MacKenzie Saunders of Ahwatukee

MacKenzie Saunders of Ahwatukee is graduating with honors from Arizona State University this month.

This month, Mackenzie Saunders an Ahwatukee native, will graduate from Arizona State University summa cum laude with bachelor of science degrees in justice studies and in politics and the economy and a certificate in socio-legal studies. 

The Desert Vista High School alumna has been a Barrett, The Honors College student, earning a 4.0 GPA at ASU among numerous other achievements. 

She has been active with campus residence life and has increasingly taken on leadership positions in political advocacy and nonprofit organizations.

She also is Dean’s Medalist in the School of Social Transformation.

Gregory Broberg, a lecturer in the School of Social Transformation, remembers Saunders’ academic work as her fifth-grade elementary school teacher. 

“Mackenzie’s commitment to her education has always been evident,” he said. “Watching her academic growth has been an honor and I know that this will continue as she moves to Harvard Law School.”

Saunders has been accepted to Harvard Law School for the fall of 2022 and after earning her law degree, she aspires to work in the area of disability rights law to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act and to eventually become a federal judge. 

In the meantime, she will continue her work as a deputy campaign manager for the November 2020 and March 2021 elections for Phoenix City Council and as director of operations for a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for disability rights and provides resources to people with paralysis nationwide. 

Mackenzie’s honors thesis, “Improving Physical Accessibility at Arizona State University: A Student Perspective,” draws inspiration from her own experience as a walking paraplegic following a spinal cord injury sustained during a soccer game when she was 11.

“For her honors project, Mackenzie conducted an extensive inventory of nearly all buildings on the Tempe campus to identify physical accessibility issues — a painstaking process, given the blistering summer heat and her reliance on disability transportation to get from building to building,” said Annamaria Oliverio, Mackenzie’s honors thesis adviser. 

“But Mackenzie’s drive and determination are only matched by her energy and contagious joy. Her goal was to create a thesis that not only contributed to a nascent academic body of knowledge in disability studies but also advocated for all students. As a disabled student, her perspective is certainly unique, though her results benefit the entire university community. It’s a document other university campuses also can adopt.”

Oliverio said Mackenzie has been coordinating her efforts with the Disability Resource Center and Facilities Management Office, which already are using her thesis to improve accessibility over campus.”

In many respects, Saunders’ thesis embodies the School of Social Transformation’s commitment to social innovation and to fostering a more inclusive and just society. 

“Mackenzie is a pathbreaker who rises above the small-mindedness of individuals and the restrictions of society. She elegantly transforms challenges into opportunities, not just for herself, but also others,” said Oliverio.

Once a business major, ASU asked her about her journey thus far.

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

Answer:  The moment that really made me realize I had to change majors happened over the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I looked at my class schedule for the fall semester of my junior year, and I felt a feeling of dread. I love school, and I love learning, yet I was dreading school to start. 

That really flipped a switch for me; I told myself that I needed to make a big change and find a field of study that made me excited and motivated. I looked through all of the majors ASU offered — yes, all of them — and I landed on justice studies. 

I love helping people, I love social justice, and I love immersing myself in the worlds of others to gain valuable perspectives that I don’t currently have. Justice studies excited me, and it was exactly what I needed to make the rest of my undergraduate experience enthralling and rewarding.

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

A: Some of the most incredible people in the world go to state schools. Sure, private and Ivy League schools get a lot of praise, but I think the real magic happens at state schools like ASU. 

I’ve been lucky to meet people of all walks of life here at ASU: first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, veterans, nontraditional students, students who transferred from local community colleges. ASU is so incredibly and beautifully diverse, and ASU awards all students with the opportunity to succeed to their fullest potential. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU didn’t just draw me in because of its proximity to my family or its in-state tuition; ASU really drew me in with Barrett, The Honors College. The thought of having a small, tight-knit community of driven individuals like myself at ASU — the largest university in the nation — sounded like a dream. And it really was. My Barrett experience shaped my entire undergraduate career, and I can’t imagine where I’d be if I didn’t choose ASU.

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

A: Build relationships with your professors! Ask them questions about their past research. Go to their office hours. ASU professors are some of the most brilliant people out there, and we as students are so lucky to have them here for guidance and insight.”

 Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was recently accepted to Harvard Law School, but I deferred my acceptance for two years. This means that I will get two gap years after graduating ASU to gain some professional experience before starting law school in September 2022. 

After ASU graduation, I’ll be starting my full-time job as the deputy campaign manager and finance director for Yassamin Ansari’s Phoenix City Council campaign. She is a nonincumbent running for an open seat and it will be a really exciting race. I’ll also continue my part-time remote work as a paralegal at The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm in Washington, D.C. and the director of operations for SPINALpedia, a disability nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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

A: I would tackle the problem of homelessness. We have more vacant homes in the United States than we do people who are experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is not an issue of a total lack of resources; it’s an issue on how we allocate those resources and how we approach homelessness as a whole. 

I would use $40 million dollars to aid the development and subsidization of low-income housing in areas with a high amount of homelessness, and I would also fund the voluntary relocation of people who are experiencing homelessness and are willing to relocate to currently vacant homes.

 I would put more funding into existing homelessness shelters as to improve their quality and capacity, and I would create support programs for those who have previously experienced homelessness, focusing on one-on-one mentoring and a proliferation of employment, financial planning, family and addiction resources as to prevent a situation of homelessness in the future.

Enrique Martin Palacios is a communications and marketing coordinator for the School of Social Transformation at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

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