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Herberger grad finds passion for salsa dancing and a creative career path

Co-founder of Latin Sol festival earns master's in creative enterprise and cultural leadership

December 07, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

Learning to thrive at Arizona State University means more than doing well in your major. It can mean finding a whole other passion that infuses energy into everything you do.

Sam Stephens found that spirit during her time at ASU. Named the Outstanding Graduate Student by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, her path to her master’s degree took a few turns.

One of Stephens’ most pivotal moments at ASU was as an undergraduate student, when she decided to take David Olarte’s salsa-dancing class on a whim.

Sam Stephens is graduating with a master's degree in creative enterprise and cultural leadership from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“David taught me to pursue my passions with confidence and to believe in the validity of what I can contribute to the world,” she said. “I can’t overstate how much he has helped me. I owe him a lot.”

That led to six more salsa-dancing classes and a collaboration with Olarte to create and produce ASU’s Latin Sol festival for the past two years.

Stephens has earned a master’s in creative enterprise and cultural leadership, a transdisciplinary program that teaches students how to support creative work and careers in the cultural sector. Johanna Taylor, an assistant professor in program, nominated Stephens for the award, writing: “During her time in graduate school, she has been dedicated to coursework and community building. She has worked to connect what she is learning in her classes to apply it to her work with local artists and the popular Latin Night at the Duce programming.”

Stephens started her college life studying engineering at the University of Arizona, but soon realized that wasn’t the right path.

“I was depressed and felt stifled trying to fit into a mold that society told me was right but wasn’t right for me,” said Stephens, who then transferred Herberger, where she majored in industrial design.

“My ‘aha’ moment there was re-discovering my own creativity and allowing myself to be okay pursuing a career that would allow me to be creative every day.”

Stephens, whose hometown is Chandler, Arizona, answered some questions from ASU Now:

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

Answer: I had two “aha” moments – one when I first realized that I wanted to be in industrial design, and the second was at the end of my senior year when I realized I wanted to use my design skillset in a different way and go to grad school to apply it in an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurship-focused context.  

I had started to become less interested in the design of physical consumer products and more interested in applying design thinking to solving more conceptual problems and designing non-physical products like events, systems and businesses. With the permission of my senior studio professor, I teamed up with two friends who felt the same and we created our own unique senior design project that focused on service design. It was right around this time that I heard about the Creative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership master’s program. After I found out how perfectly it fit my changing interests, I immediately decided to go to grad school and explore the path of entrepreneurship seriously.

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

A: I learned and observed firsthand that not only is it totally possible to survive in a creative career, it’s possible to thrive. Our society can make us think that there’s only a very narrow definition of “success,” and that we must pursue it. But as a creative individual, I feel happier creating my own definition of “success.” I learned so much about the creative economy from my professor and dean Dr. Steven Tepper, entrepreneurship in the arts from Linda Essig, and I met so many incredibly successful artists during my field experience trip to New York that it really opened my eyes to how sustainable and fulfilling a career in arts and culture can be.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for my undergrad because of the great industrial design program right in my backyard! I chose ASU again for grad school because of the incredibly unique CECLCreative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership program that felt like it perfectly fit me and my goals. I never intended to go to grad school ever, but when I heard about CECL I literally changed my mind in less than a week.

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

A: Listen to your intuition and don’t do something that won’t bring you happiness. Don’t go to school, major in something or take a job just because you think you “should.” Create your own path.

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

A: ASU Performing and Media Arts — better known as APMA! The dance studio in that weird little building has become my home after taking salsa classes there for the last 3 1/2 years on the side while I pursued my required studies. If anyone reading this is a student who feels like you don’t fit in, don’t have a community to be a part of, or just need to get away from the stress of your other classes, join a salsa class with us over there! APMA can become your home too. The community is so accepting, happy and free.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation I’ll be pursuing the business I built as my applied project thesis full-time.

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

A: Easy — the environmental crisis. It’s the most pressing issue of our time. Our planet is dying because of our collective greed. If we don’t fix it before it’s too late, humanity won’t be around to even worry about our other problems. I went vegetarian and then mostly vegan partially for this reason, and I hope to be able to contribute to the cause in bigger ways once I’m out of school.

Top photo: Sam Stephens collaborated with David Olarte to create and produce the Latin Sol dance festival the past two years. Photo by Tim Trumble.

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