A passion for serving others
The 2022 Provost’s Award winner says volunteering in the community gave her a sense of purpose, honor and appreciation.
It wasn’t the start of adulthood Ariana Sweeney had envisioned for herself. Going to college was in her plan, but less than a year after enrolling in school in her home state of Wisconsin, she left.
“I dropped out at age 19,” said Sweeney, the 2022 Provost’s Award winner for student achievement at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I had no idea what I wanted. I moved to Denver alone without friends or family nearby. I felt isolation and a sense of being lost like I had never felt before.”
She began suffering bouts of depression and anxiety. She did land some jobs but said she soon realized they weren’t going to lead to promotions or a career.
“I quickly realized I’d need an education to grow and do something meaningful with my life,” she said. “To make a difference in this world, I knew I’d have to prepare myself mentally, intellectually and emotionally in order to help other people around me.”
She began the slow process of turning her life around. Today, at 26, Sweeney is back on track. A 4.0-GPA student and honor-society secretary, she now describes herself as determined, outspoken and outgoing.
“I’m a leader now who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, to be bold, to take chances,” said Sweeney, who’s majoring in Psychology and minoring in Social Work. “I value challenging myself and being outside of my comfort zone to grow and thrive.”
She says much of the turnaround in her life came from opportunities to collaborate with faculty members and her fellow students at MSU Denver, including leading research on food and housing insecurity and mental-health needs for students on campus.
“Here at MSU, I’ve felt challenged, stimulated and even seen, which has inspired me to work harder,” she said. “The University has challenged me in many ways and helped me overcome the barriers in my life.”
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Despite the demands of her coursework, outside research projects and student clubs, Sweeney spent much of her time at MSU Denver volunteering, cooking and distributing meals at the Food Bank of the Rockies.
“My parents instilled in me my sense of community service,” she said. “When they would volunteer, they’d get my siblings and me to go with them. It was an opportunity to see the privilege we came from and how just a couple of hours or a few days could impact others. I’ve also learned in my Social Work studies that serving others allows you to serve yourself as well.
“The mutual dynamic between giving back to your community and learning about what people actually need versus what we assume they need is so crucial in making a long-term difference.”
Sweeney also volunteered at the International Volunteer Headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she supported a local food pantry, cared for children with special needs and mentored several college students in speaking English.
“My mother, grandmother and other extended family originally emigrated from Vietnam to America at the start of the Vietnam War,” Sweeney said. “Moving to America shifted the course of their lives for the better, and it gave me many opportunities they didn’t have at a young age. Serving the communities that my mother and grandmother grew up in gave me a sense of appreciation and honor I hadn’t felt before.”
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After taking a well-deserved break, Sweeney plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology and to continue her work with at-risk youth. No matter which path she takes, Sweeney is destined for greatness, her Psychology professors said.
“Sweeney is the type of student that professors dream of having in their classes, and she represents the very best of MSU Denver’s values and mission,” said Psychology Professor Courtney Rocheleau, Ph.D. “I know that she will move on from MSU Denver to a bright future, filled with accolades and accomplishments, and it’s humbling to know that I’ve been some small part of her story.”
Community advocacy will no doubt play a central role in Sweeney’s future, though for now she’s letting her accomplishments sink in and not putting too much pressure on herself.
“My career goal is to work as a clinician or counselor,” she said, “but the future is unclear and infinite, and I am open to whatever opportunity the universe has to offer me.”