Stepping up the push for progress

Leaders of ASU's National Society of Black Engineers chapter aspire to accelerate organization's impact by expanding diversity, public outreach endeavors

February 24, 2022

There’s more to Arizona State University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, or NSBE, than what some may infer from its name. Much more.

That, in essence, is what leaders of the organization most want fellow students and others in the university community to understand. ASU NSBE chapter president addresses members of the student organization. Current president of the Arizona State University chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers Abdi Awale addressed members at first general meeting of the 2021 fall semester. Photo courtesy the ASU chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers Download Full Image

NSBE membership — at ASU and in the more than 600 chapters in the United States and other countries — is not restricted by race, ethnicity or minority status, and not open solely to engineering students.

Advancing inclusivity, diversity, access to education, professional development, career opportunities and social progress are among NSBE’s overarching ambitions.

“The main thing we are about is community engagement,” says Abdi Awale, an aerospace engineering student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and current president of the NSBE chapter.

“If you want to do something that can teach you leadership, collaboration, organizational and communication skills and gives you a chance to make a difference, you can do that with us,” he says.

A place for connection and community

Tochukwu Anyigbo, a materials science and engineering student and the chapter’s internal communications manager, says NSBE at ASU guides students in acclimating to the university environment and connects them to faculty and staff members with shared interests to benefit from their experience and expertise.

Awale is from Somalia, and Anyigbo is from Nigeria. They are among more than a few chapter members who come from various countries and cultures around the world.

“We are a little like the United Nations. We have people from many places around the world,” Awale says. “We help to introduce people to our culture here (in the United States and at ASU) and to participate in things going on here, not only students from other countries but from communities and backgrounds in this country where people have not had a lot of experience with higher education and big universities like ASU.”

The group’s membership, including some chapter officers, has included students of Asian and Hispanic descent, as well as those from large and small countries around the world, Awale says.

What the NSBE chapter has done for many of its members over the years is provide mentorship, team them with experienced professionals in engineering and related fields, introduce them to industry leaders and prospective employers, and point them to financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Judicael Tombo, a 2021 computer science graduate now working as a software engineer for the online car retailer Carvana, is a former for NSBE chapter executive board member and treasurer. He says an important part of his education came through his interactions with the group’s members.

For instance, Tombo learned how to compose resumes and prepare for job interviews, and then shared his knowledge with less experienced NSBE members.

“Helping other students was a great way to destress, plus you learn how to relate to people from different backgrounds,” he says. “You’ll find people who will take you under their wing, tell you about the professors whose classes you should take, how to get an internship and the best places to get internships. Plus, how to have fun in college, so that you don’t become a robot.”

Attendees of meeting of ASU National Society of Black Engineers chapter

At the spring semester dinner event for members of the Arizona State University chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers on Feb. 4, discussion focused on efforts to increase membership and attract support for the chapter’s activities and goals. Members interacted with faculty members in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, including the chapter’s adviser, Professor Terry Alford, Professor Ann McKenna and Associate Professor Jean Andino. Photo courtesy the ASU chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers

Building momentum to broaden NSBE’s impact

Despite the positive experiences the chapter is providing, there is also recognition among current and former leaders that NSBE at ASU has been slow to ramp up efforts needed to move closer to realizing its multifaceted range of educational, social, professional and cultural aspirations.

At present, the chapter has about 20 people on its leadership team, with about 200 more who regularly participate in its internal organizational efforts and in public activities on behalf of the group. But chapter leaders stress the need for more outreach and more social events to both draw new members and more fervently confront the issues and challenges NSBE was in large part established to address.

“We do need to find better ways to reach out to more communities,” Awale says. “We need to show students in high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools what STEM fields are about, and about all the different things engineers do.”

Beyond that, Awale and Anyigbo say, NSBE wants to do more to give today’s younger students a fuller understanding of the history of people who struggled to break through societal barriers that long excluded them from educational and career opportunities in those fields.

Even today, they say, students from various minority groups should be prepared to deal with the persistent traces of those same kinds of obstacles.

In addition to such educational endeavors, NSBE chapter leaders intend to step up efforts to establish stronger business and corporate relations, and collaborations with other student and professional organizations that have missions similar to NSBE.

They also want to add their voices to the assertions that the engineering profession will be capable of contributing to the world’s well-being in more productive and meaningful ways when its practitioners are more diverse.

No one is more pleased to hear that the chapter’s leaders and members are setting a range of big goals for themselves than Terry Alford, a Fulton Schools professor of materials science and engineering, who has been the group’s adviser since coming to ASU almost three decades ago. Over the years, he has seen the chapter’s endeavors and effectiveness go through alternating stages of acceleration and stagnation.

“Sometimes they’ve struggled to maintain their focus and energy, or just to take care of their basic responsibilities. At other times, we’ve had people who took advantage of opportunities and made things happen,” Alford says.

“I think we have students now who want to elevate things, but they will need to find ways to sustain their commitment,” he says. “You will always have good leaders who will graduate and leave. So, other students need to be ready to take bigger roles and be able to keep the momentum going strong."

Counting on ASU’s growing commitment to diversity

Fortunately for groups like NSBE, ASU President Michael Crow’s office has launched the LIFT Initiative. LIFT (an acronym for Listen, Invest, Facilitate, Teach) is designed to enhance opportunities at the university for Black students, faculty and staff, and take actions to benefit all underrepresented groups and members of the ASU community.

“We are committed to diversity in all of our clubs and organizations, and I am using NSBE as a model to look at what organizations need to do to achieve diversity, equality and fairness, and what needs to be done to support them and to break down barriers to reaching those goals,” says Tami Coronella, director of student success and engagement for the Fulton Schools. She is also a member of the subcommittee of ASU’s Black Student Success Initiative, a part of the LIFT Initiative.

Support from these initiatives could do much to help the NSBE chapter provide exactly what the most recent past president of the organization says would help it better fulfill its fundamental purpose.

“It was designed for people who historically have had a lack of access to resources to help them succeed academically, professional and socially,” says Ahmed Usman, whose term as president ended with his graduation in spring 2021 with a computer science degree. He is now a software engineer with Twitch, an interactive livestreaming video service.

“It’s about finding camaraderie and ways to uplift yourself among people who face similar circumstances, who have a common understanding of that experience,” Usman says, adding that such an experience is not always shaped only by race or being in a minority group.

If NSBE and its ASU chapter would adopt and communicate that welcoming outlook more extensively, Usman says, it might open a door for more diversity within its own ranks, and as a result meaningfully broaden its impact in the ASU community and beyond.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Sun Devils develop online resource to support students who experience sexual assault

February 24, 2022

When you’ve been through a trauma, your brain behaves differently as a survival tactic. Yet, if you’re a survior of sexual assault, there are many decisions to be made if you’re seeking care or justice.

Some need to be made immediately. And every decision comes with different considerations for the survivor.  Two people holding hands. Download Full Image

“As a survival mechanism, a lot of your logical thinking and memory components are temporarily shut down,” said Michelle Villegas-Gold, associate director of health and clinical research at ASU Knowledge Enterprise.

“Because our brains perceive sexual assaults as life threatening, akin to attempted murder, the oldest part of the brain that is responsible for survival kicks in and is basically like, we just need to do whatever it takes to live through this situation. When you’re in a life-or-death situation, you don’t have time to sit down and make a pros and cons list of what you should do to increase your chances of survival,” she said. 

As part of her dissertation for her PhD in global heath, Villegas-Gold and other ASU graduate and undergraduate students, along with support from university and community partners, created the Here4U online resource for survivors of sexual assault to help them make informed choices about how to seek care, support, advocacy and justice.

The online resource, which went live in fall 2021, was inspired by Villegas-Gold’s years of experience in crisis work, which included working as a counselor who specializes in trauma, as a legal advocate and as someone who responded to overnight crisis calls, including from ASU students. 

“The existing infrastructure and services are not perfect, but there are a lot of people who are working really hard to support survivors in various capacities, whether that’s within the university or outside of the university,” she said. “But often, individuals aren't aware of what resources are available. And when I worked as a crisis specialist, it was my full-time job to know all the resources that were available. And often, there were things that I didn't know about, or I would call a number and it had been disconnected. And it was a very confusing system to navigate.”

Here4U is a resource that takes survivors or allies through simple questions that will help people navigate to the most relevant resources. Although it’s most relevant for people living in the Phoenix metropolitan area when it comes to physical resources, Villegas-Gold said it’s a resource that was built with any ASU student or community member in mind, including ASU Online students. 

“The tool is not intended to replace any existing supports or systems or resources. It’s also not intended to fix any of those things. And it doesn’t purport to — it’s just intended to help people navigate the systems that are already there, to understand what resources are there and to reduce the amount of options that don’t apply to them.”

For example, whether an assault happened on campus, whether the perpetrator was an ASU student or staff member, whether the incident happened more than 72 hours ago and whether the survivor wants to pursue criminal charges or administrative justice through the university could all affect what resources are relevant to a survivor. 

“Here4U weeds out different options that may not apply to them, so that it helps them make these informed choices,” Villegas-Gold said. 

The final product was several years in the making, and ASU students were involved in every step, including then-graduate student in computer science Dharmin Dholiya from the Institute for Humanities Research, who was the original developer for the site, as well as undergraduate peer educators in ASU’s Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program, who helped with the language, approach and resources as either advocates or survivors — or both.

One of the students involved, who asked not to be named in this article, responded to a call for help to build the site, and met with Villegas-Gold several times to give feedback as a survivor and a student throughout the process. 

“Like many, I have experienced the impacts of sexual violence both personally and through the stories of friends, family and colleagues. Unfortunately, sexual violence is pervasive, and despite efforts to increase discussion and knowledge around sexual violence, it still can hold a great deal of misplaced shame and guilt for the survivor,” they said. “My ultimate hope is that this tool helps users feel that they are not alone and that they have the power to get answers and take care of themselves.”

The student graduated in 2019 and is excited to see that the tool is now available to support fellow Sun Devils. 

“I am thrilled to see this tool launch, as I truly believe it will make a meaningful impact and provide support to individuals as they traverse an extremely difficult experience,” they said.

After learning about Villegas-Gold’s work at ASU, Maggie Slater, CEO of Aliferous Technology, reached out to support the project on the technological side. 

“By partnering with Dr. Michelle Villegas-Gold as Here4U’s technology provider, our vision realized is to bring Here4U to student survivors on multiple campuses and beyond,” Slater said. 

Throughout the process, Villegas-Gold said the resources of ASU's Educational Outreach and Student Services were invaluable, including support and leadership from ASU Health Services, ASU Counseling Services and the Dean of Students Office, in addition to the ASU Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program. 

Villegas-Gold remembers calling Aaron Krasnow, the associate vice president of ASU Counseling and Health Services, in the middle of the night when issues came up for ASU students on crisis calls. When she asked to meet with him in person about Here4U, he and his colleagues supported the effort however they could.

“They understood the utility and the need for the tool. And so they were just wonderfully supportive,” she said. “The (Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response) program at ASU was very involved. The students who worked there were involved in building the tool. They were just incredibly supportive. And it was really wonderful working with them. Honestly, I was really blown away by the generosity of everyone, because we know how busy people are.”

Krasnow was happy to connect Here4U with the Educational Outreach and Student Services resources for survivors, and emphasizes that the response to sexual violence at ASU and anywhere is multifaceted and complex.

“Our commitment to survivors is always to ensure that they have been at the center of the process. Any tool that can help survivors know their options and get the assistance they want to pursue is invaluable,” Krasnow said. “Here4U can help members of our ASU community and beyond narrow down the options and resources that apply based on what actions a survivor wants to take if they’ve experienced violence.”

Because sexual assault is an ongoing public health issue that can get in the way of people earning their degrees, Villegas-Gold said it’s important to find ways to support survivors in the ASU community. Even if the solutions are complex.

“I’m really taking that seriously and thinking about, right now, in this moment, what can we do to show up for students who are experiencing these things?” Villegas-Gold said. “Knowing that it’s definitely not a magic wand that fixes imperfect systems, I hope that it helps people to know that the help that they need is out there and be able to connect with it.”

Here4U is available now to assist Sun Devils who have experienced violence. The tool was developed in collaboration with the ASU Sexual Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response program, ASU Counseling Servces, ASU Heath Services, the Dean of Students Office, the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, Aliferous Technology, the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Phoenix Police Department, the Mesa Police Department and Honor Health.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services