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Learning through life

January 5, 2021

With new projects and programs, outreach and options, ASU has ways to grow in every phase of life

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

When Kyle Ballard finishes his shift as a U.S. Navy linguist at Fort Gordon in Georgia, he goes home to log on to political science courses to move closer to his dream career in global security. Meanwhile, Shauntel Redhouse, a 2017 graduate of Kirtland Central High School who hails from the Navajo Nation, spends time gaining experience with research methods that will help in her quest to become a dietitian. High schooler Drew Kolber takes calculus online with college students and classes at the Herberger Young Scholars Academy on ASU’s West campus. And soon-to-be retirees Randy and Sharon Fortenberry plan to settle at Mirabella at ASU on the Tempe campus.

At first blush, you might not expect people with such varied life experiences to all be enrolled at the same university. 

Toward greater inclusion

ASU President Michael M. Crow describes the efforts to educate students from diverse walks of life as a key element of the school’s charter. It is also a necessary paradigm shift, which he says America’s colleges and universities must move toward instead of systematically styling themselves as elite institutions.

“The institution will be measured based on its success through inclusion versus exclusion — and the success of all the students that we include,” Crow said. He describes the university as a new “prototype” for this shift in higher education. “And so what we have to get away from is the old model, the terrible model of this strict social hierarchy of class, of caste, of sect.”

Native success

Perhaps the best place to start ASU’s story of inclusion is with Shauntel Redhouse, who is part of ASU’s Native Narratives & Graduate School Achievement Track. The roughly three-and-a-half year initiative provides undergraduates with research opportunities in preparation for graduate school. Studies have shown that undergrads involved in research are more likely to graduate and also more likely to pursue a master’s degree or PhD.

Shauntel Redhouse

“It helps me feel closer and more knowledgeable about what’s going on on my own reservation.” — Shauntel Redhouse

For Redhouse, this research involves looking at possible disparities on reservations in Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities on the basis of sex. Redhouse is helping sports historian Victoria Jackson conduct the research. 

“I’m a sports fan and she’s a sports historian, so that’s how we got paired up,” Redhouse said. “This is helping me prepare for the research side of nutrition. But also because the research is involving my Native heritage, it helps me feel closer and more knowledgeable about what’s going on on my own reservation.”

Redhouse plans to finish her undergraduate studies by the winter of 2021. While college enrollment for American Indian and Alaska Natives is the lowest among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States — 24% versus a national average of 41% — Redhouse sees her college experience as a potential catalyst to turn those figures around and be an inspiration to other Navajos as well as her younger siblings. 

“It means a lot to me. I believe it will be beneficial for my community, too, because I know in my free time or during winter breaks I go back to visit my high school and give presentations about what college is like,” Redhouse said. “I think it will have a profound effect on my community because I plan to go back and help out.”

A sailor’s story

Kyle Ballard, a Navy linguist, knows he could be deployed at any time. That’s why, he says, the accelerated seven-and-a-half week courses he takes at ASU have so much appeal. 

“So for me it’s been better than the traditional semester-long course because we can be sent anywhere at any time,” Ballard said. “These seven-and-a-half week courses, if that does happen, most likely I’m already done so I don’t have to worry about writing the university, sending them a copy of my orders and letting them know. So it decreases the odds that I’ll have to withdraw or do poorly in a course.”

Kyle Ballard

"For me, (ASU Online) is better than the semester-long course because I can be sent anywhere at any time.” — Kyle Ballard

Ballard is well aware that many of his military comrades end up going to for-profit schools that, too often, leave them with substandard degrees and a large amount of debt.

“A for-profit doesn’t have the prestige,” Ballard said. “When I was looking for a university that I would apply to, I wanted to make sure they had a brick-and-mortar school and that their online program is run just the same. At ASU, they have the same material, same professors, same books. That was really important to me.”

It also helps that ASU offers many programs to help active duty personnel and veterans with college-related expenses.

Early start

High school junior Drew Kolber, 16, takes classes at the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy — a school for gifted students in grades seven through 12 on the ASU West campus largely funded by Jeanne Herberger and the late Gary K. Herberger. The unique school provides an advanced and accelerated curriculum differentiated specifically for gifted learners, and Kolber’s grateful for how it has stretched her. 

“HYSA has been an immensely supportive environment where I am constantly asked to think differently and more deeply,” Kolber said. “I’m so grateful for the relationships I have with my teachers and administrators; they constantly challenge us to dive in and do our best work, while providing guidance every step of the way on how to get to that final destination.”

Drew Kolber

“I’m really grateful for the way that my school has been this launch point.” — Drew Kolber

Once Kolber completed all the math classes at the academy, with HYSA’s support, she enrolled in ASU’s MAT 270 course, also known as Calculus 1. She also takes Spanish 202. 

In Calculus 1, Kolber interacts with students who range from fellow high schoolers to undergraduate to graduate students. She says she appreciates the opportunity to experience the difficulty of college math and how to relate to professors.

“I’m really grateful for the way that my school has been this launch point within the greater ASU community and constantly been supportive and asked me to challenge myself, but has also been there too to help me explore those challenges, and to grant me as many opportunities as possible, and all my peers,” Kolber said. “That’s something that Herberger does so well is provide a foundation and then ask us to go further.”

Sunset years on campus

When Randy and Sharon Fortenberry, both longtime educators, move to the Tempe campus in February 2021, they hope it will be their last move. That’s because they’re moving into a high-rise retirement condo building called Mirabella at ASU

For many years, Sharon was the principal for the highest-academic-scoring elementary school in Washington state and for a school in Mexico. Over his career, Randy worked as a schoolteacher, administrator and counselor. For that reason, they say, Mirabella at ASU seems optimal. 

“It’s an exciting time for us,” Randy Fortenberry said. “Unlike traditional retirement communities where the focus is often on managing aches and pains, we are looking forward to much more stimulating learning opportunities. Learning has always been a part of our lives, both our own continuous learning, and supporting the learning and growth of others.”

The Fortenberrys are planning to attend campus events at a student fee rate, take courses and enjoy the artists-in-residence who will perform at various Mirabella restaurants and lounges, and other benefits.

“I want to see what’s available, what’s offered, take it slower and then expand my coursework depending on what’s in the building,” Sharon said. “We would love to interact with students more. We loved the experience of having students join our table at the luncheon last December. Getting to talk to students who are comfortable sharing and great at engaging with us was a real treat.”

Randy, a psychotherapist, recalls how he has done an “enormous amount of pro bono work” with veterans and students at the Austin Counseling Center in Austin, Texas, which he opened late in his career. He says he’s already in discussions with ASU about plans to help in similar ways. “I love working with college-aged kids, so I’ll have to stop myself from jumping into five different mentoring programs or taking so many classes that I don’t make time to work out and spend time (with Sharon),” Randy said. “I’ll need to be intentional about what we decide to commit to.”

Get involved

Find lifelong learning opportunities at

Top photo: Sharon and Randy Fortenberry, who will be among the first residents at Mirabella at ASU, are moving to campus for lifelong learning opportunities.

Story by Jamaal Abdul-Alim. Photos by Jarod Opperman and Stephen Stinson

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Entrepreneurs making a difference

January 5, 2021

Private donations and corporate partnerships help make it possible for local startups to succeed

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

It’s one thing to create a good idea, but it’s a challenge to turn that idea into a profitable and sustainable product or service. Having access to mentoring, education and financial support greatly increases the odds of success.

Community members and ASU alumni, students and faculty can take advantage of several entrepreneurial resources through the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, from workshops to mentoring to funding. Much of the funding is awarded through biannual Demo Day competitions where ventures deliver pitches as they compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

To date, more than 600 entrepreneur teams are impacting the world with the support and financial backing of ASU and philanthropists. Here are just a few powerful examples. 

Freda Sarfo: A fruit offers opportunity in Ghana 

While tropical almonds (known locally as Abrofo Nkate) have long been consumed as a local sweet in Ghana, they haven’t always been viewed as a source of economic prosperity. After learning from a horticultural engineer about the promising yet undervalued benefits of the tree, Ghana-born Freda Sarfo dug deeper. She learned the fruits have a high-quality cosmetic oil, more protein than chicken and more fiber than oats.

“We started doing more research into the nutritional composition of the tropical almond, how it benefits the body,” Sarfo said. “And there weren’t any products on the market with it.” 

Sarfo, a master’s degree student in global logistics and a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, applied for Venture Devils and won $4,000 in 2019. She says that her study of supply chain and logistics has helped her in establishing Tropical Almond. 

Tropical Almond

Freda Sarfo started Tropical Almond after winning seed funding from Venture Devils.

“In our business strategy, because there are no established tropical almond farms, we source from tropical almond trees in communities and homes from different regions across Ghana. Without these trees, our business wouldn’t be. My knowledge and experience from ASU has helped me to design and manage our diverse supply chain effectively and efficiently. I occasionally went to Dr. Dale Rogers with questions on Tropical Almond’s supply chain, and he was always happy to assist with his advice and suggestions.”

In establishing Tropical Almond, she used the funds to travel back to Ghana, educate people on the trees’ benefits and create a business plan. She built a small processing facility and now pays women to collect and crack the fallen nuts then cold press them to retrieve the oil. The company also makes high-protein snacks using the almonds. Tropical Almond currently works with about 60 women, mostly single mothers. It has significantly helped during the pandemic as many of these women lost other odd jobs. 

Through outreach, the Tropical Almond team also has saved more than 100 trees that would have been cut down. In addition, for every bottle of almond oil sold at the online store, the company donates a bag of high-protein snacks to hungry children.

“Our tactic was to help these mothers find social income, reliable income so they can take care of their children and families,” Sarfo said. 

Shruti Gurudanti and Mayank Mishra: Addressing loneliness among seniors

Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a growing problem among seniors. It has worsened, with more than half of adults ages 50 to 80 reporting feeling isolated, according to a June 2020 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.

Years ago after witnessing a loved one’s struggle, Shruti Gurudanti sought ways to address social isolation. In 2018, she co-founded televëda with Mayank Mishra. Soon after, at a community networking event, Mishra met Kristin Slice, the senior program manager for Peoria Forward, an Edson E+I Institute program in partnership with the city of Peoria for community members. The support helped the co-founders further develop televëda, which acts like a virtual senior community center and addresses senior isolation using easy-to-use technology, including live interactive classes and games, as well as streaming events. Participants can see the instructor, talk to other participants and compete. Examples include multiplayer bingo, interactive fitness classes, live music from the Chandler Symphony Orchestra and other musicians, and tailored interactive education classes. All of this helps older adults build and maintain friendships and feel more engaged and satisfied with life.

Mayank Mishra and Shruti Gurudanti

Mayank Mishra and Shruti Gurudanti at a livestream event for their company that helps reduce senior isolation.

Since its founding, televëda has created virtual senior communities that have helped more than 1,500 users, including seniors in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and their homes. 

Recently, Gurudanti heard from a widower who uses the platform to socialize. “He keeps coming back to these classes. What’s beautiful is that he doesn’t feel like he’s coming to a support group. For me, that’s a success,” Gurudanti said.

In May 2020, at the Greater Phoenix Tech Challenge, the company won a $50,000 grant from the Pakis Center for Business Philanthropy at the Arizona Community Foundation. Televëda will use the funds to expand from its current seven employees. 

“Our goal is to be a widespread virtual recreation center to reduce social isolation, and so people don’t have to worry about feeling lonely again,” Gurudanti said.

Dylan Lang: Improving communication for people with hearing loss

Over the course of three years between high school and college, ASU computer science senior Dylan Lang lost nearly 90% of his hearing because of a condition called profound bilateral hearing loss. While learning to deal with his ailment, Lang developed an interest in computer science and artificial intelligence and applied that knowledge to developing a smartphone app to help people with hearing loss. In the app, which Lang expects to make public in a few years, the webcam views a person’s hand motions, then AI converts that information to text. In reverse, a person speaks, then AI makes the hand motions on the screen.

“I’ve seen how the lack of resources impacts the deaf community,” Lang said. “There’s often a communication barrier, and (the deaf) have to communicate with notes or notepads. Interpreters aren’t always around.”

Dylan Lang

Dylan Lang aims to improve communication for people with hearing loss; he is shown here against a green screen capturing movements for an avatar.

Lang, who is president of the Deaf Devils student organization, demonstrated the concept at the first Demo Day in 2018 and won $35,000 to turn the idea into a company named EqualComm. Lang is testing the machine learning output and credits the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute and Brent Sebold, a lecturer and administrator of entrepreneurship and innovation programs, for helping him fine-tune the concept. 

“I think the app can empower (deaf) individuals to bridge the communication gap when they are out in the community,” Lang said. 

Ryan Stoll: Reducing anxiety in children

While working on his PhD in clinical psychology at ASU, Ryan Stoll discovered in one-on-one sessions he facilitated that many people struggle with similar anxiety issues. He thought that maybe there was a way to proactively help people using evidence-based tactics. 

With years of research around anxiety at the Courage Lab at the ASU Department of Psychology, combined with assistance through ASU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, in 2017 Stoll came up with a six-lesson game-based anxiety prevention program for children called Compass for Courage

Ryan Stoll

Ryan Stoll delivering a five-minute pitch at a Demo Day competition.

After going through the classes and mentorship offered by the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at ASU’s program Venture Devils and refining his idea, Stoll created and mastered a five-minute “Shark Tank”-like pitch for Demo Day, which landed Compass $34,500 in funding in 2017 from the Changemaker Challenge and the Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“It enabled me to create a brand around the science, design the program and order the first 100 kits,” Stoll said. “The funding and ability to use the ASU platform have opened new opportunities for the business.”  

The project received another $30,000 the following year during Demo Day and has so far trained counselors in 55 Arizona schools and helps about 350 students each year. With ASU’s help, Stoll has been able to conduct research that shows improvements in patients’ emotional awareness and their ability to gain more confidence in stressful situations because of Compass for Courage.

Demo Days graphic

Watch entrepreneurial Sun Devils 

Learn more about the establishment of the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and hear from startup founders from five ventures about their journeys: EqualComm, Phoenix Coqui, Pura Vida Grinds, Navi Concierge Nurses and NeoLight.

Get help with your innovative idea

Have a new product, service, process or business idea? Join a comprehensive ecosystem that includes support, funding sources, mentors, innovation spaces, academic courses and community programs that help all entrepreneurs thrive. This includes the new Venture Devils+ for winners of seed funding at a Demo Day competition, which provides the ability to apply for additional mentoring over the course of a semester.

Top photo: Freda Sarfo started her business in her kitchen, formulating products made from tropical almonds found on ornamental trees in her native Ghana.  

Story by Craig Guillot. He is a business journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Chief Executive and Entrepreneur magazines.

Because of you, a future full of promise: Explore how ASU supporters’ generosity during Campaign ASU 2020 has powered many breakthroughs and successes, and laid the groundwork for a future full of possibilities.