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Public Service Academy graduate beat overwhelming obstacles

Imani Stephens is among 86 students in first-ever graduating class of ASU's civilian leadership program

Elias gabay and Imani Stephens
April 26, 2019

The fire that burned down her apartment could have been the coup de grâce for Imani Stephens, but it didn't stop her from pursuing a college degree.

Raised by a single mother, Stephens beat other obstacles: financial hardships, a cross-country move and sleeping on floors. Now, the Arizona State University senior will close the door on her past and embrace a bright future when she graduates in May.

Stephens, a student with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, credits her family, her faith and the university’s Public Service Academy for getting her through.

“I persevered by looking at the end goal and knowing that my situation was temporary,” said Stephens, who is also a student in Barrett, The Honors College with a 4.0 GPA. “Leadership teaches you to try (to) improve gradually. I always try to be better than yesterday, last semester and last year. My goal is to improve from that last step.”

Stephens’ next step will be to join thousands of other ASU studentsAccording to Public Service Director Brett Hunt, four PSA students graduated in the fall and spring of 2018. in collecting their diplomas on May 6. Some 15,797 immersion and online students have applied to graduate, nearly 11,000 of those undergraduates. Of the total number of students receiving degrees, 54% are Arizona residents. New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks will deliver the address at the undergraduate commencement.

PLAN: Full schedule of ceremonies at

In addition to her Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication, Stephens minored in justice studies and will receive a Cross-Sector Leadership Certificate from ASU’s Public Service Academy in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

The academy, now in its fourth year, will see its first graduating class of 86 students at its individual convocation ceremony May 4. The 400-member academy answers the nation’s call for a new type of leader: a character-driven leader armed with the courage to cross sectors, connect networks and ignite action for the greater good. 

It launched in 2015 to develop leaders of tomorrow who are prepared to find solutions for society’s biggest challenges and create a culture of service. It does so by leveraging and combining military and civilian experiences. It has two tracks: Reserve Officer Training Corps, the existing university-based program to commission officers into the U.S. Armed Forces, and Next Generation Service Corps, a program for service-oriented students from all majors to become civilian service leaders.

It aims to foster collaboration between those two groups — military and civil service — that work together in the field. They learn how to communicate and work together, and how to navigate the different structures of each group.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Public Service Academy Director Brett Hunt said Stephens demonstrated leadership qualities from day one.

“Imani looks at everything as an opportunity to better herself and grow,” Hunt said. “She walks into a situation and determines where she fits and then takes full advantage of that opportunity. Over the past four years, I’ve seen her do that with rocket fuel.”

Stephens finds that depiction somewhat ironic. She said she initially sputtered at ASU because of her tumultuous upbringing in Compton, California. Her father left them for another family when she was in second grade, leaving her mother to raise Stephens and her sister alone and without financial help, Stephens said.

Their situation grew worse with a sudden move to Florida.

“My mom wanted to get away from the situation and start a new life,” Stephens said. “But in doing so we hit a deep dive financially. We didn’t have any family or support system there, and no furniture our first year there. We slept on the floor.”

A move back to the Los Angeles area three years later was a slight improvement — the family had a few furnishings and now slept on air mattresses. But then the apartment where they lived was destroyed by an electrical fire during Stephens’ senior year of high school, dispersing the family to different relatives’ homes.

“We didn’t have much in the first place and now we had to rebuild,” Stephens said. “That was the hardest moment — trying to come back from that. Even now looking back, I’m amazed how I just kept going and moving forward.”

Stephens continued hitting roadblocks after she graduated from Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California. She didn’t qualify for the Cronkite School her freshman year because of low SAT scores and an average GPA. She also didn’t know how she was going to pay for college, much less acquire a laptop needed for her studies. Even with a Pell Grant, Stephens had already racked up almost $9,000 in debt in her first semester.

But when she found out about a scholarship offered through the Public Service Academy that covered gap tuition, it was “an answered prayer.”

“A particular scripture that resonates with me is ‘I walk by faith, not by sight,’” Stephens said. “If I look at my circumstances through my eyes, that’s when I see all of my problems, challenges, adversity and barriers against me. But when I look through a faith lens, that’s when I say, ‘I can achieve this.’”

Stephens’ four years at ASU is a study in achievement. Each successive semester her grades improved, and she eventually received eight separate scholarships to pay for her tuition. She also did internships every semester, which included stints at KAET 8 – Arizona PBS, KCBS 2/KCAL in Los Angeles, CBS News in New York, CBS Evening News with Jeff Glor in Washington, D.C., and News/Arizona PBS in Washington, D.C. Stephens even managed to find time to give back to the ASU community. She is a regular volunteer at the downtown Pitchfork Pantry for students in need.

She is also a go-getter when it comes to her craft, said Heather Dunn, content director for Cronkite News/Arizona PBS.

“One of the things that impresses me about Imani is her passion for journalism and storytelling,” Dunn said. “She works hard every day to not only find good stories to present to our viewers but works hard to find great people to illustrate the problem, which helps the viewer to connect to the story.”

As she sharpened her journalistic skills, Stephens was also getting another type of education from the Public Service Academy.

“What I really learned from them was how to communicate with different people and understanding how we can all work together regardless of backgrounds, political views, race and socioeconomic levels,” Stephens said. “I never thought of myself as a leader before but I knew I had something to bring to the table.”

MORE: Ultimate commencement guide

Stephens’ peers and supervisors say she brings a lot to the table.

“Imani is kind and she’s highly motivated and ready at the drop of a dime to do anything that is asked of her and then figures out how to do it,” said Veronica Gutierrez, curriculum and course manager for the Public Service Academy. “She’s been motivated to get out of that cycle of poverty and that space she was in before, but it’s not something that defines her.”

What does define her is connecting to other people, said Chris Frias, a Public Service Academy member who has known Stephens since she was a freshman.

“Imani is very sociable and cares a lot about people and her community,” Frias said. “Her time with the Public Service Academy has increased her scope with the issues that people face. I think it’s also helped her journalism to become more social impact oriented.”

Stephens said ASU’s impact on her life will never be forgotten, and she'll pay it forward whenever possible.

“Coming to ASU was part of my destiny and it had to happen,” Stephens said. “I’m astonished by the willingness of others to help me achieve my goals. I hope to pass that trait along to others as I move forward with my life.”

RELATED: More fantastic spring 2019 grads

Top photo: Journalism students Eliav Gabay (left) and Imani Stephens host an installment of Cronkite News from the downtown Phoenix studio. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

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