Outstanding Cronkite School student became a leading voice on campus diversity, social justice issues

April 20, 2021

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

In the space of three years, Kiarra Spottsville went from being a shy freshman to being a leading voice for students on diversity and social justice issues.  Kiarra Spottsville was named an Outstanding Undergraduate Student for the spring 2021 Kiarra Spottsville. Download Full Image

Spottsville said she knew she wanted to study at ASU after participating in the Summer High School Journalism Institute at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It was two weeks, and it was really hard. I was exhausted by the end of it, but I genuinely enjoyed Cronkite. My senior year, I only (started) just two applications — to ASU and Northern Arizona University, and then I never finished my NAU application because I knew I didn't want to go there. ASU was the choice from the start.”

Spottsville was awarded the New American University Dean’s Award, offered to outstanding incoming undergraduate students, and also earned the Chief Manuelito Scholarship and the American Indian Services Scholarship. 

During her undergraduate career, Spottsville focused on public relations and organizational leadership. She completed her professional program in the Cronkite Public Relations Lab and her internship at Valley Metro. She also served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists at ASU, where she found her voice in speaking out against social injustice. 

“In my time here at ASU, especially in 2020, a lot happened. I was in a leadership position and these students were coming to me, telling me they felt uncomfortable about things going on,” she said. “That moment shifted my perspective because I was in this position of power and people needed someone to stand up for them, to defend them.”

Spottsville, who will receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, was named an Outstanding Undergraduate Student for the spring 2021 Cronkite School convocation, to be held May 3. 

Here’s what Spottsville had to say about her undergraduate experience at ASU and what she plans to do after graduation. 

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

Answer: I always knew that I wanted to do some kind of writing, but I knew that I didn't want to be a reporter or journalist — I just didn't like the pacing. I knew I didn't want to do print or broadcast, so I was like, "Let me give PR a shot." I ended up in JMC 415, Writing for Public Relations, and in that class, everything clicked for me.

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

A: I would say in my time at ASU, I've learned that it's fine to challenge what you're being exposed to. It's fine to speak up when you think something's wrong. You don't have to be afraid of the consequences as long as you believe in what is right and what you're doing is right and you have a support squad behind you who also understands what you're feeling and how others are feeling.

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

A: When you go into college, you kind of have this expectation that your professors don't care about you. But Interim Dean Kristin Gilger was the first professor that showed she cared. Next was Retha Hill. Being a student of color, it can be really hard to go to all of your classes and every professor is either a white man or woman, and you don't see yourself reflected in these successful people. It was great to see someone who was so talented, so skilled and such a good person, who at any moment would be willing to help me and other students out and make sure that we were set up for success. Also Lisa Schmidtke, the PR Lab director. She's incredible. You can tell that she's very passionate about what she does, and that she's not only passionate about public relations but she's passionate about helping students.

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

A: Something my dad says is that the time is gonna pass anyway. There's definitely been some hard spots … where it kind of just felt like it wasn't worth it. There's no right answer for everyone. Just know that the time is gonna pass and it’s up to you how you spend it.

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

A: My favorite spot in Cronkite is that half floor between the second and third floor, where there's just tables and high chairs. It reminds me of pre-COVID when we had class at 8 a.m. We had to get up early, sit there with a Starbucks until the classroom opened and just chat with all your friends, talking about what assignments you are stressed out about — having that community of people around you who understand what you're going through and who are supportive of you. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In the fall, I'm doing the 3+1 program at Cronkite, so I'll be returning for my master's degree. After that, I just recently started thinking about getting my PhD. I’m not sure if I'm going to do it, but I'm thinking about it. 

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

A: When I was really young, maybe like 6 or 7 years old, I remember listening to the radio and they were doing a money giveaway or something like that. And I remember thinking, "If I was rich, I would build a giant house for all homeless people to live in and help them get back up on their feet." It's just always kind of stuck with me. So I think if I had $40 million, I would probably build that giant house to help out the homeless population.

Written by Lisa Diethelm

Understanding Earth's critical zone

ASU professor explains how the study of sustainability and the environment has changed over the years

April 20, 2021

The Earth’s near-surface environment, known as Earth’s critical zone, supports most life on the planet. This uppermost layer that extends from the tops of trees down to several feet below the surface is the area that humans most depend on.

“We grow our food in this zone. Most of our drinking water is filtered through this zone. The wild animals, forests, deserts, mountains, lakes and rivers — all the part of the Earth’s surface that we humans engage directly with in so many ways — are all part of this zone,” said Arjun Heimsath, professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. Arjun Heimsath, professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, teaches the course "Earth’s Critical Zone" where students explore how changes to the environment manifest themselves in landforms, water resources, soils, agriculture and ecosystems. Download Full Image

Heimsath believes that understanding the physical and chemical processes that operate in this zone, as well as the way that geology, climate and humans impact how these processes take place, is a critical step in addressing many of the challenges our planet faces.

In his course "Earth’s Critical Zone," students do exactly that by exploring how changes to the environment manifest themselves in landforms, water resources, soils, agriculture and ecosystems. 

“I enjoy watching students get excited about these topics that are so important for understanding how our planet works,” he said. “I just love watching their eyes light up when they ‘get’ a new science-based concept about how some aspect of the environment that they have always taken for granted actually works. It’s such a thrill to share in their excitement.”

For Earth Day, Heimsath gave insight on the importance of understanding Earth’s critical zone and how the study of sustainability and the environment has changed over the years.

Question: You were involved in the creation of the earth and environmental studies degree at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — tell us about that program. 

Answer: We began the earth and environmental studies degree about eight years ago, in response to the interest that a number of students in the School of Sustainability had articulated to me — to have more physical science in their degree. The hope with creating the degree was to attract students who have a fundamental interest in environmental studies along the lines of my own background — a deep commitment to understanding earth surface processes with the aim of helping to mitigate or prevent human impacts from harming the environment. … As humans continue to try to figure out how to better deal with overpopulation, climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction to name a few key areas of concern, students coming out of The College with an earth and environmental studies degree will be in high demand across multiple sectors of the workforce. 

School of Earth and Space Exploration Professors Arjun Heimsath (left), Stephen Reynolds (middle) and Thomas Sharp (right) with two students at an outcrop near Durango, Colorado, while teaching in summer 2019. Photo by Nari Miller

Q: How did the "Earth’s Critical Zone" course come about?

A: I was quite active in a program at the National Science Foundation that was funding big projects focusing on the critical zone and realized that there was no single class that I had ever heard of that focused simply on Earth’s critical zone. No syllabus existed, no textbook — nothing. I thought, “How cool is this, I can make up this absolutely key class and call it ‘Earth’s Critical Zone.’” And that was that. I have subsequently gotten the class approved for science and society credit and also created a fully online, asynchronous version of it that I offer during the summer. 

Q: What are some of the biggest ways you’ve seen the study of sustainability and the environment change over the years?       

A: It’s become mainstream. I compare the level of awareness and education of the students that I teach in this major to those that I taught when I first started as a professor in 2000, and the difference is extraordinary. Students are coming into college as first-year students now with a level of understanding of sustainability and environmental change that seems comparable to what I emerged from my master’s degree with way back in the early 1990s. It’s encouraging and inspires hope. I’ve also noticed that college students these days seem to want to be way more proactive and engaged than my peers did 30 years ago. 

Q: This Earth Month, what issues do you feel are the most crucial to address and why?

A: The same issues that have been crucial to address for the last 50 years for all the same reasons that countless environmental scientists, activists and educated politicians have been articulating over and over and over again: climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. That’s probably the most difficult aspect of this field — change is slow, and humans don’t adapt unless there’s a very rapid and obvious crisis. 

The iconic sandstone landscape around Sedona, Arizona. Photo by Arjun Heimsath

Q: What can people do to effect change, and is there something that gives you hope for the future of these issues?

A: That trite expression that has maybe fallen out of the limelight is certainly applicable here: Think globally, act locally. This begins by voting in the right people to formulate science- and truth-based policies and continues by getting involved working on local issues at whatever level one is able to give. I feel hope because I’ve watched human behavior change to be more environmentally aware and also because I strongly believe the younger generations are way ahead of their elders in terms of changing behavior toward more environmentally friendly practices. There’s so much good that can be done, and I like seeing the younger generations getting into it. 

To learn more about Earth Month at ASU, visit earthmonth.asu.edu.

Emily Balli

Multimedia specialist, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences