As a teenager, Asja Hall was struggling to finish high school; now she is pursuing a Master’s of Science in Social Work (MSW) at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where she also earned a bachelor’s degree in human services and public administration in 2011. She was recently honored as the university’s 2012 William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement.
The annual scholarship is given to one student from each of the 23 CSU campuses who has demonstrated financial need, experienced personal hardships, and has achieved superior academic performance and exemplary community service, as well as overcoming significant personal obstacles. Hall and the other recipients will be honored during a ceremony at the CSU Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach on Tuesday, Sept. 18.
“I’m honored to be given such a prestigious award,” Hall said. “My hard work and continued dedication to my education is providing better avenues for me and my children.”
Hall is a work-study student on campus and is a volunteer and intern at the office of Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (CA-47th) where she handles constituent casework, tallying citizen comments, and resolving complaints. After earning her MSW, Hall plans to advocate and redevelop public policy for underserved populations among urban communities.
However, the road to academic and personal success wasn’t easy for Hall. Growing up in a poor single-parent household in Compton, she felt hopeless at times. Several adult relatives would come to live with Hall, her mother and brother from time to time in the small home, creating chaos instead of providing stability.
“It was crowded and there was no place for privacy. You would assume that with all the adults around, that things would have been taken care of in the home,” Hall said. “At times they were and at times they weren’t.”
There were spells during Hall’s childhood when she had to do her homework by candlelight, and more distressing, there were evenings when she had to do without dinner. At 16, her situation became more challenging when she had a child.
However, she didn’t give up on her education and graduated from Carson High School in 2001. With an initial interest in accounting, she enrolled at Cerritos College. But as she struggled with computer skills she decided to take an academic detour to improve her typing and writing by taking classes at a vocational school. At 18, turned out of her mother’s home, and while homeless and living out of her car, she earned a computer software specialist certificate from American Career College in Los Angeles ahead of schedule.
“My living situation wasn’t permanent, so I was practically at school all the time,” she said of her ability to finish the two-year program in one year.
She returned to Cerritos College and tried to resume her studies in accounting, but she just didn’t have the same desire for the subject and it was reflected in her grades. A class assignment in a required general education course would solve the issue. During a social psychology class, Hall gave advice to a fellow student. Her instructor took notice of her natural ability and encouraged her to change her major to psychology. Initially, she dismissed his suggestion, but she reconsidered after analyzing her grades.
“When I wasn’t really excelling in accounting like I wanted to, I looked at my grades and said, A’s in psychology or D’s in accounting. So, let’s change the major,” she said.
Hall changed her major and earned a mental health worker certificate, and three associate degrees (mental health worker, liberal arts and sciences, and psychology) from Cerritos College and subsequently transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills, where she maintained an undergraduate grade point average of 3.1.
However, it was while serving her internships when Hall really hit her stride.
Working as an assistant in the health worker program Project Hope at Cerritos College, she gained experience with program development, and while completing her rotation at Mental Health America’s The Village in Long Beach she worked on a homeless assistance program.
“It was an eye-opener in two ways, it was a reminder of where I had been and it was a look at where I [had gotten],” said Hall.
During a third internship at the City of Norwalk Social Services and Senior Citizens Center she got to apply her skills in case management to develop interventions for clients and she got to see how city policies can benefit citizens.
Throughout her mental health worker education, internships, and volunteer work, one thing resonated with her: working with the underrepresented elderly population.
“I had dealings with that first hand. It was something that was strong in my deciding what direction I wanted to go to, both professionally and academically,” Hall said, explaining that while suffering from Alzheimer’s and two strokes, her grandmother received sub-quality care from culturally incompetent practitioners. “It was really hard to not be able to care for her at home, but it was even harder to see her unhappy and uncomfortable in a nursing home.”
Hall hopes to affect policies that will enable the elderly to live longer, independent lives.
“It was by luck that I landed in [Assemblywoman Mitchell’s] office, because I got to work with some policy and understanding the policy and applying it, and how it benefits constituents, and how it needs to be changed, and what the member is doing to change it,” Hall said. “I took two policy classes in [the public administration] sector. I fell in love with policy. I applied it with mental health.”
Although her academic road took twists, turns, and time, Hall appreciates her education.
“I love all the degrees that I have and I use them in some sort of way. Even when it’s getting my kids to clean their room,” said Hall. “My education is implemented everywhere.”
A lot has changed since Hall was a teenaged mother struggling to finish high school, but she remembers her determination, and what it means for her future and the future of her children (she now has three children; 5, 6, and 12 years old).
“I stuck with school. I stuck with the idea of knowing I needed to do better,” Hall recalled. “I always worked. Sometimes I worked two jobs. And it was more difficult because when I did, I was taking less classes and it was taking me longer [to finish school]. But it was all out of trying to maintain a standard for my children. I lived in my car. I can do that–my children cannot, and they won’t.”
Hall, 29, is exploring Ph.D. options after graduating with her master’s in social work and a concentration in community mental health in May 2013, but is also considering taking a break from university life to spend more time with her children.
For more information about the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award, click here.