Graduating Jewish studies student hopes to build human connection
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.
Growing up in Winslow, Arizona, Norma Jean Owens loved being around the diverse cultural experiences of pow wows, rodeos and meteor crater tours. But it was her mother’s dedication to helping her and her siblings have a better life in Phoenix that led Owens to pursue her academic studies in different fields.
“I am motivated by my late mother who did not have a higher-learning experience, but sought refuge in securing residence for her five children in the Phoenix inner-city housing project,” said Owens. “Eventually, she was able to accomplish her goal of purchasing our first home by her strong work ethic and determination.”
Owens started at Arizona State University in the 1980s and met her husband during her sophomore year. After getting married, they home-schooled their five children through the eighth grade. When their last daughter was in high school, she decided to return to complete her degree.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on business and English, 30 years after she began, but she didn’t stop there. Owens returned to ASU to earn a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, a certificate in Hebrew from the School of International Letters and Cultures and a teaching certificate from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
“Learning the culture and literature provided a global perspective of inclusivity, as the Jewish story can be found in all nations,” said Owens. “The sustainability of global resources such as water, agriculture and ecology, technology and medicine are at the forefront of Jewish research.”
Owens earned a scholarship to the Critical Languages Institute as well as the Jess Schwartz scholarship, Benjamin Goldberg Memorial scholarship and Jenny Norton and Bob Ramsey Religious Study in Israel scholarship.
Along with the scholarships she received as a student, Owens also created Histo-News Club, an academic service club to high school students at ASU in 2017.
“For the past three years, we guided students in learning historical research by utilizing primary sources and various digitized tools,” said Owens. “The project is in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Museum History Unfolded program in Washington, D.C.”
As an outstanding graduating student this semester, she answered a few questions about her time at ASU.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: I registered for Judaism 101 with Dr. Norbert Samuelson, one of the first courses in my program. He sparked an "aha" lightbulb by his heart and passion of culture and religion coupled with his desire to see each student succeed. He had a back injury that was extremely painful for him to sit and move. He did not let this discomfort hinder the execution of the course, nor the transfer of knowledge to hungry students. He provided amazing feedback that made me grow in confidence to ask engaging questions on specific subjects. He retired the next semester, but his words, voice and passion have remained with me.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: Success is more than an individual process. It requires a tribe of associates giving and receiving to accomplish it.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: ASU chose me. In my senior year at Tempe High School, our class was invited to meet several college students. They inspired our class and our counselors helped to register students who found value in the modeling of an ASU college student. I identified with the student in criminal justice studies, as social justice was a strength in this course of study.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Dr. Hava Samuelson, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been a mentor, a model and an academic inspiration. She taught me to love learning, value education, engage in a lifestyle of activism in interconnectivity and inclusivity and integrate sustainable and ecological opportunities. She would say, "As you acquire your degree, acquire skills, attitudes and values necessary to become a responsible citizen.”
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: “Education is not received, it is achieved.” — Anonymous. Each day is an opportunity to grow forward and stretch into success!
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My hangout and place of study was the basement of the Language and Literature Building. It hosts several computer rooms, a podcast room and a critical think tank room with amazing technology.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I will teach secondary English virtually as an online teacher.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I would tackle "otherism," by investing money in educational programs that build connectivity through projects, community service, camps and peer groups that place students of mixed backgrounds, ethnicities and economic statuses together to build or create a sustainable project that benefits all people.