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Public Service Academy member engineers a new life after Hurricane Maria

November 8, 2018

Jairo Ramirez serves in the Next Generation Service Corps and hopes to use his experience to offer assistance to others facing disasters

If you had to choose one word to sum up the life of Arizona State University freshman Jairo Ramirez, it would be "resilience."

A little over a year ago, Ramirez and his family sheltered in their home for 11 hours while Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on their Puerto Rican neighborhood and went on to devastate the entire island. This year, he is attending his first year at ASU and upping his academic game.  

Despite the hurdles of striking out on his own, leaving his family behind and learning a new language, Ramirez is thriving in this new environment. And he wants to give back.

He is doing just that through ASU’s Public Service Academy, where he serves in the Next Generation Service Corps. He hopes one day that he’ll be able to assist others when a disaster strikes them.

ASU Now spoke to Ramirez about surviving Hurricane Maria and the new ASU chapter of his life.

Question: You and your family were living in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria devastated the country in September and October of 2017. Tell me about that experience and how it affected you and your family.

Answer: Getting news of a hurricane or storm coming was a normal thing during hurricane season in Puerto Rico, yet no big hurricane had hit us in decades. This made everyone overlook warnings, and Maria was no exception. People were not ready for it; I was not ready for it. The eye came in sometime around 6 a.m. and came out at around 5 p.m. Those were the longest 11 hours of my life. During the time of the hurricane, the wind made noises that will forever be etched in my mind. Water came into the house through every corner, and our street flooded about three feet. Once the winds started to calm down, we had to go into the street and unclog the sewage systems to prevent the flooding from increasing anymore. Once the winds stopped, there was just dead silence. I went out of my house and could not believe the magnitude of the disaster; I could not even recognize the streets I grew up on.

For a week we had no water, and for three weeks I could not attend school. For nine weeks we had no power. The first weeks were chaotic as there was no power anywhere, no communication, the lines for gas were at least three hours long. We knew it was bad, but we had no idea of the gravity, as there was access to absolutely nothing. My dad’s work as an insurance broker was probably one of the worst jobs you could have had after the hurricane because hundreds of clients were trying to make claims — and with extremely poor communication. It was next-to-impossible to work. Insurance companies were refusing to pay claims after the hurricane or were paying at a very slow rate and amounts smaller than what was needed, and now companies are raising policy prices or even denying lifelong clients. It has been a slow recovery, but I strongly believe that Puerto Ricans will rise stronger than before.

Q: Was it hard to leave your family to attend ASU, given that your country has not fully recovered?

A: I lived my whole life back in the island and leaving to pursue my education was something I always wanted to do. I knew leaving my country would be a very hard experience, and leaving it after the hurricane made it even harder. I finished my application to ASU about a month after the hurricane, and the opportunities of getting to work in the energy sector with the support of the Public Service Academy was something that made ASU stand out by the end of my application process. I wanted to help solve the energy crisis before the hurricane and seeing my country’s power system devastated after the hurricane made it even more significant to go into the energy field.

I had set my sights on ASU because of the great work being done in solar energy research, and then many other things, such as the PSA, made ASU the clear choice. I confirmed my enrollment sometime in March, and that was the first time I felt scared of crossing the ocean. During the summer, I would think about everyone I was leaving behind and how hard adapting would be. When I got here, it was relieving to see the community’s support and understanding, and I consider ASU my second home.

Q: Why did you join the Public Service Academy — given that you were living in a foreign country, speaking a second language and taking on a rigorous academic schedule?

A: I joined the Public Service Academy even though it was very far from home because I saw in it the potential to help me reach my goals and to help me serve while doing something that I love. I have always believed that the challenge I want to tackle, energy scarcity, is a challenge that needs to be attended by all sectors, not only the engineering one. Technology is there and ever-growing, but policy and education are big hurdles to the advancement of renewable energy sources such as solar power. The Public Service Academy has acknowledged this fact and seeks to create leaders that can bring all sectors together to work on a common goal.

I knew becoming part of this program while being an engineering major and being part of Barrett (The Honors College) would be a challenge, but I have always loved being challenged as it makes me grow as a person, student and leader. Back home I was part of the JROTC program in my school; once, a former battalion commander gave a speech to our battalion challenging us to go for the three diamonds, the highest rank in JROTC, and I did not make it to the three diamonds, but I became Battalion XO, the second in command of the battalion, and got two diamonds. It has been very challenging to adapt to this new culture, language and people, but I have slowly been adapting — especially to the new language. All in all, my life at ASU and the Public Service Academy has just started and I am very excited to see all the opportunities I will be presented here and I am eager to work on them.

Q: What specifically do you enjoy about being in the Public Service Academy?

A: Being part of the Public Service Academy has been one of the greatest opportunities in my life. In the Public Service Academy, I find myself surrounded by people that have the same genuine desire as I have of changing the world for the better. Being in a setting that nurtures service and focuses on creating character-driven leaders is what I like the most about the PSA. Having the support of faculty and peers is of utmost importance in staying on one’s track. Through the PSA, I have been learning that today’s challenges cannot and will not be solved by a single individual, rather by communities of service-driven leaders who come together under one single mission.

Q: Did the irony hit you that in the Public Service Academy you might be helping people like yourself in the wake of Hurricane Maria?

A: I was raised in a house and a country were serving others is highly valued, and throughout my childhood I had many opportunities to serve my community and even communities in other countries. I had my first big service experience in a mission trip I did to the Dominican Republic in which we helped two small towns close to the border with Haiti in the areas of health care and education focused on children. This experience shaped my life by opening my eyes to real poverty and how big the challenges that come with it are. After the hurricane, I felt compelled to help my country recover and I did so through the American Red Cross. I helped in a couple of supply distribution missions right after the hurricane and during this last summer I volunteered in the ARC recovery program. This program was an incredibly rewarding experience as I got to work in the logistics of installing solar panels in shelter schools, providing health care curriculums for children to small rural clinics, provide microgrants to small farmers and other great initiatives that have helped many people around the island recover. It has been interesting to see that a lot of the work done here at ASU and the PSA resonates with what I have done throughout my life and seek to do my entire life.

Q: What are your plans after you graduate ASU and the Public Service Academy?

A: Here at ASU I am studying mechanical engineering with a focus in energy and environment and I seek to continue in the accelerated program to have a solar energy engineering and commercialization (professional science master's degree). I will use the tools given to me by both ASU and the PSA to work towards the goal of making America and the world shift towards renewable energy, be it through research, education or policy. What I will do after college is uncertain in the sense of my exact path, but anything that helps achieve this goal would be something I would pursue. In any form I can, I will contribute to the public good in the U.S., in Puerto Rico and wherever I have the opportunity to.

Top photo: Engineering freshman Jairo Ramirez poses for a portrait outside the ASU Art Museum on Oct. 11, 2018. Ramirez chose to serve in the Next Generation Service Corps, a decision influenced by his family's experience with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

In celebration of Veterans Day, Arizona State University proudly honors veterans and active members of the military through Salute to Service. Your support helps veterans succeed. Text ASUVets to 41444 to donate to the Veterans Education Fund or visit to learn how you can honor a veteran. 

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ASU student continues family legacy of service, juggling three different calls of duty

November 8, 2018

Grant Navakuku serves in the National Guard, ROTC and Next Generation Service Corps

Arizona State University junior Grant Navakuku joined the Arizona Army National Guard to fulfill a family legacy of service but discovered it offered wonderful benefits — a chance to enhance his education and a pathway to further his career.

The education major is looking to land a job in postsecondary administration when he graduates next year. He keeps busy between his studies, his service with the National Guard and the ROTC and as a member of ASU’s Public Service Academy as a Next Generation Service Corps member.

“My schedule is pretty hectic but you have to get it done somehow,” said Navakuku, a 22-year-old Glendale native. “I wouldn’t want my college experience any other way.”

ASU Now spoke to Navakuku about his college experience before ASU, his military service and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

Question: Before attending ASU, where did you go to college? What are the best and the worst aspects of your college career so far?

Answer: I attended Mesa Community College for two years before transferring to Arizona State University, and my time at MCC was great. I applied to MCC while attending basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri because I knew that school was a priority for me after my military training was done. Transitioning from Army training life to regular college life could have been difficult, but luckily MCC made it very smooth.

My first semester as a freshman I worked a full-time job and was a full-time student — this was the worst aspect of my college career because I was a little overwhelmed. I recall waking up at 5 a.m. so that I could make breakfast/lunch and get ready for my workday that started at 6:50 a.m. After work ended at 3 p.m., I took classes at MCC from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday. I repeated this routine until the end of the semester and ended up on the President’s list. This accomplishment allowed me to see that succeeding in college was an attainable reality, no matter what the circumstances.

Q: What was your motivation for joining the Arizona Army National Guard and what have the last three years been like for you?

A: I enlisted in the Army for six years on Sept. 14, 2015. At that time, I joined the Arizona Army National Guard because I did not know what path I wanted to pursue in life. Before MCC, I attended the University of Arizona and voluntarily dropped out prior to the completion of my first semester. Because of this I really needed to find something that would occupy my time. At that moment I didn't want to go back to school, and my current part-time job wasn’t leading me anywhere, so the National Guard seemed to be the answer. Members of my family, such as my grandfather and uncle, had also been members of the military, so my enlistment also made me feel like I was carrying on a family legacy.

From my point of enlistment to present day, my time in service has been nothing short of eventful. In the Army, my leadership has always told me that to be successful you have to follow three rules: show up at the right place, at the right time and in the right uniform. I’ve adhered to this advice and so far, it has allowed me to become who I am today. I have been able to attend various training events, specialty schools and even represent the Arizona National Guard as a whole by being a member of the Arizona National Guard marathon team.

Q: What’s your duty in the National Guard?

A: The National Guard’s primary duty is to serve both community and country. The Guard responds to domestic emergencies, overseas combat missions, counterdrug efforts, reconstruction missions and more. Any state governor or the president of the United States can call on the Guard in a moment’s notice, yet Guard soldiers’ primary area of operation is their home state.

In the National Guard I previously held the job classification of 31B, which translates to a title of military police. The duty of a military police officer in the National Guard includes protecting the lives and property on Army installations by enforcing military laws and regulations. Now, as a cadet in the ASU Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, my primary duty is to complete school and to develop myself as a leader of character who will provide selfless service to the nation.

Q: Do you intend to come back to the Guard as an officer or will you go active duty, and in what career field?

A: With my enrollment into the ASU ROTC program, I have committed to serving as an officer in the National Guard upon graduation from ASU. My service as an officer in the National Guard will allow me to pursue a master’s degree in learning sciences.

I hope to serve in the Adjutant General’s Corps as my first choice of branch in the Army. I will serve at all organization levels of the Army where they plan, develop and operate the Army's personnel management support systems, which is a vital responsibility in both peace and war. In the future, I hope to work in the Education Offices for the National Guard so that I may help soldiers use their educational benefits in a manner that both helps them pursue their interests and that uses the benefits to its full potential.

Q: You’re also in the Public Service Academy’s Next Generation Service Corps. Why did you decide to take that route?

A: I did not find the application for NGSC in the traditional manner that most members may have found theirs. I was actually forwarded an email by my supervisor. It said, “Hi Grant, please have a look at this program. I think you would be great candidate for it.” From that email, I was intrigued so I looked into the program background, saw that their mission statement ran parallel to the path I was taking and decided to apply. After my application submission, I was interviewed then selected to be a member of the upcoming Next Generation Service Corps cohort. To answer the question directly, I chose the NGSC route along with ROTC because both of these program develop leaders through their curriculum. ROTC produces leaders for the military sector and NGSC produces leaders for the civilian sector, with that, there was no way I could let both opportunities pass me by.

Being a member of NGSC as well as a cadet in ROTC does put me in a unique situation. I have to wear three hats to school every day. I represent ASU as a student, the ROTC program and the U.S. Army as a cadet and the Next Generation Service Corps as an upcoming tri-sector leader. In regards to balancing all three obligations, being a student while participating in ROTC and NGSC, it requires forward planning, but my involvement does not hinder my potential for success in any program. The only difficulty I have is juggling my attendance to required events of the NGSC and the ROTC program, but like I said, that is easily accomplished by forward planning. What is great about both programs is that they are very understanding about my service obligations to both. The director of NGSC is a prior Army officer and a prior cadet in ROTC, so, from his prior experience, he understands the obligations that I must fulfill for ROTC.

Q: What are your future goals?

A: After completion of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College 4+1 program, receiving a bachelor's degree in educational studies and a master's degree in learning sciences by spring 2021, I hope to find a career back in postsecondary education. More specifically I hope to become a program director of a department such as ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services. This career would allow me to facilitate resources, not limited to Native Americans, that help students stay in school. Having a nonlinear educational career myself, my goal is to make every student's college experience as enjoyable and as stress-free as possible. I believe that this career would help me make this goal a reality.

Top photo: Education studies undergraduate Grant Navakuku poses for a portrait at the Tempe Fine Arts Center on Oct. 30, 2018. Navakuku is part of the Public Service Academy, ASU Army ROTC and the Arizona National Guard. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

In celebration of Veterans Day, Arizona State University proudly honors veterans and active members of the military through Salute to Service. Your support helps veterans succeed. Text ASUVets to 41444 to donate to the Veterans Education Fund or visit to learn how you can honor a veteran.