The University Network

TUN Student Spotlight: ASU Grad Makes Helping Others Look Easy

Kourtney Conn, a recent graduate from Arizona State University, is built to help others — it’s practically in her DNA.

In the third grade, Conn made flyers by hand to encourage her neighbors to donate money to breast cancer research.

At that age, she dreamt of growing up to be a “doctor-astronaut” who lived in Africa, but could hop in her spaceship to quickly shoot over and help the next person in need.

“My goals have changed a little since then, but my purpose has always stayed the same,” Conn said.

In the sixth grade, she organized a fundraising competition between classes to raise money for malaria nets in Africa.

Instead of asking for gifts during for her childhood birthdays parties, she asked her guests to bring donations for charitable causes, including money for Habitat for Humanity, baby supplies for single mothers and non-perishable food for food banks.

“I always wanted a life that focused on loving other people,” Conn said.

She’s off to a good start.

For the past six years, Conn and her family have been taking annual trips to Somoto, Nicaragua, where they help build houses, supply families with needed donations, visit nursing homes to spend time with the elderly, provide expectant single mothers with essential newborn supplies, and help pay for local students to attend college, among other good deeds.

Conn specifically remembers one rewarding story of a friend she made in Somoto, who, for the purposes of this article, she calls John.

“The first time I met John, we were both probably 16 and learning each other’s languages,” she said. “We would stand on the worksite tying rebar for the houses and have these broken, messy English/Spanish conversations, because we both wanted to practice speaking and hearing the language we were learning.”

John, at the time, would only speak in English when he was alone with Conn. He was shy and quiet, and hadn’t yet built up the confidence to speak English to others.

“Later that week, someone was talking about our sponsorship program that sends young people to university to study the career of their choice and mentioned that John was on the list for a sponsor and hopeful to someday study English and become an interpreter,” said Conn.

There was no question in her mind.

“I immediately burst into tears because I realized that, duh, I ‘had’ to pay for John to go to university!” Conn said.

When she got back to the United States, Conn went through the process of funding the scholarship. She would return every year to see John’s English skills improve.

And just a few years later — like a fairy tale ending — she returned to Somoto to find John employed as the English/Spanish interpreter for their volunteer group.

“I think that memory is so important to me because it highlights the importance of empowerment,” Conn said. “Of believing in the value and brilliance of others. Of giving people a hand-up instead of a hand-out. It was incredible to watch the way that my simply funding John’s access to education had developed him as a person and provided him with opportunities for future income.”

Conn credits these trips to Somoto, along with her friendship with John, for inspiring her to pursue a career in social work.

“When I am positively impacting the lives of others through service or sacrifice, I feel like I belong, like I am right where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I think spending time serving others in Nicaragua helped me to realize the passion I had for living a life of selflessness.”

Conn, who recently graduated from Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, is clearly driven and successful for her age, but her path has not been without its bumps.

Conn struggles with dysthymia, also known as “persistent depressive disorder,” but she continues to persevere.

“The thing about depression is that it’s not always just crying in bed (although don’t get me wrong, that’s definitely a part of it). It also affects your motivation, your self-esteem, your energy levels, the way your brain processes things, and more,” she said.

Conn recognizes that living with dysthymia has been an obstacle to her educational career.

“There were days when going to class felt like an impossible task and days where I just wanted to sleep,” Conn said. “I often felt insecure or indifferent towards my own academics, feeling as though nothing I was doing really mattered that much, or that I wasn’t doing as well as everyone else.”

But she doesn’t let her mental illness define her.

“It’s so important to emphasize that depression (and mental illness in general) is part of me, I am not part of it,” Conn said. “While it did, and probably always will, have a significant role in my life, I try to constantly remember that I am not just my mental health diagnosis.”

She encourages other students struggling with depression, and mental illness in general, to speak out and ask for help when they need it.

“There’s such a stigma about being transparent enough about one’s struggle to seek professional help, and I think that sort of vulnerability shows strength, not weakness,” Conn said. “I wish I had sought professional support sooner, rather than convinced myself for years that it was something to be ashamed about.”

In regards to her life now, Conn definitely has nothing to be ashamed about. She is building a career for herself while providing others with the items they need to live and the opportunities they need to grow.

Currently, she’s back in her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, but she plans to return to ASU to receive her master’s degree in social work and a certificate in gender-based violence.

“After that, I have lots of big dreams — including getting my doctorate, starting a non-profit, or traveling abroad — so I’m trying to take it one step at a time, and I’ll decide my future plans someday!” Conn said.