How to get involved with social embeddedness at ASU

May 18, 2021

There were some silver linings to the panic and scramble of redirecting an in-person event with hundreds of registrants to an online conference held in March 2020. Thanks to the virtual format for Arizona State University's Social Embeddedness Conference for the last two years, the recorded sessions are now available on-demand for staff, faculty, students and community members to access.

Being responsible for the communities ASU serves is part of its university charter, and since 2014 the ASU Social Embeddedness Conference has brought together community partners with their ASU collaborators to share ideas and build bridges to further goals in education, civic engagement, research and much more.  Rep. Ruben Gallego in a mask talking to a passenger in a car Rep. Ruben Gallego assists a participant at a FAFSA drive-in event at Maryvale High School. Photo by Yenifer Lopez. Download Full Image

The event is planned every year by ASU staff; this year the leaders included Christina Ngo, director of social embededess, Erin Chastain, Access ASU director of school partnerships, and Allison Gray, coordinator senior for the College of Global Futures. The 2021 event expanded to a third day and had 539 registrants.

Access ASU, which is dedicated to increasing access to higher education for Arizona students, has been involved in the conference since its inception. Because of both the passion and experience of staff, they’ve become more involved as thought partners, behind the scenes in operations and as conference presenters. 

The vast majority of the group's work is in the community, Chastain said. “As staff members, we’ve been excited to invite our community school districts and other partners to the table to talk about our work and the lessons learned, and it’s been great professional development for us as a team.”

Ngo’s job is to set aside space and time to elevate and amplify the social embeddedness work that ASU does in partnership with community members. She said she’s been thrilled and grateful to have the buy-in and resources of Access ASU and to see the effort grow. Ngo said the connections made are crucial to breaking down silos in university-community work. 

“We share the same goals — building access to postsecondary learning opportunities, creating impact and exporting excellence. With community partners, however, navigating the university can be challenging in many ways for community partners, whether it's a school, a nonprofit or another organization."

So every year, the event offers opportunities for ASU faculty, staff and students to coordinate with each other and with their partners; they can share best practices, find out who is working with whom and get inspired by the unique ways community partners can work with universities.

Jonathan Koppell, dean and professor of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and vice provost for public service and social impact, set the stage for the conversations at this year's event, including by moderating the opening panel. 

“The university is strongest when we bring together knowledge and expertise from across the ASU enterprise. The annual ASU Social Embeddedness Network Conference showcases that ability, where departments break down silos and come together with the connected purpose of collaborating with the communities we serve,” Koppell said.

The 2021 conference kicked off with an opening session to share strategies for advancing ASU as a socially embedded institution and featured Maria Anguiano, executive vice president, Learning Enterprise; Nancy Gonzales, provost pro tempore and executive vice president, Academic Enterprise; and Sally C. Morton, executive vice president, Knowledge Enterprise.

Day two was kicked off by a fireside chat that focused on the history of voting rights in Native American communities and an overview of the Arizona Native Vote Election Protection Project. The day included workshops and breakout sessions that covered the MetaNetwork, which allows schools around the country to share methods that increase the number of Black, Latino and low-income students who apply for financial aid and postsecondary pathways. 

MetaNetwork partners on day three shared how they’ve been continuing college readiness work, which had been done primarily in person before COVID-19, in a session that shared about their experience hosting FAFSA drive-in events to assist families in a safe way fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opens the door to grants and scholarships. 

Solio Felix, chief program officer for Be a Leader Foundation, was a presenter at that session and said that the MetaNetwork partners were excited to share about their project, which was a dynamic example of collaboration in pursuit of student success.

“What we presented at the conference was about all the dynamic pieces that come into play when you collaborate. You're dealing with operational issues … we may do the same task, but we all kind of do it a little bit differently. So our focus of the conference presentation was how did we make all of this work together?” he said. 

Leveraging partnerships, different skill sets and resources among Access ASU, Be a Leader Foundation and College Success Arizona, the group reached nearly 1,000 families with FAFSA drive-in events since January 2021. Felix said the group, which they’ve affectionately dubbed the Wolf Pack, learned a lot from the first few events, and operations got smoother along the way because they were all unified to work toward FAFSA completion goal of 52% of Arizona high school seniors completing FAFSA. Felix said the conference was a great chance to share success and best practices with others about this university-community initiative. 

“I think a conference like this really allows for other organizations to see how the collaborative space can really drive impact and really create that systemic change,” he said.

Day three also featured a panel highlighting ASU’s work with the Tolleson Unified School District in Phoenix, which serves about 12,000 students. The session was moderated by Rogelio Ruiz, Access ASU executive coordinator, and featured Michele Wilson, Tolleson’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction; Joely Sanders, Sierra Linda High School counselor; Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president for Educational Outreach and Student Services; and Tirupalavanam Ganesh, Tooker Professor and assistant dean, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Ruiz knows firsthand what can happen when ASU is connected with community partners such as school districts — he credits his experience with the Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute summer program with making a four-year university education seem attainable when he was a high school student in Wickenburg, Arizona. It was a counselor at his school who connected him to CCLI. 

“I am the first one in my family to go to college. So essentially, I had no idea that my GPA would qualify me to attend a university,” he said. “But after I did this summer program, it helped me to understand the admissions requirements, information about financial aid, scholarships and the personal statement. So they really helped me a lot.”

Now in his role with Access ASU, he helps prepare and empower students with college readiness tools in Tolleson, Peoria and Glendale schools to pursue higher education. Last year, Ruiz was one of several Access ASU staff members who stepped in as Zoom hosts when the conference had to pivot quickly to an online platform. This year, he was more involved reviewing programming and proposal submissions, even being in front of the Zoom camera as a panel moderator.  

Though it was a little nerve-wracking to be moderating, Ruiz thought it was a great opportunity to professionally develop and to help share the story one of the partner school districts he works closely with. 

“If you think about it, many of our districts are being pulled left and right by different initiatives or different programs. So just hearing what they value when it comes to a partnership, I think it was great to just hear that perspective ... and it made me feel very honored to be part of that partnership,” he said.

Ruiz said the conversation brought up several important questions for any field to consider. 

“Some things I wasn’t expecting to hear about our partnership was that our partners know that ASU sees the bigger picture,” Ruiz said. “We’re thinking about things like, do we reflect the population that we're serving? Are we fully helping these students? Or is this more looking at, we just need numbers.”

Ruiz said that because of his experience with the conference, he has learned skills that he was able to take back to his everyday work. Next year, he plans to submit his own workshop proposal to inspire others interested in community engagement and social embeddedness.

“Oftentimes I see that we do the work, but to us some of the work that we do just seems to be an everyday thing,” he said. “But I think it's also important to highlight (our partnerships and work) so that people can potentially get inspired or maybe want to duplicate some of the work within their departments or within their initiatives or the things that they're doing to support students.”

Get involved with the 2022 conference and learn more about social embeddedness by reaching out to Christina Ngo. Find out how you can get involved and volunteer with Access ASU outreach, including upcoming FAFSA drive-in events, by reaching out to Erin Chastain.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services


Foster youth celebrate their successes, college motivations

May 18, 2021

It could be the ear-to-ear smile, the jokes about loving long walks on the beach or the time he spends volunteering at a hospice so patients have someone to talk to.

Arizona State University second-year student Samuel Perez immediately charms and disarms. He has a bright future ahead of him as he pursues his biomedical sciences degree as a first step to becoming a physician. So it can be difficult to fathom that his path wasn’t always so certain.  A group of five students in masks on ASU's Tempe campus From left: First Star Scholar Parker Lopez, First Star Scholar Sammie Lopez, First Star Coach Samuel Perez, First Star Coach Ben Bradley and First Star Coach Amol Desai. Photo by Yenifer Lopez. Download Full Image

When Perez was in high school in Chandler, Arizona, he and his siblings were separated and placed into the foster care system. The leaders of his group home emphasized academics as a key to success, so he threw himself into schoolwork in hopes of being the first person in his family to go to college.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college. … I kind of knew the importance of academics. When I was in a group home, they kind of stress, the people watching us, academics is important,” Perez said. “It's a way to rise above what you've been raised in, to succeed on your own terms and build yourself up. And that kind of inspired me to hit the books.”

He found financial and other resources for foster youth on ASU’s website and recently joined the First Star ASU Academy as a youth coach. First Star is a free, four-year program that supports foster youth in Arizona through academic support, enrichment and resources necessary to enroll and succeed in college. 

Perez is now part of the Bridging Success program at ASU, through which he connected with other students who have experienced the foster care system. He said he’s excited to share what he’s learned with high schoolers and wishes he’d had a mentor when he was that age. 

“Their high school journey, you know, it's a complex one,” he said. “I was kind of going through it, not by myself per se, but there was just a lack of resources. And I felt like, if I had First Star back in high school, things might have been a little different.”

An estimated 19,000 children are in the foster care system in Arizona. Research shows that, nationally, children in foster care are at high risk of dropping out of high school and are unlikely to attain a college degree. Every year, First Star at ASU serves a cohort of 40 high school students by making sure their basic needs are met and by offering caregiver engagement, tutoring, the opportunity to earn college credit, field trips, cultural events and a three-week residential college experience in the summer. Due to COVID-19, most of the activities have been virtual in the past year. 

The program and its partners are celebrating National Foster Care Month, a time to raise awareness and appreciation for the people who are doing their part to enhance the lives of foster youth.

One of the current First Star participants, known as First Star scholars, is 10th grader Sammie Lopez of Chandler. She’s mulling over a career in herpetology (inspired by trips to the reptile store with her Dad) or in social work, because caring social workers made such a difference in her life. 

“When I was in foster care, I had a social worker. And I had a therapist and I had a lot of people helping me. And I didn't really understand that before. I didn't know that there are people who can help you in those types of situations in those ways. And I really appreciated the support and help that I got … I had people who genuinely cared about me,” Lopez said. “I had some friends in foster care I noticed who didn't have that type of support … and in some ways I felt bad for them. I was like, I think everyone should have that support. And it's something that I'm really passionate about, and I want to be able to help others.”

A self-described extrovert, Lopez's favorite subjects are math and Spanish, and she loves making friends and playing volleyball with her siblings and uncle as well as being involved with the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. She was proud to have joined First Star a bit earlier than typical, as an eighth grader, and she said it’s been a great opportunity for her.

“So far, it's been one of my best experiences,” Lopez said. “I find it better for me that I can make relationships with people who are older than me, and I'm better at mature conversations.”

Lopez said that the college readiness and community stand out to her. 

“They help a lot with college readiness and life skills and things like that. And again, with just building connections, they help you learn about your passions,” she said.

One of the reasons why Lopez joined First Star was because she heard about it through her brother, Parker Lopez, who is an 11th grader and a First Star scholar. 

Parker loves trying new things and experimenting with his look, including changing his hair color. He heard about First Star in eighth grade from a counselor and signed up after talking to his aunt about it. 

“And although I am a very shy person, this was able to help me meet new people, get out of my comfort (zone) and be involved with different communities,” Parker said. 

Parker loves studying English and film and loves writing, especially with fantasy and dystopian themes. He wants to go to college and values the community, life skills and college prep that he gets from First Star. He said he didn’t think college was an option before because of grades. He’s looking forward to being the first in his family to go to college. 

“I want to go to college for sure. That is something that I thought was impossible a while ago. And now now that I'm so close to it, I have the urge to do it now. So that's exciting,” Parker said. “(First Star) kind of gave me that spark of like, I can actually be something if I really wanted to, if I was determined to, if I can try and be successful.”

He said First Star has made ASU a second home and that he deeply values the program for providing basic needs like clothes, school supplies and so much more.

“It means a lot to me honestly; it's something very important and I hold really dearly. It's like a second family in a sense. It helped me a lot with school and with motivation to go to college,” Parker said. 

First Star Coordinator Paloma Delgado said the program is a holistic approach to supporting foster youth because it works with caregivers and makes sure students’ basic needs are taken care of in addition to the academic support. 

“So that we can help them academically, their basic needs have to be met. So meaning they have somewhere to live, they have food on the table, someone is caring for them, all of those things,” Delgado said. 

Applicants have to have an open case with the Arizona Department of Child Services to join — they have to be in a foster placement at the time. After they’re in the program, students will be able to continue to receive support whether they remain in foster care or if they get reunified with family or adopted. 

Delgado said First Star is important because there’s a gap in services for older foster youth; most of the available programming is for younger kids. Offering a continuum of support is important, especially when kids may have been through a lot of transition.

“Many of our students who come to our program are in high need of academic support. Because they don't have a consistent placement sometimes. So when a student moves, from either a group home to a foster placement back to a group home, they also change schools. And so the many changes affect their academics,” Delgado said. “And there are also students who have a lot of trauma in their past experience. So we try and help the different factors that have affected the student's life and how it affects their academics.”

First Star’s programming hopes to improve the education attainment that comes along with some of these academic challenges. First Star ASU Academy is part of a national nonprofit network that serves youth in foster care as they pursue higher education. Nationally, more than 97% of First Star participants graduate from high school, compared with 50% of foster youth who don’t participate. More than 90% of First Star participants go on to some type of postsecondary education. Something that’s pivotal to Delgado is that students in First Star know they’re not alone and know they have the tools to be successful. 

“I think there's some misconceptions that youth who have experienced foster care ... that their trauma is for some reason a limit for them to be successful, which is not true. Many students have been through very difficult situations, through trauma at a very young age, and they're very, very resilient,” Delgado said. “In fact, it's actually their resiliency that is going to make them successful.”

Luckily, the current First Star cohort has Sun Devils such as Perez to look up to as a beacon of success. Inspired by seeing doctors work on his younger brother's broken arm as a kid, Perez is working overnights at Mercy Gilbert Hospital as a scribe when he’s not mentoring First Star students. He encourages other young people who have experienced the foster care system to look at the resources available and take advantage of them, because college, like so many other things, is what you make of it. 

“Your past doesn't define you. And college is a way to forge your path to the future. It's a way for you to see all these new opportunities and to forge your own identity, forge your own path,” Perez said. "You may think it's impossible, but there are resources that are available to you if you go and find them.”

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services