Attending ASU was a 'no-brainer' for Cronkite School convocation speaker

April 20, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

After attending the Cronkite Sports Broadcast Boot Camp the summer before his senior year of high school, Harrison Zhang’s mind was made up. He was going to Arizona State University. Harrison Zhang will serve as the 2021 Cronkite Convocation speaker. Harrison Zhang. Download Full Image

“I fell in love with the facilities, campus and opportunities ASU offered," he said. It was a no-brainer after stepping on campus for the first time.”

Now four years later, the Irvine, California, native will receive his Bachelor of Arts in sports journalism and deliver the student convocation address May 3 for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Zhang, who is Asian American, said he was not 100% sure he was going to fit in at ASU.

“I was skeptical on whether I would be judged or looked at differently because of my background, but I was surprised at the community built at Cronkite. I immediately felt welcomed and made so many amazing friends from all kinds of backgrounds.”

While the Cronkite School has a reputation for being a competitive program, Zhang soon realized that everyone has each other’s back and wants them to succeed. “One of my favorite parts about Cronkite is that I know I can turn to any one of my peers for advice in an area I’m not familiar with and they can do the same with me. The community is extremely supportive, and we’re all here to learn and grow together.”

Zhang was a recipient of the New American University President’s Award Scholarship each semester and joined The State Press student media outlet during his freshman year. He also completed several internships and worked with two organizations back home in Orange County: OC Sports Zone, a local online publication that focuses on high school sports, and Orange County SC, the professional soccer team that is part of the United Soccer League. Additionally, Zhang was involved with Sun Devil Athletics for most of his college career, assisting with social media strategy, graphics, video editing and photography and winning two NCAA Photo of the Week awards.

We recently caught up with Zhang and asked about his plans and his favorite memories at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment happened in seventh grade when my English teacher assigned us to do a “passion project” and explore something we want to learn more about and spend 20 minutes a day on it for a month. I chose to do a sports blog because I loved discussing sports. From there, I joined my high school newspaper and never looked back.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I love that ASU has a downtown campus that is smaller in size and more laid back, but it also has the Tempe campus for when I am looking for the big school feel. The class size at Cronkite is much smaller than people think, and I get to have amazing connections with my professors, many of whom are still working in the field. Also, the weather is not as hot as people think. After October, we mainly have 60-degree weather and sunny skies every day. As a California kid, I cannot handle the cold.

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

A: Paola Boivin has been one of the most influential professors I have ever met. She exemplifies the values and dedication that I strive to carry into my professional career. She has taught me a lot about how far kindness can take you in this business. She always goes the extra mile to develop individual relationships and takes the time to get to know people as individuals. I think in this industry it is easy to get caught up in the hectic nature of what we do, but Paola has taught me a lot about slowing down and being personable with everyone. She would often bring up stories from when I first knew her at the Cronkite camp, and I’m amazed at how she remembers these things. It is because she takes the time to really care about and listen to her students and people she encounters, which is something I hope to take with me in my professional career.

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

A: Interestingly enough, when I got to ASU, I came in so headstrong knowing I wanted to be a sports writer and only that. I joined The State Press my first semester freshman year looking to be a sportswriter, but when they did not have spots open, I volunteered to join their photo desk hoping to just get any opportunity. When I started taking sports photos, I fell in love with capturing stories through a camera. This eventually led to an internship with Sun Devil Athletics in their digital media department. I am currently interested in photography, videography and content creation. I learned it is so critical to keep an open mind while in school because you never know what your true passion may be. It is 100% OK to try new things outside your initial comfort zone.

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

A: My favorite spot on the downtown campus was the walkway between Tower 1 and Tower 2 at Taylor Place. The view overlooked the Cronkite building and the Phoenix skyline, which made it a great place to study or relax.

My favorite spot on the Tempe campus is the (Memorial Union). I spent a lot of time on the Tempe campus with all the sports games going on there. I could always rely on the MU for a good quick bite to eat after taking the downtown campus shuttle that dropped me off at Gammage.

My overall favorite spot on campus is Farrington Stadium. I spent a lot of my time there for my internship and often came early to games to do my homework there because the view is so nice. One of the hidden gems of campus for sure.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on returning for my master’s degree in the 3+1 program at Cronkite. I am hoping to be a graduate assistant with the Sun Devil Athletics digital media department. God willing, I would like to pursue a job with a professional sports team after my master’s, managing their social media and developing digital content — photo, video, graphics. 

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

A: I would try and invest more in youth mental health. I think our youth education system struggles to address this issue effectively, which leads to a lot of mental health stigma and mental health issues in general for many students. Our youth is our future, and in the digital age, it is more important than ever to help normalize seeking help and educate students on the importance of mental health.

Written by Mario Baralta

ASU School of Social Work director looks back at 4 years in the job

James Herbert Williams points to accomplishments, sees school's future as strong

April 20, 2021

James Herbert Williams plans to keep a full schedule that includes editing two books and traveling to Africa once he concludes his four years as director of the Arizona State University School of Social Work this summer.

“Prior to coming to ASU I had several collaborations in eastern and southern Africa, and I would like to reconnect with my African colleagues. I spent the last decade working with tribes in Africa on conflict mediation and sustainable development,” Williams said. James Herbert Williams, director, School of Social Work, Arizona State University James Herbert Williams returns to teaching and scholarship when he steps down as director of ASU's School of Social Work July 1, 2021. Download Full Image

His successor, Elizabeth Lightfoot, steps into the school director position July 1 from the University of Minnesota.

Williams returns to full-time teaching and scholarship as one of four editors of a book about the “Grand Challenges for Social Work,” a 10-year initiative to address significant health, social, economic and environmental problems impacting society. The profession’s focus on these 13 grand challenges should “move the needle” on identifying positive solutions to ameliorate these problems.  

Williams is a board member and executive committee member of the Grand Challenges for Social Work. During his tenure, the School of Social Work has been very active with GCSW. The book is actually the second edition of one published at the start of the 10-year period five years ago. It will examine what’s been accomplished at the mid-point of the initiative, he said.

Williams is also editing a second book with his colleagues from the University of Houston; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Howard University, based on a co-sponsored four-part symposium, “Social Work, White Supremacy and Racial Justice.”

“The events of last summer reminded us (of) the need to hold the social work profession accountable for its racist history by providing a space for social workers to present their scholarship,” he said.

Williams said the school has made “some tremendous strides” since his arrival at ASU in 2017 from the University of Denver.

Since then the school has risen to No. 25 out of 296 accredited Master of Social Work programs in the United States in annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, meaning the school is in the top 10%, Williams said. Four ASU faculty members are members of the prestigious American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

The school's faculty and student populations are larger today and it offers a more expansive online program. A new Master of Social Work degree program is based in Yuma, Arizona, at the request of students who wanted a local in-person program, not an online one.

“People call it launching a program, but it’s really increasing community capacity,” he said of the Yuma Master of Social Work curriculum. “If you hold a program in Phoenix, graduates won’t leave the big city.”

The school, based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, also succeeded in bringing a Master of Social Work program back to ASU’s West campus.

“Its presence is expanding our footprint, not just in the Valley but throughout the state,” Williams said of the program’s multiple locations.

Williams said he is particularly pleased that Professor Neil Websdale and the Family Violence Center he heads moved to ASU last fall from Northern Arizona University.

“(The center's) research and community engagement complement the work of the Office of Gender-Based Violence. Having FVC and OGBV increases our national recognition for innovation and high-quality scholarship in the areas of family violence and gender-based violence,” he said.

Williams also said he worked to make sure everyone employed at the school, whether tenured, tenure-track or fixed-term faculty or staff members, understands the school’s mission and knows how each is making important contributions to that mission.

He also said he has worked to make the School of Social Work a more student-centered, student-friendly school.

“This is a challenge, given our size, our multiple sites and research productivity,” Williams said. “We created more student-supportive programs.”

Looking forward, Williams said he believes the school has a very strong future. Labor statistics are predicting a growing need for social workers, he said, yet in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, much turmoil has surfaced in the profession in the past year.

“There are divisions in our profession who say we need to reassess our involvement with the child welfare system or our partnering with the police,” Williams said. “A self-assessment has occurred: We are asking, 'Who are we? How do we interact with other institutions and professions?' Those are big questions and big conversations we need to have.”

He said other big issues face the profession as well, in education, student debt, diversity of the school’s students and keeping its graduates in the profession.

In addition are salary issues — whether an MSW graduate will be paid a livable family wage.

“They come in with all the best intentions about what they want to accomplish – but given the cost of higher education, quality assurance and gatekeeping will be an important part of our profession,” Williams said.

This may not necessarily mean adapting to a model of measuring outcomes similar to those in the medical profession, he said, “but we have to show that what we’re doing actually works, otherwise, who’ll invest in it? Will this family be at a better place than when we started working with them?”

Williams said he’s confident in the future of social work because he’s seen in younger scholars that “our profession is in very good hands. They’re very well trained, more intentional and willing to address the big issues.”

Some days have been better than others, but Williams said throughout his time as director he always started his morning looking forward to going to his office.

“Academia is such a privileged profession. You get to spend your day with very bright people and you get to choose what research questions you want to investigate,” he said. “It has been a great opportunity to serve as director. I will miss my colleagues from being the director.”

Williams said he deeply appreciates the school’s administrative team and support staff.

“When you’re a leader you need to have people around you who take care of you. You don’t always need it from them, but it’s there when you need it,” he said. “I’m fortunate from my time at ASU to have a wonderful group of colleagues. You only can have accomplishments if you have the right people whom you put in the right place for them to succeed.”

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions