Ashley Potzernitz’s family has lived in Jackson, Wyoming, for seven generations. She grew up “very lucky,” she said, with her extended family all around her. She rode horses, fished on her grandfather’s boat and studied hard in school.
The double-major in psychology and Spanish, with a minor in family studies and a 4.0 GPA, chose to come to Boise State “because it was far enough away from home to have my own experiences, but close enough to visit home if I needed to,” she said.
Potzernitz remembers the weeks before she left for school. She was struggling with thoughts of being alone in a strange city.
“My dad told me to not think of that as a negative thing, but as a potentially amazing experience. He told me to think of college as an investment in myself,” said Potzernitz.
Her father, John, is a manager for a construction company. He wakes up at 2 a.m. during the winter to do his second job, plowing snow. Hundred-hour work weeks are not uncommon.
“My dad’s work is hard, both physically and mentally draining,” said Potzernitz. “He got an associate’s degree, and he likes his work. But he always wished he had gone to school longer. He wanted me to earn a degree so that I would be able to do whatever I wanted to.”
Potzernitz took her father’s words to heart and grew them into her own collegiate philosophy: “Don’t waste your time here.”
Her transcript is notable for its profusion of As and not a few A-plusses. But her real calling has been community engagement. Potzernitz chose psychology because she wanted to better understand the human mind. She began studying Spanish in the 7th grade, inspired by an interest in other cultures.
As a freshman she organized an effort to help local firefighters install fire alarms in the homes of refugees and other families in need. Through the Spanish program, she used her language skills to translate letters for Spanish-speaking inmates in a local prison. But the most meaningful accomplishment for her, she said, has been working as a counselor for six consecutive summers at a Wyoming summer camp. A teacher in a classroom gets to know a child for a single year, said Potzernitz. As a counselor, she’s been able to watch the same group of camp attendees grow and mature for six years — the last three as a camp supervisor.
Another accomplishment — one that pushed her beyond the safe and familiar — was interning with the University of Idaho Extension office. Her bosses asked her to teach entrepreneurship.
“I’m not a business major,” said Potzernitz. But she took on the task. She educated herself through an online program, then created an entrepreneurship curriculum to teach teens in the 4-H Leadership Club, as well as adults enrolled in a six-week course, and middle schoolers in Parma.
Kelly Arispe, an associate professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages, wrote a letter to recommend Potzernitz as the 2018 commencement speaker. Arispe lived across the hall from Potzernitz in the Living and Learning Community for the Arts and Sciences Residential College during Potzernitz’s freshmen year. The two have been close ever since.
Arispe called Potzernitz “a true leader,” and “an autonomous learner,” noting Potzernitz’s study abroad in Spain and work as a teaching assistant and lab assistant for the World Language Resource Center.
Potzernitz does not work for reward or recognition, “but because she believes in the cause,” said Arispe. “She’s a person of integrity who will do what she says she will do, do it well.”
Potzernitz is able, said Arispe, to balance her many strengths with being relatable — a “normal, small-town person” — who can nonetheless inspire her peers. In one notable example, Potzernitz assembled a group of fellow students from various majors to meet for a weekly sculpting group at Fort Boise.
After graduation, Potzernitz plans to take a short break. She doesn’t yet know what shape that break will take. She hopes to find a way to work with kids and families. That might include working through an afterschool program back home in Jackson. She’s considering returning to school for a teaching certificate or applying to teach English abroad.
As for her commencement speech. She’s used to speaking in public — in more than one language. But she said she’s never addressed a crowd as large as the one that will come to campus on Dec. 15 to celebrate the end of another year.
True to form, Potzernitz had the draft of her speech written before the deadline.