ASU Graduate College announces Mexico-US binational award to research sustainable agriculture in Sonora, Arizona

December 9, 2020

A new collaborative effort between Arizona State University and the Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora (ITSON) will allow graduate students to participate in a hands-on, cross-cultural program focused on sustainable agriculture in the desert landscapes of North America.

The U.S.-Mexico Training in Environment, Agriculture and Management (TEAM) program aims to teach graduate students about the agricultural practices, environmental assessments and sustainable management tools used by different agricultural regions in a similar climate.  Farmer drives tractor in Sonora, Mexico A farmer drives a tractor in Sonora, Mexico. Download Full Image

Specifically, students will examine the agricultural landscapes of the Maricopa and Pinal counties in central Arizona and the Yaqui Valley in southern Sonora, Mexico and conduct a comparative study to assess the capabilities of sustainable farming in each region.

TEAM is the result of a 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Award, the U.S. Department of State’s signature hemispheric-wide initiative to champion the power of education to transform societies, provide opportunity and stimulate economic prosperity. The objective of the grant is to improve student competencies and provide real-world training for the future workforce in sustainable agriculture. 

Interdisciplinary focus on sustainability

TEAM will be composed of students and faculty from a variety of sectors relating to agricultural sustainability, such as food, energy and water. 

Enrico Yepez, a faculty member in the Department of Water and Environmental Sciences at ITSON, will be using his background in ecohydrology to lead students in one of TEAM’s pilot programs.

“In order to study any ecological systems, you first have to understand water systems,” Yepez said. “The Yaqui Valley has the largest river system in the Mexican state of Sonora and is the ‘breadbasket’ of Mexico. Because of the resource challenges facing the area (water, socio-economic, agricultural, etc.), it’s a very important site for ecohydrology research.” 

Yepez is one of four faculty members from ASU and ITSON helping to develop and lead TEAM’s one-year pilot program. It will consist of two field visits (1.5-week duration each) to central Arizona and southern Sonora, and a three-semester virtual class (38-week duration, three academic credits from each institution) spanning the period between the field visits.

Enrique Vivoni, associate dean of graduate initiatives in the Graduate College and ASU’s principal investigator for the program, believes that this interdisciplinary field experience will be most beneficial to the graduate students who take part in TEAM.

“Graduate students from ASU and ITSON will be in a unique position to interact through formal coursework facilitated through technology as well as hands-on, practical field experience garnered through visits to agricultural systems of different types in Arizona and Sonora,” he said. 

Cross-cultural cooperation

TEAM will also provide students the opportunity to directly interact with a diverse set of agricultural producers and stakeholders.  

“By innovating in international education, the U.S.-Mexico TEAM effort will provide faculty, students and community partners with opportunities to view the sustainability of agricultural systems from multiple perspectives,” Vivoni said. “It is through these intercultural exchanges on STEM topics that advances are made.” 

Given the similarity between the regions involved in the TEAM program, Vivoni said he was surprised that binational U.S.-Mexico efforts do not already exist for sharing best practices on agricultural sustainability. 

He hopes this program will address this gap by “establishing a faculty-led student exchange between ASU and ITSON designed for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural training of graduate students through international mobility.”

Maria Menchu Maldonado, a PhD student studying civil and environmental engineering, is enrolled in the TEAM pilot program. She says she is most excited for the international collaboration aspect of the program. 

“The name of the program is significant: TEAM, like teamwork. We can achieve huge things by working as a team,” she said. “There are a lot of people and cultures represented who will be able to exchange a lot of knowledge.”

Comparative exchange

Maldonado said she is also excited for the comparative aspect of the program. 

“In the end we will compare how things work in the U.S. and Mexico,” she said.  “It is the same environment in both places, but things are done in a different way. So, we will know which things work better and why, and that is really exciting.” 

The program is designed to help address issues in social equity and corporate responsibility as they relate to the socio-economic activities within and supported by the local agricultural sectors in which the program will take place. 

As such, the program aims to understand the ways agricultural practices and policies affect local communities and to help serve those communities. 

“As public research universities located along the U.S.-Mexico border, ASU and ITSON both take responsibility for the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve,” Vivoni said. “The U.S.-Mexico TEAM program will bring a research-based learning environment into action for the participants and communities involved.”

For Yepez, the highlight of the program will be comparing management in each city, county and state.

“The cultural exchange is important for the TEAM initiative, but the exposure to real-life socio-environmental issues will be of high value,” he said. 

Maldonado first joined her PhD program in order to learn how to better serve her community in her home country of Guatemala. This is also part of the reason she applied for TEAM.  

“This program will increase the opportunities for both universities to serve and share knowledge,” she said. “Hopefully, I can replicate what I learn in my own country.” 

Written by Emily Carman

Tracy Viselli

Director of Communications and Marketing, Graduate College


Hugh Downs School Dean's Medalist finds a career in digital communication

December 9, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Victoria "Tori" Vandekop is the Fall 2020 Dean's Medalist for the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. She will graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in communication and a certificate in cross-sector leadership.  Belle Edson (right), director of undergraduate education in the Hugh Downs School, presents the Barnes Endowment in Communication Scholarship to Tori Vandekop in 2019. Download Full Image

Vandekop says her interest in communication started at a young age when people noticed how expressive she was when she spoke.  

"My grandparents love how much I use my hands and facial expressions when telling stories, and that process of communication — creating joy and understanding within others — has long been an interest of mine," she says.

The Dallas native chose ASU when she was awarded a scholarship from ASU's Next Generation Service Corps, a four-year leadership development program that requires students to complete three internships throughout their time at ASU, one in each sector: nonprofit, private and public.

For her nonprofit internship, Vandekop, who is passionate about environmental issues, chose Defend Our Future, a nonpartisan activist group centered on climate change. There she participated in canvassing, phone banking, data entry, public speaking and voter registration.

Tori Vandekop and fellow students at a tabling event.

"I also met with local and state legislators, created campus and community events to spread awareness on environmental issues, and helped the ASU chapter sign up 12,000+ students and community members through canvassing."

A student in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, Vandekop chose to combine her interest in the environment with her honor's thesis, "A Science Communicator's Guide to Social Media Engagement."

She says the project combined her passion for human communication theories, digital audience engagement and science communication.

"The guide empowers science communicators to utilize social media in a way that can increase their digital audience engagement, expand the reach of their research and ultimately amplify their professional presence in the scientific community," Vandekop says.

In addition to her studies, Vandekop has also been a student worker in three positions over her four years at ASU: front desk worker for the Barrett student center, digital communications intern for the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, and a research aide for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.  

"Through each of those jobs, I learned important skills such as event management, effective digital marketing and audience engagement. Juggling work and classes is a full-time job, but thankfully I made it through with the support of my friends and family, and most importantly my perseverance," she says. 

Reflecting on her time at ASU, Vandekop — who received the Barnes Endowment in Communication Scholarship from the Hugh Downs School in 2019 — says one of the greatest classes she took was The Communication of Happiness, taught by Hugh Downs School Graduate Teaching Associate Cris Tietsort.

"The lesson plans and assignments he did for us taught me so much about mental health, personal growth and overall happiness. I am so happy I took his class, and I recommend it to anyone who needs an upper-division credit," Vandekop says.

"Tori was a joy to have in class," said Tietsort. "What impressed me most was her ability to engage the content of the course both at an intellectual and personal level. In other words, she was intellectually curious and worked hard to understand the conceptual and theoretical foundations of happiness and well-being, but also pushed herself to ask 'How will this make a difference in my life this week?' Above all of this, Tori is kind, enthusiastic and always tried to get to know her classmates. The class became richer because of her presence and engagement." 

Tori Vandekop

We asked Vandekop to answer a few more questions about her time at ASU.

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

Answer: When studying American Sign Language for two years at ASU, I was surprised at how my ASL classes (with zero verbal communication) were the classes I communicated the most in out of any of my communication classes. It was an amazing experience to practice the beautiful language of ASL at ASU, and it changed my perspective on deaf/HH (hard of hearing) culture. I'm inspired to be a strong ally of this community, and in my communications work, I always incorporate the necessary accommodations so that everyone can understand my work (closed captioning, text descriptions for those with visual impairments).

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

Answer: I would tell students to be appreciative and gracious to anyone that helps them along the way. Gratitude is one of the most important lessons I learned from my Communication of Happiness class, and it's something I actively strive to practice every day!

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

Answer: My favorite spot on campus is a pink bougainvillea plant on Tyler Mall, right across from Neeb Hall. I'm originally from Texas, so when I saw this huge pink plant for the first time on campus, I knew it was my favorite place at ASU. My fiancé recently proposed to me on that very spot during our graduation photos — it was so special.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

Answer: My fiancé and I are moving back to Texas to start our careers. I plan on working in digital communications, and he will be working as an applications engineer for Texas Instruments.

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

Answer: I would use the $40 million to provide internet and technological access to communities that don't currently have access to those resources. We've all seen how the power of information and education can change a life. If I had the money, I would try to give internet access to as many children and families as possible so they can have digital resources, educational tools, entertainment and all the other wonderful possibilities that come with the World Wide Web.


Manager, Marketing and Communication, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication