my effort would be rewarded,” he said. “It may have seemed like a small thing to them, but assuring me that my work had value and that imperfection was not an indicator of failure helped ease my anxiety.”

Duffey is graduating this fall with an online Master of Arts in English. His ASU support system — staff and faculty alike — are thrilled for him. Elizabeth “Lilly” Downs, an academic success adviser for ASU English’s online programs, called Duffey “outstanding” and “kindhearted.”

“He was one of my brightest students, yet the humblest of them all,” she said.

We caught up with Duffey just before graduation day to ask him a few more questions about his online experience.

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

Answer: I expected to learn a lot about English, but what I will take away most from this program is how to adapt to different and ever-changing circumstances — not only through my own personal evolution, but through the kindness and acceptance of all of ASU’s staff that works with students to be successful. My educational journey has been as enlightening as the lessons on critical theory and Shakespeare. I am a better teacher, not simply from what I learned in my education courses taken during my time at ASU but mainly because of my experience with educators who showed me how to be humble and understanding.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I have dedicated my life to education, but it was not until I came across ASU’s graduate program in English that I saw an opportunity to reinvent myself as a student for the first time in 15 years. I was impressed by the program’s ability to marry rigor with the understanding that, as working adults, freedom and clarity are necessary elements to their students’ success.

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

A: If I had the opportunity to speak with incoming graduate students, I would impress upon them the importance of hard work and reaching out for help when needed. An online program has an inherent expectation that not only the work but also the struggles will be handled by the student. ASU’s English program (and its professors) made it easy for me to talk through my struggles. Professors were not annoyed or put out by my asking to meet through Zoom. Online learning can make any student feel as though they are on an island, but in reality, the program is structured to support each and every one of us in ways that may not even be afforded to in-person students.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have learned never to presume the future, but I can say that I am better off for having been a student at ASU, and whatever the future may hold, I am more prepared than ever to handle and succeed in my future endeavors. ASU will always be a home away from home, and though the campus may be foreign to me, I will be a Sun Devil for life.

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