Outstanding undergraduate finds rebirth at ASU and sweet spot between science and art in user experience

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

Sanjana Ponnada, the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts’ Outstanding Undergraduate for 2020-2021, never planned on attending ASU, “but transferring to ASU has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in the journey of getting my life back on track,” said Ponnada.

“I struggled a bit at my previous university,’” explained the technical communication major who is graduating with the concentration in user experience. “There was dissonance between what I liked and what I was studying, and I felt directionless about where I was headed once I realized things weren’t working out.”

In search of a fresh start, she left her past in the rearview mirror and discovered hope at ASU. Her exposure to the school charter during orientation had profound impact:

“A university ‘measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed ...’ For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of purpose and belonging again,” Ponnada recalled. “The inclusivity and commitment to its students has continuously left me in awe during my time here.

“The encouragement I’ve received from the faculty and my peers has been such a driving force to the success I’ve been able to achieve,” she added. “I found courage in the belief that ASU had in me that I could thrive. Through them, I gradually saw the changes in me as I pursued newer, more fulfilling dreams.

“I felt a tingle in my fingertips when I learned about design,” continued Ponnada, “and there was a spark in my eye when I began to look at the world in a new light. I not only discovered my passion in this area, but also refined my skills and grew into a stronger creative. I’m now working as a full-time designer in a Fortune 50 company, able to do what I love and feel like it was meant for me.

“This university has fostered my rebirth, like a phoenix that rises from the ashes,” concluded Ponnada, who made the Dean’s List every semester at ASU; in fact, her GPA never dipped below 4.0. “I owe a lot of who I am to ASU — it was a crucible of transformation for me as a student, designer and person.”        

Sanjana Ponnada shared these additional reflections with ASU News about her journey.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: It's hard to pinpoint a single instance when it felt like things fell into place. It was more like a wave built up on the horizon — a gentle one, but one that was a long time coming. Ever since I was little, I was really good at two things: asking questions and getting my hands messy. As I grew, these interests manifested themselves into my passions for both the sciences and arts. They're seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, but with a good hard look, you'd be surprised to see how harmonious they are. Both are explorations of what it means to be human and how we make sense of our universe (and our place in it).

In my quest to find the best of both worlds, user experience (UX) design stood out to me as a field hovering in the sweet spot between these two sides of myself. As a designer, we get to poke around and ask questions. At the same time, we also get to color outside the lines and come up with creative solutions on how to solve those problems.

Design already permeates everything we do and how we live. And with how much technology has become a part of our daily lives, it's exciting to have a small part in building experiences to positively impact people. As Robert Peters once said, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” I get very sparkly-eyed to be able to have a small piece of that — to not only create things but to contribute to a future for all of us.

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

A: Discipline triumphs over motivation. Those of us in creative fields tend to place a lot of importance on perfectionism and idealism. To no one's surprise, real life isn't as clear-cut as we'd like. Sometimes we get thrown curveballs. I've had my share of challenges as a student, from overwhelmingly full class schedules to demanding internships and extracurriculars. With every struggle, I came to realize there’s only one thing I can control in life: myself.

This mindset completely shifted how I view things. I began to worry less about what's out of my hands and stay focused on what I can do. And when the going gets tough, I run on autopilot to let my habits sustain me and keep going anyway. This helped me find peace with myself. You just need to persist, even when you don't want to. Sometimes it's the only way through.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU and what was it?

A: My user experience professor, Dr. Tatiana Batova, was profoundly influential. Not only did I learn foundational principles for my degree, but she also taught me to prioritize curiosity and taught me to believe in myself more.

After grading our final capstone project, Dr. Batova commented that my work was a good candidate for the ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication’s student research competition and suggested that I apply. I signed up on a whim. Over several months, she invested a lot of support throughout conference preparations and the publication process. I poured myself into my work, which focused on analyzing the effectiveness of the online COVID-19 symptom self-checker created by the CDC, and extended this assignment into a full-fledged research endeavor. I shockingly made it to the final round and achieved first place in the undergraduate division, representing ASU.

Dr. Batova not only saw potential, but steadily motivated me to challenge myself toward growth and, eventually, surreal success. She has shown me how to cast aside the outcome-driven mindset and embrace the journey — and all its possibilities.

Q: Did you have any internships, student worker positions or research experiences that were important to you?

A: I had the amazing opportunity to work as a UX design intern at State Farm last summer, and I'm so grateful that I could learn from some of the most talented leaders in the field right now. Despite the challenges of the remote position, the company made every one of the interns feel welcome and celebrated. This experience was my first exposure to my career choice in the real world, so it was incredibly eye-opening to see how it all functions in its natural habitat. From mobile app design to AR/VR, I got to work on a diverse set of projects to apply and further refine my skills. Collaborating with other designers and understanding their thought process was immensely rewarding as an aspiring creative as well.

This role will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first time seeing my design actually implemented. In college, we work with a lot of made-up clients and random businesses for assignment purposes. But I remember when I first saw the app my team and I designed available in the iOS App Store. It sent chills down my back realizing that thousands of users would be downloading and using what I helped create. And I can't put into words how fulfilling it was to see my work in its tangible form like that, and I'll always be thankful for State Farm for allowing me to learn and experience these milestones. I've picked up a lot along the way that I'm sure I will carry with me as a designer for a long while.

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

A: Susan Sontag once wrote, "I like to feel dumb. That's how I know that there's more in the world than me." College is usually a time in our lives where we are confronted with a lot of unknowns. It can be anything from having a hard time wrapping your head around a concept from class to being totally lost on how to file your taxes. Be OK with feeling dumb. Laugh at yourself a bit, embrace growth and listen well. Not just to your professors, but to the people and places you find yourself in.

Also, that one thing? Whatever you're putting off? Do it now, not later.

Q: What was your favorite place for power studying?  

A: Enduring the full force of the pandemic in late spring was especially tough. After being stuck inside for the better part of two months, I started spending a lot of time in my backyard. Specifically a hammock, usually with ice cream. Whether it was wrapping up a project, calling in for a work meeting or just sitting still, it provided a sweet little oasis in a very uncertain world. The trees would rustle, tiny lizards would scurry around and, for a brief moment, everything was normal.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I was offered a full-time position following my internship with State Farm, so I'm currently working my dream job as a UX designer right now! I'm looking into applying for a master’s in human-computer interaction (or a similar area of study) very soon. There's still quite a bit for me to see and do, and I'm excited for what's in store.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Climate change. Our environment has an enormous impact on our lives as we know it: health, access to resources, biodiversity, natural disasters, global disparity and injustice, etc. There are a lot of problems we need to address, and it's important to note that most of these are interconnected. For example, environmental risks like pollution directly threaten marginalized communities, and food waste is one of the leading factors of world hunger. Investing the resources to begin addressing these issues surrounding sustainability will develop a solid foundation for other solutions, as well as propel humanity in the right direction. Saving the planet (literally) is a good step towards saving the planet (as a whole). This is the only home we’ve ever known.

Maureen Roen
maureen.roen@asu.edu