Graduate Samuel Conley: ‘I want to be defined by my actions’

Samuel Conley posing on a balcony overlooking colorful buildings in Queretaro, Mexico

For a long time, Samuel Conley wasn’t trying to stand out. 

As a child in Prescott, Conley struggled with undiagnosed narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes extreme drowsiness in the daytime. He’d fall asleep in class, attracting the ire of teachers and laughs from peers. Convinced he wasn’t cut out for success, he did the bare minimum to earn passing grades. He forewent extracurricular activities, opting to read or play video games after school.

But things changed dramatically in high school, after Conley finally understood the source of his constant sleepiness and found medication to treat the disorder.

Conley said experiences like studying abroad and Model UN have given him more confidence and curiosity about the world.

“I found out some of my friends were applying to very prestigious colleges, and they were in the National Honor Society, volunteering at food pantries and working jobs,” Conley said. “I started thinking, ‘What can I start doing right now to put me on a different track?’”

That marked the moment when he started to become the Samuel Conley he is today—the Honors College student on the precipice of graduating from NAU with two degrees, a slew of formative academic and extracurricular experiences under his belt and a newfound confidence.

As a high school senior, Conley got a job as a restaurant dishwasher. He joined the student government and the mock trial club. He studied hard, especially in Spanish, one of his favorite subjects. 

Then he found his way to NAU and to an array of opportunities his high school self never could have imagined.

Developing curiosity and confidence

Conley didn’t get the classic freshman year experience until his sophomore year. Having stayed in Prescott and taken remote classes for the first two semesters to save money, he arrived in his Honors College dorm room feeling new to NAU. His roommate, a first-year student, helped him feel at ease: They navigated the pedway, the campus eateries and the club fairs together. 

That was where Conley found Model UN, a campus club full of other curious students.

Other students in Model UN “were super nice and welcoming,” Conley said.

“I didn’t know much about the UN, and I thought it would be cool to learn some new things,” he said. “They were super nice and welcoming, and I really enjoyed learning from them at the first couple of meetings. I was a very nervous kid, but before I knew it, I got more comfortable speaking in public.” 

He also got comfortable embracing different perspectives: Model UN challenges students like Conley to convincingly pose as international dignitaries through extensive research on their assigned country’s history, culture and politics. Thanks to mentorship and support from his friends Jacob and Dylan Baker, who are the president and head delegate of the club, Conley assumed a leadership role in Model UN and began mentoring younger students as they prepared for mock meetings.

As his curiosity about the broader world grew, Conley resolved to study abroad. Putting seven years of Spanish studies to the test, he attended Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Spring 2023, saving money by taking the enrollment and visa process into his own hands rather than through an intermediary study abroad provider, as most students do.

Conley spent winter break of his senior year in Querétaro, Mexico, part of a Spanish immersion course.

“It’s a lengthy process. You have to apply and wait a couple of months to get an acceptance letter,” he said. “Then you have to get your visa, do an apartment search and get in contact with landlords. You have to research the course catalog and enroll in classes on your own, and you have to do that all in another language! I’m really proud of what I learned about planning and budgeting; those are skills I’m definitely going to need later in life.”

Conley also spent winter break of his senior year in Querétaro, Mexico, as part of an NAU Spanish immersion course

“It was like a dynamic classroom,” he said. “The NAU faculty taught us lessons as we moved around the city.”

Gaining hands-on research experience

In Spring 2022, Conley found himself in another kind of dynamic classroom: a student-led research project at the Martin-Springer Institute that illuminated fascinating details about some of the Americans, Canadians and Brits who were caught up in the Spanish Civil War. 

“Martin-Springer got access to this fan from the Spanish Civil War with 31 signatures on it,” Conley said. “We researched who those people were, their origins, how they ended up in Spain and what their fates were in the war.”

Conley learned crucial research skills as a student employee at the Martin-Springer Institute.

Conley and his fellow student researchers presented their joint findings at the Undergraduate Symposium, and eventually their work made it into an exhibition at the Martin-Springer Institute. Conley said the experience didn’t just teach him crucial research skills—it also deepened his understanding of the Spanish Civil War and how it touched regular people’s lives better than any class could have. 

Hooked on research, Conley also joined professor of anthropology Rima Brusi and a handful of other students in a project that aimed to understand and solve barriers to college access for disadvantaged Arizona teens. Using his Spanish skills, Conley translated a series of television segments about the college application process that eventually aired on Arizona Univision. 

“They were all about demystifying the process of getting to college,” Conley said. “There were episodes about filling out FAFSA forms, fulfilling class requirements, things like that. The objective was to throw information out there that some kids and families might not have easy access to.”

In the midst of these formative research, study and extracurricular experiences, Conley began to understand something he hadn’t realized as a high school student: He’s passionate about learning new things and helping others. 

Conley plans to take a gap year and live in Prescott with his grandfather.

“One thing I learned from Model UN is that I take pleasure not only in being part of that activity but also in teaching people who are new to the club, mentoring them through it,” he said. “I think that’s why I just want to do a job that helps people.” 

What exactly that job is, Conley doesn’t know yet. He plans to take a gap year in Prescott, where he’ll find work, cook with his grandfather and research master’s programs in public administration and public policy. He may eventually find work in the public sector, at a nongovernmental organization or in education.  

Even though he doesn’t have all the answers, Conley feels proud of how far he’s come.

“I don’t think anyone who has a disability, whether it’s a visible one or an invisible one like mine, wants that to define them,” he said. “I want to be defined by my actions, by my successes. That was my goal going into NAU, and I think I’ve accomplished it.”

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Jill Kimball | NAU Communications
(928) 523-2282 |

NAU Communications