ASU master’s graduate finds her calling in social work

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


A Gila River Indian Community member recently completed her graduate studies at Arizona State University. Cassandra Peña completed her Masters of Social Work in Planning, Administration and Community Practice from the ASU School of Social Work, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions this spring semester.  


“I grew up mostly in Tempe, but my family is from District 6, Komatke,” said Peña. She said her grandparents are Kenneth Sneed and Emily Adams Sneed, her parents are Della Peña and Jamie Lopez. 


Peña’s list of accomplishments includes a Bachelors of Social Work from ASU and working within Phoenix urban Indian assistance and health centers during her master’s program. 

“I dropped out of high school when I was 17, I was a teen mom,” said Peña. After a series of what she called, “dead end” jobs, Peña decided to go back to school. At 25-years-old, she received her GED as a mother of three. 


Peña knew going to college would set a good example for her son and two daughters. “I have to do this for me, for my kids and my family. If I don’t make these sacrifices, who’s going to do it for me?” Her studies reflected her desire to help people.“The life I had wasn’t what I envisioned for myself, you can say I’ve been through some hardships, so I wanted to do something to help those in places I have been, what young people face,” said Peña. 


Peña enrolled in the SSW at ASU, where she received a Bachelor’s of Social Work last May. She just completed an accelerated MSW program this May. “There’s a misconception with social work, such as we take kids, we work with CPS, when in fact we play many roles, like policy, community work,” said Peña. 


She understands young people who have faced challenges in their lives and offered this advice: “You go through certain things in life, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from succeeding.” 

In addition to her studies, Peña had contributed towards the ASU SSW strategic plan and Native American Connections Homebase Program for homeless youth, according to Christopher Sharpe, SSW Office of American Indian Projects Director & Clinical Assistant Professor. 


“I’ve been exposed to program planning and development, making sure they are a right fit for the community,” said Peña. She said that skill set can be brought to the Community to enhance services for GRIC members. 


She said it is humbling to apply her knowledge from the classroom to her work with Native Americans. “I love learning, and I’ve given myself a goal to go back to school, I know there’s more I can learn,” said Peña. 


She also has experience working with Native youth in her undergraduate program with Native American Connections. “They’re such a great organization, there is so much I have learned from their leadership, on how to address homelessness,” said Peña. 


Peña said all college graduation ceremonies are virtual this semester due to the restrictions on public gatherings related to the COVID-19 outbreak. “That’s how I’ll be celebrating for now, but because of the situation, all May graduates have been invited to walk in December.”  


Currently, Peña is interning with the Indian Health Services Integrated Behavioral Health office in the Valley, where she hopes to continue working in the future.