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Honors College created community for a first-generation student

Vikki Ascuena, for FOCUS, Honors College, photo Patrick Sweeney

To help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Honors College, we’re profiling select alumni on how an honors education helped shape their personal and professional successes. Submit your own memories of the college by visiting: Honors College: Share Your Story

When Vikki Pepper Ascuena enrolled at Boise State in 1971, she was just 17, a graduate of Wendell High School, and the first in her family to go to college. An advisor saw her impressive grades and told her she belonged in the honors program. She remembers honors seminars that stretched the boundaries of traditional class content – exploring topics like hypnosis, or introducing students to a fellow student who was a prisoner at the penitentiary and attended Boise State on release, prison guard at his side.

Ascuena paid her tuition with a summer job on the road crew at construction sites “at the ends of the earth.” She used the remote settings to her advantage, plowing through her honors summer reading list – “Middlemarch,” “Portrait of a Lady” and more.

Ascuena married during her sophomore year (to the late Ron Ascuena, a Boise State graduate, also a teacher and coach in the West Ada district) and later graduated certified to teach secondary English and history. She had planned to go to law school, but after her husband was injured on a construction site, she went to work to support them. The job market was tight in 1975 with baby boomers and returning Vietnam veterans looking for work. The honors designation on her transcript, said Ascuena, helped her land her first job at what is now Meridian Middle School.

“That was a dynamic time,” she said. “Education had given up some of the ideas of the 1960s, like open classrooms, but teachers were still such collaborators. We had such respect for one another.”

Don Nesbitt, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the West Ada School District, worked with Ascuena for two decades.

“Man, what a great teacher,” he said of his former colleague. “She would teach ‘Macbeth,’ and dress as a character in the play – never breaking character. She made things come alive.”

After Meridian Junior High, Ascuena taught at Meridian High School. She was named district teacher of the year. Brigham Young University named her one of 12 outstanding educators. She chaired the English department at both schools, writing curriculum and serving on state assessment committees. She also was president of the Idaho Council of Teachers of English. She retired in 2009, but returned to work for the district in the senior project program until 2012. Her family includes daughter Whitney, son-in-law Peter and three grandchildren.

When she thinks of her time at Boise State, she thinks of her “homes” on campus – the library, the liberal arts building, and of her mentors, professors Dale Boyer and the late Pat Bieter.

“Bieter was realistic about what we could accomplish without stripping away our sense of can-do and creativity,” she said. “Boyer was old school, with a wry sense of humor.”

“I knew that whatever I wrote for him would be quality. And it was,” said Ascuena.

She came to Boise State unaware of what collegiate culture could be. The honors program provided that scaffolding.

“Because of that,” said Ascuena, “I made better choices than I would have.”

For more information on the Honors College 50th anniversary, visit: Honors College: Inspired