ASU professor helps students make their own mark

Richard Herrera, associate professor at ASU's School of Politics and Global Studies.


Richard Herrera’s interest in politics started at a young age when his school did a mock debate during the Nixon and McGovern presidential election. Over the years, Herrera — who is now an associate professor at Arizona State University — would volunteer with local candidates just to see what working in politics would be like.

Upon graduating with his MA in political science, Herrera envisioned that he’d get a secondary education certificate and teach high school. When discussing his plans with an alumnus connection, he was asked about the idea of pursuing a PhD. After some consideration, Herrera enrolled in UC Santa Barbara for his doctoral program focusing in American politics.

“To me it was a way to marry my interest in politics and teaching,” Herrera said. “As a professor you get to decide what kind of research you want to do and that was really attractive to me.”

Herrera called getting hired to Arizona State University upon graduation “serendipitous.” He applied to schools across the country but due to an oversight on his part, he left out ASU.

Over the winter break, Herrera got a call from a mentor at Santa Barbara asking if he had applied to the job in the political science department at ASU. After admitting that he hadn’t, Herrera was encouraged to apply. The rest, so they say, is history.

Last semester marked 30 years that Herrera has taught political science at ASU. During that time he has done it all: He’s held leadership positions in both undergraduate and graduate studies, he’s led two different Washington, D.C., internship courses, he’s co-directed study abroad programs and so much more.

In 2014, when he was associate director of undergraduate studies for the School of Politics and Global Studies, Herrera was approached by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to be one of three units to pilot the Early Start Program — a two-week immersion program to help incoming first-year students gain the necessary tools for a successful college career.

After talking it over with the school’s director, Herrera decided to add a second faculty lead to the program in Gina Woodall, senior lecturer at the School of Politics and Global Studies.

“One of the things I was coming across was the idea that to help students succeed they really need multiple contact points,” Herrera said. “They need to know that there are a number of people they can go to when they have questions or issues.” 

The duo wanted to focus on resilience and how to deal with setbacks. They included readings such as Angela Lee’s "Grit," brought in guest speakers like politicians Kyrsten Sinema and Jon Kyl, and helped students develop key skills that would better prepare them for their college coursework.

Herrera said he hoped to help students who might be facing things like imposter syndrome — a feeling that not only do they not belong but that it will be exposed — something that he said he faced himself during his time in college. 

“That sort of thing is a very real feeling that can have detrimental effects to your own success if you don’t have the tools to deal with them,” he said.

In 2005, Herrera took over as the program director for the Capital Scholars Program, which is a six-credit internship course that takes students to Washington, D.C., over the summer.

Most of the classes Herrera has taught at ASU have been large courses such as Intro to American Government, which can include upward of 200 students. The Capital Scholars Program, however, gave him the chance to work with smaller groups.

Herrera shared that it gave him an opportunity to know the students' strengths, weakness, ambitions and anxieties. During the course of the summer he saw firsthand many of the students' growth in responsibility, professionalism and confidence.

“The greatest benefit to me as a professor and as a person really, is being able to see the personal and professional growth of students who participate in the program over those nine weeks,” Herrera said.

Past participants, like political science alumnus Matt Caruso, were moved so much by the program that they have continued to remain in touch. Caruso, who has known Herrera for 14 years, volunteers his time as a mentor to current Capital Scholars while they are in the nation’s capital.

“Herrera's influence on me from Tempe to D.C. has turned out to be life-changing,” Caruso said. “I am a proud example of Herrera's contribution to ASU students and alumni.”

This year, Herrera is being honored with the Faculty Teaching Achievement Award at Founders’ Day. This has given him a chance to reflect on his time at ASU and the impact he’s made on his students and colleagues.

When he came to ASU, Herrera knew he had a lot to learn about being a scholar in political science. However, he was certain that this university was right for him once he saw the type of mentorship he’d be receiving. Some of Herrera’s most memorable experiences were just talking with his colleagues about research or innovative ways to teach a course.

When it comes to mentorship, Herrera has certainly paid it forward.

Woodall met Herrera her freshman year when she was assigned the role of delegate in a simulated party convention that combined an upper and lower division class for a three-day event in the university's gymnasium. Since then Herrera has served as a mentor, whether it was allowing her to TA for a course or asking her to co-direct a study abroad program.

“As someone who had Rick as a professor, mentor, administrator, co-director and colleague, I can say with 100% certainty that he left an indelible mark on our school, on thousands of students’ lives, and in the lives of his colleagues and, thus, is very deserving of such an award,” Woodall said.

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