Tiffany Thornhill, spring 2021, outstanding graduate, School of Public Affairs

First in social work, then in public administration, ASU grad was struck by desire to serve those who struggle

By

Mark J. Scarp

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

Tiffany Thornhill remembers deciding to pursue degrees in the fields that she did — social work as an undergraduate and social work and public administration as a concurrent graduate student — at two key moments in her life.

“I was working as an administrative assistant and realized that there was no room for myself to grow or evolve within the company as I only had a GED. So I decided to go back to school,” said Thornhill, the spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Public Affairs, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“When I entered higher education I remembered a promise I made to myself when I was going through a rough patch in my life. Honestly, my life until probably around five years ago was rough. My childhood, teenage years and early adulthood were tragic and traumatic,” she said. “While going through all those challenges I was also searching for and praying for someone to see me underneath my struggles and lend a helping hand. No one ever did. It was then that I realized I needed to become the person I needed, but never had. There are so many people lost within the cracks of society and disregarded or deemed unworthy of help. I believe everyone deserves a chance to better themselves regardless of their past transgressions. That is why I ultimately pursued social work and became a helping professional.”

The Portland, Oregon, native’s second moment led her to focus her attention on addressing social and racial injustice while pursuing the degree she is receiving this year, a Master of Public Administration degree. She received her Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in May 2020.

“I began to dig into policy and realized there is an abundance of administrative evils working within the American administrative system. That is where I found a passion for understanding historical trauma as it relates to the Constitution and the various subsequent realms of structural racism and systemic oppression,” Thornhill said. “It was the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Dion Johnson that triggered my ‘aha moment’ and subsequent passion to dig deep into the historical injustices and traumas of the past. Understanding that will inform a framework or theory that can and will address the administrative evils within the American public administration system.”

Read on to learn more about Thornhill’s ASU journey:

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

Answer: I went on a service learning study abroad trip to Ghana while pursuing my MSW. Before I went to Ghana, I would allow others to speak over me, interrupt me and shut me down in classes when my thoughts or perspectives would be challenged. I only did that to avoid confrontation and keep the peace. While I was in Ghana, I realized that life is too short and time is not endless. I am valuable, my perspective is valid and I am not going to allow anyone to silence me or shut me down because they don’t agree with me. I’ve always been one to want to hear others’ perspectives, especially when they didn’t align with mine. But I didn’t set that standard for myself and the contributions I make. Africa changed that for me. I came home and began to assert myself even when I was nervous or afraid to speak. I’m extremely grateful for that experience and feel empowered to be the voice for not only myself but for others who have lost their voice and can’t find it. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was a Maricopa Nina Scholar with the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars program and had the opportunity to apply for the Passport program at ASU. I applied and was accepted into the program as an ASU Nina Scholar while pursuing my undergraduate degree. My tuition was fully paid for. I then transitioned directly into an advanced-standing concurrent MSW and Master of Public Administration program with Watts College. So I think it's safe to say that ASU chose me instead of me choosing it. 

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

A:

  • During my bachelor of social work undergraduate journey, Brett Petersen taught me that compassion can take you a long way, even among people who don’t typically like you.
  • For my nonprofit leadership management minor, John Scola taught me the power and magic of everything fundraising and philanthropy.
  • During my MSW journey, Liz Athens taught me about my determination to help. She helped me see that I have a passion for helping humanity and maximizing my efforts to get the most done.
  • Sen. Kyrsten Sinema taught me to find the middle ground even when you disagree and to be open to hearing things from people I don’t agree with or even like.
  • During my MPA journey, Joanna Lucio taught me that perseverance will pay off along the way and to never lose sight of my dream, no matter what job I end up taking. Joshua Uebelherr taught me that statistics can be explained in layman’s terms, Elisa Bienenstock taught me to seek to understand the correlation and variance. Akheil Singla taught me that my perspective is important and needed in the spaces I’ve showed up in.
  • During my trip to Ghana, Duku Anokye (Nana) with the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences taught me that I, too, am strong, valuable and powerful. It was watching her strength, poise and beauty that empowered my understanding of my value and essence. Thank you, Nana!

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

A: Prioritize your responsibilities, both academic and personal. It’s so easy to get burnt out and catch senioritis, but that last semester is the most important one. It’s the culmination of your entire journey and your chance to showcase your skills and what you’ve learned. It’s so easy to conk out at the end and pump out mediocre work. You never know who’s watching you and paying attention to your efforts. Also, ASU is known for “innovation.” What is it that you are innovating? What change are you bringing and what addition can you make to fill a void or gap? If you figure this out, your passion will drive you and you will do amazing things in the world. Don’t judge yourself, and learn from your mistakes. The most important thing to understand about learning is it’s more about the process than the content. If you can understand the process of learning, you’ll be able to grasp whatever content that is presented to you. 

Q: Where was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?

A: Before COVID-19, my favorite place to meet friends and hang out would either be on the first floor of the University Center or on the second floor near the study rooms by the information desk and freight elevator. It was always a bit quieter and more peaceful over there. But, to be honest, I didn’t have much time to hang out on campus and study. Since COVID-19, my favorite place to study and meet with friends would have to be … Zoom! LOL

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning to work in the field for a year or two before applying for a doctoral program. I have a few research focuses and need some practical experience to help either narrow them down to one or combine them into one. I’m hoping to either work at a nonprofit organization, in higher education (at ASU) or in a public service organization (city, county, state). I’m also working with the National Association of Black Social Workers on establishing a local chapter here in Arizona. I have been honored with the role of president for our upcoming Valley Metro Association of Black Social Workers. A team of amazing helping professionals of Black African ancestry and I are currently recruiting charter members to assist us with our chapter affiliation. Anyone interested in joining can send us an email at: valleymetroabsw@gmail.com.

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

A: I would tackle historical trauma and its detrimental effects on humanity ... economically, societally, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There are several ways to tackle this, but it first starts with understanding the detrimental impact settler colonialism has had on the people in America. There is no way to go back to where we were and fix things, but incorporating Indigenous practices into society will help bring healing and restoration to the pain and suffering humanity has endured for such a long time. Understanding the Indigenous aspects of culture, food, spirituality, family and education can provide the necessary paradigm shift needed to address the various disparities for those unable to obtain their Indigenous medicines and food. This will take a lot of time and effort as negative externalities of colonization include racism, sexism, substance abuse, murder, domestic violence, broken families, economic oppression, adverse health outcomes, illiteracy, classism, misogyny, housing instability, etc. There must be a complete restructuring of how society has operated for hundreds of years. But first, racism has to be exposed, addressed and dismantled.

In all honesty, $40 million would just scratch the surface in this area. Community organizations both for-profit and not-for-profit will need to be established to address each need individually, while understanding the intersectionality of them and seeking to educate society toward a place of healing and restructuring. There may already be agencies and organizations working to address these issues, but they lack funding and resources to further their visions and missions. A lot of that $40 million would definitely go to philanthropic efforts that help push forward the missions of already established nonprofit agencies addressing these disparities.

Thornhill served as a graduate service assistant as a Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholar.