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Finding their own path

April 29, 2016

Originally from Lebanon, soon-to-be-graduates twins Robert and Alexi Choueiri will embark on different careers after extraordinary journey together

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Alexi Choueiri starts the twins’ story: “We left because of war.”

In 2005, Lebanon erupted into war after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The Choueiri family fled Beirut, and 12-year-old Robert and Alexi left behind everything they knew to begin middle school in Arizona.

It was tough. There was culture shock and dislocation. Although the boys spoke Arabic and French and went to an English-speaking school in Lebanon, Robert struggled with the language.

At Corona del Sol High School, the brothers began to flourish. Robert (above, left) was student body president, and Alexi was senior class president.

The two have not lived together during their time at ASU, but remained close.

“We’ve always been fairly independent as twins, but it has been a huge advantage going here as siblings because we’ve been able to feed off each other’s strengths,” Robert said.

Together as freshmen, they founded the ASU branch of Global Microfinance Brigades, a nonprofit that sends undergraduate students to developing countries to create community banking systems and teaches financial literacy. Both are Tillman Scholars, and Robert is a McCord Scholar as well as the Barrett Outstanding Graduate.

Now, with graduation approaching, the two will take separate paths after an extraordinary journey together.

“We don’t know what that’s going to be like, to be honest,” said Alexi, majoring in biochemistry and economics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We were separated for the summer, but even then we made time to see each other.”

Last summer, Alexi was an Amgen Scholar at Harvard University and Robert worked as an investment analyst in the U.S. Foreign Service Internship Program in Washington, D.C., but they visited each other.

Robert — who is receiving his degree in economics from the W. P. Carey School of Business — said the change won’t be a problem.

“We’ve always been independent, but we came to each other when we needed it. We’ll find a way.”

Soon-to-be ASU graduate twins Robert and Alexi Choueiri

Twins Robert (left) and Alexi Choueiri flash the pitchfork at their favorite place on campus: Old Main. Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The two answered some questions about their time at ASU.

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

Answer:  Even in middle school, Alexi was interested in neuroscience. He has worked in the lab at Barrow Neurological Institute since high school.

“I had a deep interest in biology and what makes people tick. I joined a lab at Barrow doing brain-cancer research because my cousin had brain cancer. From that I transitioned to pure neuroscience,” he said.

The internship at Harvard last year convinced him to pursue a doctorate.

Robert was inspired by his family’s experience.

“The experience of evacuating and leaving everything I had known got me curious about international affairs and conflict. Before I got to ASU I was looking to do global studies, and then I realized that the root of a lot of issues stemmed from business and economic development.

Through the microfinance nonprofit, his job as a consultant at Arizona Microcredit Initiative and his work in Washington, D.C., he has seen how development works at an individual, regional and international level.

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

A: The two were pleasantly surprised at the flexibility they found at ASU with hybrid online classes and other ways to fit in their many activities.

“It gave us a big competitive edge,” Alexi said. “My brother worked during the week at many internships, and I was a given a lot of time to do my research. We were both able to be heavily involved outside of our coursework.”

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The twins’ siblings had gone to ASU. Robert was in the Leadership Scholar Program and Alexi won a Presidential Scholarship.

“It was an easy decision,” said Alexi, who had also considered the University of California at Berkeley.

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

A: “Take time to explore your interests,” Alexi said.

“I think too many people have a self-imposed idea of what they want to do, and by the time they hit senior year, it doesn’t feel right. I looked into being a doctor, a dentist, a consultant. Until you expose yourself, you won’t get that gut feeling of what you want to do.”

Robert said there are two sides of finding yourself.

“Become rooted in complete selflessness, and at the same time, take a step back and make time to be introspective and reflective,” he said. “Those are the two elements to really fight for that ‘why.’ ”

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Both brothers like Old Main.

“It feels like a little oasis,” Alexi said.

Robert said, “There are little secret spots over there.”

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Alexi will move to Cambridge to begin PhD studies in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded by a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Robert is weighing two career options — one in Singapore and one in Washington, D.C.

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

A: Alexi would invest the money in research: “I’m very interested in unlocking how the brain works and particularly psychiatric diseases. I would like to find a genetic and molecular basis for neurological disorders.”

Robert would start an innovation fund: “I would invest in low-income, underserved entrepreneurs who would encompass social entrepreneurship and sustainable development.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Taking a big-picture approach to helping others

April 29, 2016

Imelda Ojeda aims for policy-level impact on community health with dual master’s in public administration and social work

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Helping others is a quality that resonates in Imelda Ojeda.

That’s why she chose to pursue dual master’s degrees in public administration and social work in Arizona State University's College of Public Service and Community Solutions — not for the betterment of her career but to improve the quality of life for underserved families.

“With my bachelor’s degree I was able to help families one-on-one, but with a master’s I knew I could make a much bigger impact by working on the policy level,” said the 30-year-old, who was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to Arizona to pursue her higher education.

“I’ve seen a disconnect between a lot of agencies, and it felt like we were all working against each other instead of as a team even though we had the same goal. I realized my purpose was much bigger than myself.”

Ojeda is off to a good start. She serves as a board member for the Maryvale YMCA and is on the steering committee for the Maricopa County Preventative Health Collaborative.

She is also in talks with the CEO for UMOM New Day Centers in Phoenix — whose mission is to prevent and end homelessness with innovative strategies and housing solutions — to create a new policy/advocacy position for her after nine months on the job as a housing specialist.

She spoke to ASU Now about her time at the university.

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

Answer: After obtaining my B.S in psychology, I started working in the behavioral health field working directly with children and families. During my time doing that I had the chance to experience firsthand how complicated and even frustrating the system in our state could be — families often have to overcome different barriers and obstacles to obtain the quality services and benefits they need. After being on the field for three years, I realized that my purpose was bigger than myself and that if I wanted to make a long-lasting impact and I needed to further my education and make the change I wanted to see. Doing a dual degree in social work and public administration (MSW/MPA) seemed like the perfect blend of direct services theory and practice and knowledge of non-profit and government management that would take me to the next level.

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

A: During my MSW program, I had the opportunity to take courses such as social justice and public policy courses that provided me with valuable knowledge on these areas and made me realize how much influence policy and politics have on our daily lives. I learned about complex social systems, and combined with my field experience I was able to target where some of the gaps in our system are and what needs to change in order to improve things in our communities.

Additionally, being involved in student organization leadership during my grad school years has been a wonderful, challenging, learning experience. I have gained organizational and leadership skills that will allow me to continue making an impact and leading others on a professional and community level.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I wanted to acquire the necessary skills to continue growing as a professional on the field. Having graduated from ASU with my undergraduate degree, I was confident that ASU is a quality institution and that this program would prepare me to continue serving and making an impact in the community in general. 

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

A: My main piece of advice for those still in school would be to say yes to new opportunities. To not shy away from big challenges, say yes and figure it out afterwards. I have learned that great opportunities often only come once, and if we wait until we are ready to take them we might miss out on what will take us to the next level.

My other piece of advice is to take the lead, to not wait for someone else to do it or someone else to figure out how to improve things. If you see a problem and it’s within your ability to step in and help, do it! We need more leaders who are committed and passionate about making changes now more than ever.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Starbucks at Taylor Place is one of my favorite places to go to meet friends, but when it is time to study and get things done there is no place like that semi-hidden spot at the library on the Downtown Phoenix campus by the elevators.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Upon completing my MPA from ASU and along with my MSW, I plan on continuing working in the social-work field providing services to underserved populations and continue building my career in the public sector to address the unique needs of the Southwest population by developing policies and advocacy for access to quality health care, education and stable housing.

I plan on continuing my employment with UMOM New Day Centers, where I enjoy working with homeless families providing support to maintain stable and safe housing and employment. Obtaining my MPA will allow me to seek other opportunities within the organization and plan on transitioning to an advocacy and public policy position where I will be able to make a larger impact within this community.

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

A: There are many things I would like to improve and problems that need to be solved, but if I had to choose one it would be to ensure access to quality health care for all children. I believe access to health care is a human right and not a privilege, and health care is the foundation for any social development.

With $40 million I would develop programs that provide health-care services to children in rural areas, but instead of us providing all the necessary personnel and equipment, I would invest some of that money in helping communities develop, train and establish quality health-care systems that are sustainable and affordable. Long-term solutions vs. the traditional one-time direct/emergency services that we are used to. Providing health screenings and vaccines for children in poor countries is always a great help, but this does not solve the big-picture problem. We need to lead by example and assist these communities regarding best practices on how to build, establish and develop permanent health-care systems that will have a long-term impact. 

Reporter , ASU News