'I wouldn't be here without him': ASU grad's journey inspired by her late grandfather

By

Emily Balli

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

When Arizona State University student Emily Onwiler was 15 years old, she became her grandfather’s caregiver. “Pappy,” as she fondly calls him, had Lewy body dementia, a type of progressive dementia that leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent functioning.

“After caring for my grandfather, I didn't know specifically what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to help people with dementia,” Onwiler said. “I knew that I had to help people with dementia and Alzheimer's.”

Onwiler’s grandfather, who passed away in 2017, was always a positive force in her life.

“He made such a huge difference in my life. His biggest thing was education. He never went to school himself, but he knew that I wanted to continue my education and he always, always encouraged it. If I got a good grade in a class, he would take me to the bookstore to buy me a book,” she said. “I wouldn't be here without him. His spirit encourages me to continue my education because I know that he would fully support and love what I'm doing.”

Onwiler grew up in Yuma, Arizona, and started at ASU when she was only 16 years old. When she transferred to ASU from community college, she was sure she wanted to become a doctor. But after shadowing both a doctor and a social worker, her path became more clear.

“When I shadowed a doctor I got to see that they go into a room with their patient, they see what's going on for five minutes, they write a prescription and then they just leave. I was kind of shocked by that,” she said. “There was one social worker I shadowed several times, she was sitting down with patients and she would hold their hands and talk with them. Getting to watch her make these meaningful connections with the patients was amazing.”

These experiences, along with her background of serving as a caregiver for her grandfather, led Onwiler to change her major from pre-med to sociology with a certificate in hospice and palliative care.

Throughout her college experience, Onwiler was met with a number of challenges including losing employment and housing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Spring 2020 was the hardest semester of my time at ASU, just with everything going on,” she said. “I had finally just gotten used to in-person classes and I'd finally gotten into a routine and then very suddenly everything was online. I had just lost my house and my job, and then COVID was running rampant. That was just a huge challenge.”

“I just kept telling myself that it is worth it. It is worth it to keep going. That semester wasn't my best at ASU, but I actually got dean's list that semester. It was definitely an interesting and challenging time, but the fact that I made it through is very much something that motivates me.”

This fall, Onwiler will graduate with her bachelor’s degree from the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. She shared more about her Sun Devil journey and what’s next for her.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I think my biggest reason for choosing ASU was that it’s just such an inclusive university. It's in ASU’s mission statement, of course. When I toured ASU, they kept talking about how everybody gets to be included. There are so many opportunities for everyone. It really doesn't matter what you're interested in, there's a club for everyone and I just really liked that.

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

A: The biggest thing that really changed my perspective and changed my entire life was the importance of communication. In all of my hospice classes, the importance of communication is really stressed and the way that we communicate with our patients because people with dementia don't always understand what's going on. So we have to figure out how to phrase what we're saying in a way that they can understand. It's important to slow down and think about what you're going to say before you say it. 

I've been able to use that in my everyday life. I use it with my patients regularly, but even with family and friends. It's very easy to be able to integrate that into my actual life by just slowing down and thinking, “What am I about to say? How can I say this in a way that will make better sense for this person?” Since the beginning of my time at ASU, communication has just been such a big thing.

Q: Were there any opportunities that positively impacted your ASU experience?

A: My very first year at ASU, I really struggled to get involved in research and I couldn't figure out how everyone was just falling into research projects and I just kept searching and searching. Shortly after spring 2020 was over, one of my professors for hospice was like, “I know you're really interested in dementia care but my husband is doing this research project, would you be interested in it?” Her husband is Vincent Waldron and he was doing a research project on father-offspring relationships and how they develop over time. So I've actually been working on that for the last year and a half now. Getting to work with Professor Waldron on the research project was incredibly eye opening. That was definitely the biggest learning opportunity through my time at ASU. Getting to work one-on-one with a professor and just seeing how research works and how it can also work in our everyday lives was such a huge part of my time at ASU.

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

A: It’s OK if you mess up. I failed classes and failed my research projects and even changed my major. It's OK. That's the whole point of college. Looking back, there's many times I cried over failed exams, but that's the college experience. That's what you're here for. You're here so that you can fail. We're here to learn. You can always retake a test. You can redo a class. You're here to get the experience, not just the degree. I feel like that's so important and something that's very easy to forget. As someone who really struggles with failure — remember that it is OK.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m going to go on for my master's in social work. I have been accepted at ASU — I’m very excited. ASU is actually the only school I applied to because I did not want to leave Tempe. I really like ASU and I've really enjoyed my experience here. I'm hoping to continue my hospice and palliative care interests. My dream job is being a dementia educator with Hospice of the Valley. I love getting to talk about dementia. I can sit here and talk about it all day and specifically, I love getting to explain what it is in a way that makes sense to the families, but to also give solutions that will genuinely help.