In the face of personal hardship, ASU planning grad is guided by purpose

December 11, 2020

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

Keith Morphis is a model of possibility. In March 2020, amid the sudden shuffling to online instruction, binge buying, and social uncertainty brought upon by COVID-19, Morphis fought his own silent battle. Keith Morphis, a Master in Urban and Environmental Planning fall 2020 graduate from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, with his family. Photo courtesy of Keith Morphis Download Full Image

He was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.

Upon receiving the news, Morphis, a Master in Urban and Environmental Planning fall 2020 graduate from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, didn’t shudder. Instead, undaunted, he matched personal calamity with action.

“All right, I have cancer, what's the plan?” Morphis recalled saying to his doctor moments after receiving his diagnosis. “Everyone faces challenges, but I think as human beings our measure is how quickly we can get back up.”

When times were hard, Morphis says he found stability in his school work.

In the spring 2020 semester, Morphis completed an intensive coursework of 18 graduate-level units, worked as a full-time intern for the city of Scottsdale and served as a teaching assistant. All of this on top of periodic visits to the hospital. 

“There were times when it became difficult, but in a way, having all those classes actually helped me,” Morphis said. “School helped me block out the noise; I just tried to make a schedule and keep busy.” 

Morphis had a successful surgery in June 2020 that removed the entire cancerous tumor. Three weeks later, he was back at his internship and refocused on his studies. 

“Keith has this really positive energy and enthusiasm, he’s always in a good mood, and after talking to him, I’m in a good mood, too,” said Rebecca Reining, manager of graduate programs for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “When I learned about the challenges he’s faced, I was in awe. He never complained, never let it get him down. He really inspired me.” 

Inspired to become an urban planner following the birth of his son in 2015, Morphis left a successful career in finance to follow his passion and attend graduate school at ASU — all the more challenging, as it meant being away from his wife and son, who live in Las Vegas, for two years. 

“When my son was born five years ago it sparked in me, ‘I want to make the world a better place for him,’” Morphis said. “I had this opportunity to be here, to be fully immersed for a year and a half to two years and I was going to make the most of it. With cities and urban planning, there's so much to fix; this is for him.” 

Motivated to be reunited with his family full time as soon as possible, Morphis loaded up his fall 2020 course load on top of completing two internships and continuing his role as a teacher’s assistant. He will be graduating a semester early.  

“Keith has really taken the initiative to pursue opportunities to enhance his education, and make the most of his time here,” Reining said. “I believe that what you get out of a graduate degree, and life, depends on what you put into it, so I won’t be surprised to see him flourish.”

Morphis has secured a full-time position with the Maricopa County Department of Transportation as a transportation planner. His family will be joining him in Arizona in the coming year. 

“Life isn't always an easy route. Don’t let it dissuade you,” Morphis said. “Overcoming your biggest challenges usually feels the greatest. Always keep striving, keep pushing forward, don't let things get you down.”

We asked Morphis a few questions ahead of commencement. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I like the Southwest. I like the culture and the climate in this part of the country and ASU is the premier university in the region. Being the largest, it also had the most resources, so I feel it gave me the best opportunity to learn especially since Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation and a lot of planning problems would be addressed here. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: That's a hard one. I feel bad because I feel like they all have something to teach, you know, it just depends. Dr. Ehlenz has been really great with helping me understand writing and placemaking; Dr. King with transportation and having a holistic approach looking at transportation systems and land use; Eileen has been great because she's helped set me up for graduating early, helping me understand the system and looking for opportunities. I mean, it's like a list of everyone there. Everyone contributed something — like Barbara was really great, she helped me with contacting people and trying to set up internships.

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

A: Be open-minded about learning things. Be open-minded to learning other subjects or things that are not related to planning. I took a real estate class and a public administration class. It dealt with areas that are linked to planning but not necessarily planning. In order to be a better student of your expertise see how it relates to other things that it connects to because a lot of times I think people just kind of get stuck in the weeds of their area. Be open-minded to learning other topics that may not be directly with what you want to learn but related. 

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: A lot of my growth is understanding issues. Coming from a middle-class, suburban background, I thought (planning) was going to be very cut and dry like economics — just get rid of these policies and you can fix everything. It’s not cut and dry. There's a lot of issues, a lot of history that needs to be overcome for certain issues to be resolved. There's deeper human connections of understanding. We're telling stories. Everyone has a story and so assuming that we can just flip a switch and everything is fixed is not accurate. You need to really affect human connection to resolve issues.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I spent a lot of time in the computer lab actually. Especially during COVID, I wanted access because for me it was about that structure. I joke that I probably spent a good 10% to 15% of my actual time in Arizona in that room.

Also, there is the concrete table that's out by the elevator on the fifth floor (Coor Hall). I would get something to eat and hang out there and enjoy the quiet and solace. I used to be there on the weekends before COVID and I would enjoy it because the music school is nearby and there'd always be one or two students playing their instruments. I would just sit there, eat my sandwich and enjoy the music. It’s beautiful. I would say, ‘I'm never going to get this again. This is just peace.’”

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

A: Something on a local level. I would use it to lobby a housing policy that's a little less restrictive or maybe improve bike infrastructure in Las Vegas because it’s pretty bad inside the city.

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


Students transform fall grad celebration from in-person to virtual, earn ASU sustainability award

School earns second 'gold' certification for an online graduation celebration

December 11, 2020

A virtual celebration for fall 2020 graduates of Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources and Development and alumni earned its special-event management student organizers a top university award for sustainability.

The Dec. 3 virtual gathering, attended by 81 participants, received a gold sustainable-event certification from the University Sustainability Office. The event, which also celebrated the school’s 15th anniversary, was held live via Zoom, channeling the spirit of #BeTheSolution that are the bywords of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Student organizers of a similar virtual event held last spring also received the gold sustainable-event certification from the University Sustainability Office. School of Community Resources and Development, Gold, Sustainability, Certificate, Reception, Fall 2020 Students in the School of Community Resources and Development received this Gold Sustainability Certificate from the University Sustainability Office. Download Full Image

Graduates, families, friends, alumni and School of Community Resources and Development faculty and staff heard insights from Watts College Dean Jonathan Koppell, school Director Christine Buzinde and professors Robert Ashcraft and Yunseon Choe. School of Community Resources and Development Instructor Claire McWilliams was the master of ceremonies. School alumna Nora Slawik and graduating student Samantha Nickel also gave remarks. 

Buzinde noted that while the COVID-19 pandemic altered everyone’s plans this year, the school’s students and faculty held strong.

“It has been exhausting to say the least, but we are all in this together and we will persevere. Please continue to have the courage to be kind to yourselves and to those around you,” Buzinde said.

Nickel, nominated by faculty members as this semester’s student speaker, offered additional reassuring words for her fellow graduates.

“We are going into our communities to make a positive change, we graduated during a global pandemic and we are resilient!” said Nickel, who will start work as a park ranger with the city of Phoenix once her internship with the city is concluded.

Students enrolled in PRM 145, Introduction to Special Events Management, planned and produced the event alongside their instructor, Clinical Assistant Professor Erin Schneiderman. The students spent the semester learning about fundamental components of event planning and how to successfully produce one themselves. They formed committees to complete every component, learning as they went, understanding the full picture of event planning from start to finish.

Extra measures were taken to allow for the most interactive experience possible for those in attendance. Attendees were able to play along in an ASU-themed trivia game and graduates had the chance of sharing their favorite ASU memory if their name was chosen randomly from a game show-like wheel.

Student organizers pay attention to details

Student event planners worked closely with Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services to ensure accessibility for all guests. There were multiple American Sign Language interpreters signing the event to ensure everyone could participate. Also, using Zoom’s chat feature, the audience was encouraged to send in feedback to ensure that the event flowed smoothly without distractions on the direct screen. This enabled speakers to participate in an interactive question-and-answer session.

School of Community Resources and Development, 15 years, logo, fall 2020, 2020

Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2020.

Kendall Gehrs, Victoria Heppner and Emily Ferguson from the PRM 145 Sustainability Committee said the planning experience – what it takes to put on a sustainable event – was extremely rewarding and eye-opening.  

“We worked as a unit and our hard work paid off,” Gehrs said. “Erin Schneiderman and Erin O’Connor were huge supports for us. Erin Schneiderman got us in contact with all of our necessary resources. She was ready and able to answer any questions we needed. Erin O’Connor did an amazing job with helping us figure out the certification process.”

Schneiderman said there were plenty of lessons learned from the spring 2020 event. But most importantly, she said that she, the PRM 145 class and the faculty that helped lead the students had the time to create a well-thought-out plan for the virtual event.

“It is very impressive that even during a pandemic, our Sustainability Committee was able to secure a gold designation, meaning we committed to plan and execute the most sustainable event possible,” Schneiderman said. 

Schneiderman said the event was a team effort. “I always preach that it is very rare that an event planner works solo and this was a perfect example of a large group coming together to successfully host an event,” she said.

Speakers inspire graduates, emphasize community 

The celebration included messages from various notable speakers, including Choe, who is based at the Hainan University-ASU International Tourism College in China.

Choe spoke about her experience with the school and announced the exceptional scholarship recipients.

Slawik, the former mayor of Maplewood, Minnesota, told the attendees about her personal and professional experience over more than 30 years in government, nonprofits and education. Twice elected mayor of Maplewood and having served seven terms as a Minnesota state representative, today Slawik is executive director of the Century College Foundation.

In speaking about her inspiring and relatable journey during and after her time at ASU, Slawik acknowledged the turmoil that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for graduates everywhere.

“The world has changed and so have the opportunities. We all know these are unprecedented times,” she said. “COVID is spreading like wildfire. It is tough to get and keep a job.” 

Slawik offered graduates advice in the form of some remarkable quotes.

“These are some of my favorite quotes and two of these are on my refrigerator: ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you always imagined.’ – Henry David Thoreau. ‘Never, never, never give up.’ – Winston Churchill.”

And she offered a quote of her own: “Watch more sunsets while walking.” 

Scholarship recipients honored

Choe announced the recipient of the Glenn Cheatham Memorial Scholarship, Christian T. Cervantes, and the co-recipients of the Phoenician Scholarship, Katherine Scher and Roberto Rico III. Both scholarships were created to acknowledge the exceptional work of students pursuing careers in recreation management and tourism.

McWilliams told graduates not to take anything for granted.

“Staying close to the ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing is key and that the need for service-related professions has never been more evident,” she said.

The celebration of the fall graduating class of 2020 and the School of Community Resources and Development alumni was a chance to come together and celebrate what Watts College stands for above all: community.

This article was written by School of Community Resources and Development students from the PRM 145 class: Jordan Fezler, Maya Garrison, Lauren Kuhman and Madison Zumstein.