Breanna Carpenter

Leadership and public service define social work graduate

She was the first graduate to arrive at Wells Fargo Arena for her college convocation ceremony, but the last to walk across the stage. Breanna Carpenter didn't need to revel in the moment even though she was the School of Social Work's outstanding graduate. She had a job to do. Carpenter is an events assistant for the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She needed to make sure every aspect of her college’s convocation went smoothly.

It’s something that College of Public Service and Community Solutions events director Michelle Oldfield says Carpenter does well.

“You know, she comes up with a plan and rolls with it,” said Oldfield. “And that's something that's hard to find in a person in general, but in somebody that young--who doesn't have the years of experience--she’s just she's wise far beyond her years.”

That’s one reason Oldfield trusted her assistant to run the spring 2017 convocation ceremony while she was out on maternity leave. Carpenter was a 20-year old sophomore at the time.

“She was able to take the pieces that I left behind--the list, the maps and all the other things--and bring it all to life,” Oldfield said. “She has the leadership skills and the confidence to supervise 75 volunteers, 100 faculty members, 900 graduates and 8,000 guests. And she ran the whole show. That's crazy!”

Carpenter set down her clipboard and took off her head set minutes before the 2018 convocation began. She donned her cap, gown and honors regalia and took her place at the beginning of the convocation processional. She carried her school’s gonfalon as outstanding graduate of the School of Social Work. After placing the banner on the stage, Carpenter slipped back to the arena floor and out of her graduation attire.

Breanna Carpenter at Wells Fargo Arena

Thirty minutes into the ceremony, Vice Dean Cynthia Lietz began introducing outstanding graduates from the college and each school. Cameras in Wells Fargo Arena focused on each graduate standing among their peers as Lietz talked about their accomplishments. When the camera got to Carpenter, it showed her standing in a black dress near the rear tunnel of the arena.

One and a half hours after the ceremony began, Carpenter stepped back on stage toshake the hand of Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She wanted to remember the moment. She took out her cell phone and took a selfie with the dean, Vice Dean Lietz and her son Bryan who received his degree moments before.

“Breanna accomplished a great deal during her undergraduate studies at ASU,” said Lietz who served as a mentor to Carpenter. “She graduated in just three years by taking an overload of classes every semester, including summer school.”

Breanna Carpenter selfie with deans

As the last student to be congratulated at the Spring 2018 College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation, Breanna Carpenter takes a selfie with Vice Dean Cynthia Lietz, her son Bryan and Dean Jonathan Koppell.


Carpenter attributes her college success to her organizational skills. She’s a planner. It’s her nature. Everything is scheduled. Everything. But one of the things she learned in college is that she couldn’t plan everything and that was okay.

”I think I'm such a planner that I like to be braced for change, and I'd like to know when it's coming, and I like to be in charge of it,” said Carpenter. “But through those changes, I have grown more as a person, and as a student, and as a social worker by just like seeing them as opportunities to advance, to learn and to grow.”

As a teenager, Carpenter saw firsthand the difference a social worker can make. That led her to enroll in Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.

At the age of 15, Carpenter did something no child should have to do. She reported her own mother to child welfare authorities. Her dad was in prison and her mom was addicted to drugs. She worried about the impact on her younger sisters. The girls were removed from the home and placed in the care of their grandparents.

“I think my interactions and my involvement with the system really exposed me to social workers and the impact they have on families and on people,” said Carpenter. “Just going through that process I thought, ‘You know what? I want to be that type of person. I want to be that person for someone else.’”

A straight “A” student in high school, Carpenter wanted to go to college. She just didn’t know how she could afford it. Her parents or grandparents were not in a position to absorb the cost. Student loans were an option. But the reality is that most foster youth who attempt to go to college never graduate. Research from the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education shows about one if five foster youth attend college but less than 10-percent of them earn a bachelor’s degree.

Thankfully, Carpenter learned didn’t have to worry about tuition. In 2013, the Arizona legislature passed a five-year pilot program that was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. It allowed former foster youth like Carpenter to have tuition waived at public universities and community colleges. Carpenter still had to pay for room, board, books and other costs.

So she applied for scholarships. She earned an Armstrong Scholarship and Sun Devil Family Association Scholarship to help pay for college expenses. And she was a finalist for the prestigious Truman Scholarship, which awards $30,000 to college juniors with demonstrated leadership potential and a commitment to public service.

Breanna Carpenter on ropes course at Camp Tonto Creek

Breanna Carpenter holds a vial as part of a ropes course for members of ASU's Public Service Academy held at Camp Tonto Creek in August 2015.

Leadership and public service define Carpenter. She became a member of the inaugural class of ASU’s Public Service Academy, which trains students to be effective leaders across nonprofit, for-profit, government and military sectors. She mentored incoming foster youth as part of an ASU program called Bridging Success that helps former foster youth overcome the challenges they face when starting college. Carpenter served on the College of Public Service and Community Solutions College Council, was elected president of the Student Social Work Organization and worked as a Devil’s Advocate campus tour guide. She even taught an ASU 101 course her sophomore and junior years.

“It was incredible to be able to teach other students and spend a semester with them their first semester on campus as freshmen and to see them grow and be exposed to ASU,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter worked to ensure other foster kids have the same opportunity to go to college that she had. The five-year pilot program that waived tuition for former foster kids officially ends this year. A new bill to extend it would increase the number of kids who qualify and includes some funding so universities didn’t bear the full brunt of the financial burden.

Carpenter appeared before the Education Committee in the House of Representatives in February. She told lawmakers how almost 1,000 youth aged out of the foster care system the previous year, but few went on to college. Since the tuition waiver program began in 2014, about 200 former foster youth have attended community college or a public university in Arizona.

Breanna Carpenter testifies before House Education Committee

Breanna Carpenter testifies before the House Education Committee about a bill that would extend free college tuition for former foster youth in Arizona.

“Your support of this bill will only continue to allow the number of foster youth—other students like me—to obtain a college education and increase their well-being in adulthood,” Carpenter told the committee. “This is important, because their ability to obtain a degree not only increases their well-being, but would benefit them by ensuring their self-sufficiency, allowing them to become positive contributors to their community.”

Carpenter’s appearance before the legislature caught the attention of the local National Public Radio station, KJZZ. She was interviewed about her experience with the tuition waiver program on the station’s daily program called “The Show.”

“They (former foster youth) don’t necessarily have parents who contribute anything to them, and odds are they don’t always have family behind them as well, so having the tuition waiver allows them the opportunity to at least get started,” she told KJZZ.

Lawmakers overwhelming approved the bill expanding the age range of former foster youth to receive free public college tuition.

Carpenter begins her next chapter this fall when she starts graduate school. She plans to become a social worker after she earning her master’s degree. She wants to give back. And use the knowledge and skills she acquired at ASU to help families through difficult times.

“I think what has struck me probably the most is that people have the capacity to change,” said Carpenter. “And as a social worker my job isn't to fix them, my job is to help them better themselves, better their lives and make those decisions on their own.”

She understands that social workers can be portrayed in a negative light because they may have to remove children from their homes. She’s lived it. It’s never easy. But there is hope for parents and children who become separated.

“We are working with people in their lowest moments of their lives, the worst times of their lives, and oftentimes they don't have people to turn to,” Carpenter said. “But, they need someone that's on their side and says ‘I believe that you can make this change and I believe in you!’ I don't know that I really grasped that coming into social work. I do now.”

It happened in her own life. Carpenter’s mom got the help she needed to kick her drug habit and be a mother again. She is now raising Breanna’s two younger sisters.

“I think it's given me a perspective of being able to take my situation and not look at it as like a pity party--how horrible it was,” said Carpenter. “I think the good thing is that my mom got help and was able to change.”