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On the front lines

September 28, 2020

Meet 6 members of the Sun Devil community who are serving as ASU 'Health Heroes'

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

Serving amid the pandemic — as doctors, nurses and professionals — these Sun Devils have one thing in common: strong foundations in expertise, care and compassion, much of which they learned at ASU.

The nurse who goes above and beyond: Erolinda Becerra-Mendoza

For Erolinda Becerra-Mendoza, ’16 BS in nursing and health sciences, staying positive and tending to the emotional care of patients is as much a part of her nursing work as is physical care. “I’ve been working directly with COVID patients,” she said. “Half of the intensive care unit I work in is designated for them, although we are overflowing to our other unit.”

Erolinda Becerra Mendoza

Erolinda Becerra-Mendoza

Although Becerra-Mendoza is a relatively new nurse with four years of experience, she says she’s never seen anything like the challenges that have arisen during the pandemic.  

“I have seen a few success stories in the ICU unit I work in, but I have also seen patients not make it,” she said. “It breaks my heart knowing that they are not surrounded by family during their last hours of life. I love being a nurse, and I try to make this scary time as special as I can for my patients.”

A perfect example? Becerra-Mendoza had a patient who was about to celebrate a birthday. She took the initiative to ensure it was a happy one. 

“A few nurses and I surprised him with a video conference with his family and grandchildren,” she said. “We got him a sugar-free cake and decorated his room. We had to make it special.” And they did. 

The ER doc: Mara Windsor

As an emergency room physician and chief wellness officer, Dr. Mara Windsor, ’98 BS in psychology, faces COVID-19 on a daily basis. Throughout the pandemic, she’s focused on exceptional patient care, as well as ensuring that her colleagues emphasize their own self-care, particularly given the everyday stressors they face.

“I have seen some devastating situations, but I’ve also seen renewed spirit in humanity by people coming together to accept, understand and support each other,” Windsor said. “My nonprofit organization, L.I.F.E. (Living in Fulfilled Enlightenment), has been supporting the front-line heroes by providing personal protective equipment, food and emotional support.”

Most recently, the organization received a donation of 70 backpacks and 70 lunch sacks from the kids’ backpack company MadPax, all of which will be passed along to the children of health care workers as they make their way back to school. 

“It is through our individual diversity that we can come together collectively to meet the needs of our community and society,” Windsor said. “This is the perfect time to create a global movement that will align human compassion with understanding and acceptance of all. I believe that this will result in greater love and compassion for all.” 

The compassionate caregiver: Carmen Dominguez

Carmen Dominguez

As a certified medical assistant for Abrazo Medical Group, Carmen Dominguez, ’19 BS in health care coordination, works at a small clinic, helping to treat a variety of medical issues. While she acknowledges that COVID-19 has presented a lot of new challenges, she’s grateful that her patients can be seen quickly — and without the stress of having to go to the emergency room. 

“Day in and day out, I hear patients telling me they are glad the clinic I’m working at is still open and accepting patients,” she said. “Working mainly with elderly patients, it is not an option to head to the emergency room when they feel heart-related symptoms. We are able to welcome them into a smaller setting than a hospital, (where they are able) to be seen and assessed — and possibly triaged — in-person. We are glad to be here to help and be of service.”

She adds: “I am so proud of my fellow Sun Devils, those working in hospitals, clinics, urgent cares, etc. Everything makes a difference! For those who have yet to graduate, please keep going! We need you.”

The mobile testing innovator: Farah Al Besher

For Farah Al Besher, ’14 BS in economics, who now works as a front-line coordinator with Ambulatory Healthcare Services-SEHA in the United Arab Emirates, early action meant early containment of the virus in her country. 

“I am part of the COVID-19 National Screening Service Drive-Through project in the United Arab Emirates,” Al Besher said. “We were the first to open the drive-thru testing center in the UAE, and due to its success, we were asked to expand our presence by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. We were able to build 12 new drive-thru screening centers throughout the seven emirates in 10 days, and today we have 18 fully operational centers. By ensuring early detection of positive cases we have been able to increase the safety of our people.” 

The United Arab Emirates experienced a spike in mid-May, followed by a steady decline in positive cases and a subsequent early July resurgence. Since, though, the country has seen a sustained reduction in COVID-19 cases. 

“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze us,” Al Besher said. “We are all equipped and ready to face any crisis. And remember, you can’t help others without first taking care of yourself. Follow the health guidelines, stay safe and remain positive.”

The mentoring engineer: Aaron Dolgin 

Service and inspiration are just two of the things that motivate Aaron Dolgin, ’18 BS in electrical engineering. Now a systems engineer for Northrop Grumman in Los Angeles, much of Dolgin’s day-to-day life involves a fusion of his love of robotics and systems engineering, and providing for the community. 

Aaron Doglin

Aaron Dolgin

When the pandemic began, Dolgin co-founded a team of more than 150 people who are working to create, print and distribute face shields across Southern California. To date, SoCal Makers COVID-19 Response Team has manufactured and delivered more than 22,000 pieces of personal protective equipment. 

Based on designs and specifications available through the National Institutes of Health, the face shields are 3D-printed visor frames with transparent sheets attached. And many of them are being produced by student volunteers — an extension of Dolgin’s mentorship while he was at ASU. 

“I really enjoyed the robotics program in high school, so I wanted to make sure I gave back in some way,” Dolgin said in June. “During college at ASU, I volunteered at robotics events in Arizona, and I knew I wanted to continue that kind of support when I came back to California. Volunteers don’t need any prior technical knowledge. They may struggle a little at first, but we have a remarkable community ready to get everyone up to speed. All of us are figuring things out together.”

The emergency flight nurse: Christopher Banks

Indeed, compassion is a common theme among alumni health care workers, including Christopher Banks, ’18 BS in nursing, a flight nurse and paramedic for Air EMS Inc. Very early on during the pandemic — in late February — Banks was dispatched to assist in the transport of passengers who had been quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Yokohama, Japan. 

“When I reached out my gloved hand, in full PPE, patients couldn’t believe they could touch and shake my hand,” Banks remembers. “This was heart-wrenching.”

Air EMS uses a special isolation unit to safely transport people suffering from COVID-19 that ensures that the paramedic crew and pilots aren’t exposed. It looks like a clear rectangular bubble for patients to lay in on top of the gurney. Banks helped test and train personnel on the isolation unit’s use as the pandemic worsened.

“As a base manager of our air medical transport company, I ensured that all of our care staff safely experienced the confined space of our isolation units to build better compassion for the patients.”

Looking to the future

While a vaccine for COVID-19 remains on the horizon and the world continues to adjust to life in a pandemic, there are a lot of uncertainties. But one thing does seem certain: Current students and researchers, as well as alumni, are working tirelessly — and compassionately — to ensure quality care for a global society. 

To learn more about ASU’s Health Heroes or to submit your story, see

Written by Kelly Vaughn, the senior editor for Arizona Highways. Vaughn, ’04 BA in journalism, has written for many publications including Phoenix magazine and Arrive.

Top photo: (From left) Flight emergency nurse Christopher Banks, ambulatory health care services coordinator Farah Al Besher and emergency room doctor Mara Windsor. Photos by ASU

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Radically inclusive dance

September 28, 2020

A Sun Devil leads the way for change by helping to create an anti-racist dance world

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

For many people, dance is a form of escape. The sweat-soaked physicality of the art offers the freedom to temporarily forget. For dancer, choreographer and activist J. Bouey, ’14 BFA in dance, dance is healing. It’s doing the uncomfortable work to confront trauma head on. 

For Bouey, dance is the vessel for breakthroughs. It’s a way of dealing with the constant pain of being a Black person in America. 

Healing is a recurring theme for Bouey, who is a member of the world-renowned, New York-based dance troupe Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Bouey’s latest choreographic work, “Chiron in Leo” — originally set to premiere before the pandemic struck — centers on mental health, generational trauma and healing the inner child.

Bouey, who prefers they/them pronouns, is also the founder and co-host with Melanie Greene of The Dance Union Podcast and platform, a community hyperfocused on healing within the dance world itself. Since launching over two years ago, the platform has convened a steadily growing audience of creatives of color, all eager to create a more equitable and just landscape for all dancers. 

A love for dance

Bouey’s passion for abolishing oppression in all forms began at a young age.

Their mother was involved in a nurse’s union at the Los Angeles County Hospital and their father was a community organizer. Growing up in South Central L.A. and later Phoenix and Chandler, Bouey found an early love for dance, performing with step and hip-hop teams. At 15, they decided it was possible to make a career out of it.

J. Bouey

A full ride to ASU led them to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Bouey originally studied dance education, but when Ashleigh Leite, a postmodern contemporary dance professor, told them they could make it as a performer, they switched majors.

After graduating in 2014, Bouey left for New York — the epicenter of concert dance — determined to build a career as a performer.

Life as a professional dancer

Making a lasting career in dance has become ever more challenging for aspiring dancers and even seasoned choreographers. As governments, from federal to local, continue to cut arts funding, long-standing dance companies have dwindled and audiences continue to shrink. The traditional model  — landing a full-time spot with a company — is not viable for most.

Many turn to freelancing, which means dancing, teaching, choreographing and building a social media presence, all while working other nondance jobs to afford New York’s cost of living.

“It’s a field that makes it really hard for anybody who’s Black and does not have financial support from mom and dad,” Bouey said.

Freelancers must also fund their own training to keep their bodies in top-notch shape. Many don’t have health insurance. In some dance companies, a lack of diversity and hostile environment for Black and other performers of color can make it even harder to succeed.  

“I started to find community in the struggle, the struggle of being a freelance dance artist, which was to essentially be like an indie music artist or any kind of artist without real management support,” Bouey said.

Despite the hardships, they persevered, quickly building a name. From 2015 to 2017, they performed as an apprentice under Artistic Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher with modern company Elisa Monte Dance — launched nearly 40 years ago by a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Before landing a spot with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, they also danced with groups including the project-based AntonioBrownDance and MBDance, a company centering the experiences of queer people of color.

They won residencies and fellowships that provided funding, space and time to develop work, and showed their original choreography about healing in well-known performance spaces, including New York Live Arts and Gibney Dance. 

Bouey also worked to make dance more accessible to Black and brown communities by teaching at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx and other schools. But still, they wanted to do more.

The Dance Union

Having learned the business side from other dancers and through trial and error, Bouey wanted to share what they learned. This sparked the idea for a grassroots education system — a free podcast called The Dance Union — focused on ensuring that dancers of all ages have the necessary tools to make it.

The podcast also tackles topics that were floating around among other dancers who are Black, Indigenous and non-Black people of color — tokenism, hostile environments, toxic masculinity, the need for a union and what reparations would look like in dance.

It became “a hub and a space to amplify the voices of folks who already have a megaphone and are making really radical and bold choices and change,” said Greene. 

In addition to the podcast, when the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd forced a reckoning over systemic racism in institutions, ranging from academia to the arts, Bouey moved quickly. They planned a virtual space to process, grieve and express anger centering the perspectives of Black dancers. The town halls offered a platform for artists to speak both about failings and about ways to build a more inclusive future. With more than 10,000 views, others have been learning as well, and The New York Times wrote about the work.

Creating space for tough subjects is one of Bouey’s strengths, Greene said. “It’s been a blessing to actually have someone in my life that is modeling a type of vulnerability and courage and growth, creating a very hospitable environment for that loving and learning to actually happen.” 

A topic that has come up often since the podcast started in 2018 and now in the town halls is white supremacy in dance. It shows up through implicit racism in dance education — the idea that Eurocentric ballet is the foundation of all dance technique, Bouey said. The hyperfocus on ballet often means the contributions of dancemakers of color throughout history are sidelined. 

On the podcast, Bouey, Greene and others in the community could dream up a more inclusive education that gave the same reverence to dance styles from the Black diaspora and other ethnic groups.

Bouey points out other ways that white supremacy shows up in dance: “not allowing trans and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks to live in their full expression in dance … not letting children who are of trans experience, nonbinary or nonconforming experience really be fully supported within the studios and education process.”

The conversations on The Dance Union Podcast, in the town halls and on social media platforms were about shifting the dance community from being “not racist,” which is a passive state of being, to anti-racist — acknowledging complicity in white supremacy and actively fighting against racism. 

Many people were unaware of these topics and conversations. But in recent months, racism and white supremacy in dance have burst into light. 

Raising money for dancers 

In recent months, the Dance Union team has been working overtime in response to back-to-back societal crises, from seeing the continued violence perpetrated on people of color, to seeing the way COVID-19 has disproportionately killed people of color, to the additional crisis that the shutdown of live entertainment has had on dancers and other artists.

When it was clear COVID-19 would be devastating for dancers, wiping out gigs and performance opportunities, Bouey sprang into action, helping to organize a relief fund which raised over $23,000, going to more than 130 dancers so far. 

Moving forward

As long-standing institutions including American Ballet Theatre and Gibney Dance have recently posted messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and made promises to rectify damage done to dancers of color, it’s easy to question if true lasting change is possible. 

The question then becomes: What’s next? There’s no comfortable answer, Bouey said.

They want institutions to practice radical transparency and admit they ignored the long-lingering trauma Black people have faced in America and its consequences.  

“Because only from then can we actually do the work of dismantling things and building better structures,” Bouey said.

It takes inner work in hearts and minds, and actions, to uproot oppression and create an inclusive and equitable future in dance and everywhere else. Bouey is doing that work by working on their own healing, helping others to heal, providing a platform for healing and listening, envisioning a better future and helping to hold those with power accountable.

They summed up their vision during the second town hall in June. “The Dance Union is intentionally a space for dance artists to share their ideas, voice their concerns, demand change, resist and unite.” 

Written by Makeda Easter, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who covers the arts. When not writing, she can be found in a dance studio taking a class or in rehearsal for an upcoming show. She was previously a science writer for a supercomputing center at the University of Texas.

Photos by Brad Ogbonna