From overcoming tumultuous childhoods and experiencing homelessness firsthand to developing the empathy and wisdom to turn what they’ve learned into a commitment to helping others succeed, our 2020 Alum and Student of the Year* are both on a mission to make a real difference in their communities and the lives of those around them.
Both of our honorees originally were featured as Alum and Student of the Month in our student success stories this year. As 2020 draws to a close, we asked Ashford faculty and staff to vote for one current student and one alum from those stories who embodied the tenacity and commitment to excellence that is an ongoing source of inspiration to students and faculty alike.
With so many amazing candidates to choose from this year, it wasn’t an easy task to select the 2020 honorees, but of course, there can only be two winners. They are Alum of the Year, Zyna Caron, and Student of the Year, Michael Turner.
In recognition of this honor, we reached out to our award winners to learn more about what motivated them and their experience in achieving this well-deserved award.
2020 Alum of the Year: Zyna Caron
In 2019, Zyna Caron graduated Cum Laude with her Bachelor of Arts in Health and Human Services and is now a Social Service Tech in the state of Michigan where she provides support and services for the developmentally disabled, traumatic brain injury victims, those with severe mental illness, the homeless, and those coping with substance abuse.
It’s a field she got into nearly two decades ago after becoming homeless at age 14.
She has since used her personal story of overcoming that challenge to both relate to and encourage those with whom she works to take the steps they need to change the trajectory of their lives.
Upon graduation, she was promoted from a Certified Peer Recovery Coach to a Case Manager and now works with several organizations in similar positions.
“I help people take one step at a time,” says Zyna. “We have to think of all the essentials first, like a roof over their head, food and clothing. Then, we can dive into the next step of their lives, such as education or work. I take it a step at time like that, knowing they will get there.”
As a full-time working mother of three, Zyna knew going back to school wouldn’t be easy, but she was determined to do it. She was encouraged to pursue her goals by her late husband who worked in the field of social services and was an Ashford alum as well.
"I’m just trying to give back, that’s the ticket to my achievement. You’ve got to stay self-driven and focus your goals." - Zyna Caron
As part of the commitment she made to herself and to her husband who passed away in 2012, Zyna is now working on creating a non-profit called Discover Me that assists young women who may be homeless, pregnant or haven’t graduated from high school.
“I want to be able to help the ones who are less fortunate than I am and give them some guidance,” says Zyna as she works on getting grant funding to create a safe home that can allow these women to get back on their feet.
“Everybody has a story,” says Zyna. “My mom put me out at 14 and I lived on the streets until I was grown. But I never stopped going to school despite my wreckage, or my past. That’s because there was somebody out there who kept reaching out to support me.”
Through it all, Zyna hasn’t stopped being that “someone” others can turn to when they need a push in the right direction.
“It’s never too late to go to school. If you stay the process, doors will open.”
Student of the Year: Michael Turner
Like our Alum of the Year, doctoral student Michael Turner also has dealt with being homeless throughout his life. But after struggling for several years, he got his life back on track, starting with earning a college degree. Now, an accomplished student who has already earned his Bachelor of Arts in Education Studies and Master of Arts in Special Education with a 4.0 GPA, Michael is on his way toward earning a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
While playing basketball professionally in Mexico, he realized he wanted to finish his college education. So, he moved back to the United States and eventually landed in the city of Flint, Michigan. It was a place he was drawn to because of the challenges it had faced due to the water crisis, especially when it came to the well-being and development of its children. Michael knew he wanted to go into field of education and mentoring so he could help the young people he worked with learn how to better achieve lasting success in life. Today, he teaches* high school.
Michael says that contributing to his community is what drives him to continue reaching for his goals.
“The city is split 50/50 between people wanting to abandon it and those wanting to rebuild,” he says. “I’m on the rebuilding side. I use working with youth and basketball to bring everyone together. I use my basketball past to teach kids that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the opportunities higher education afforded me.”
Currently teaching** mostly virtually (due to Coronavirus precautions) and working as a Student Success Assistant with the University of Arizona Global Campus, Michael learned he was a candidate for 2020 Student of the Year while in his weekly meeting with the team at Global Campus's CHAMPS Peer Mentoring. As luck would have it, he also had a face-to-face student in the classroom with him finishing an exam.
"Pursuing my degree has already helped me shape my purpose in life. From the days I was playing basketball and was a history major, I wanted to succeed in both to have a platform to be able to educate those in need of education." - Michael Turner
“I was stunned, surprised, and still trying to figure out how caught off guard I was hearing the news,” says Michael. “All I could do was stare at my student with shock. Immediately after [the CHAMPS meeting] I started dancing in my chair. I’ve tried to be strong for a long time, and hearing this news made me want to let it all out!”
It was the first time his young student even realized his teacher was still a student himself. “It was special being able to share that with my student,” says Michael. “In a choked up voice, I was able to motivate him a bit more, and let him know that although the finish line may seem far, happiness can be found along the way.”
Michael says he considers UAGC and his colleagues in the CHAMPS program his family and is grateful for the connections he’s made through his time at the University.
“I feel like I have learned a lot, but also still have a lot to learn,” explains Michael. “I want to contribute to improving education and helping society gain a better understanding of race, ethnicity, and its effect on K-12 and higher education. It was through becoming a student at Ashford and taking course after course that helped develop my belief that I can achieve this and use education to help end racism.”
As Michael continues to make an impact on those around him, he says that he hopes to inspire an entire generation to go to college and earn a degree. With less than two years away from achieving the pinnacle of his own education, this promising doctoral student is already setting an example and is destined to encourage others to reach for their goals.
Zyna and Michael stand tall as reminders that the journey to bettering oneself is an ongoing process, and that the quest for knowledge doesn’t have to end once that degree has been earned. By continuing to invest in themselves, their communities, and the people around them, these two forward-thinking individuals are proving they have a lot to offer to the world, and they aren’t afraid of changing it for the better, either.
*Ashford University is now the University of Arizona Global Campus.
**An online degree from Ashford University does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state.