ASU Local deepens roots, reimagines the college experience for Yuma youth
Arizona Western College graduates pursue their ASU degree with in-person, experiential learning while rooted in their community
Meet Karla Vera, one of the first students in ASU Local–Yuma’s inaugural cohort for spring 2022. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business law after completing her business associate’s degree from Arizona Western College.
In addition to attending ASU Local full-time, until recently Vera also worked as an office assistant for the human resources department of the City of San Luis, Arizona. As with many Yuma students, Vera is eager to make her mark on the world with her many goals. She plans to learn to manage stocks, obtain a graduate degree in law school, work with a prestigious company as an attorney and, in 40 years, open her own business — a coffee shop.
“I love coffee; it plays a big role in fueling my education and my life,” Vera said. “My family and I enjoy baking cookies and drinking a nice cup of coffee together.”
As the oldest of four, Vera is proud to set an example of optimism and determination for her three younger sisters.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Have the attitude of gratitude.’ That philosophy guides me every day,” she said.
Pivot guides a transformative decision
Although Vera always wanted to attend ASU in Tempe, going away for college would have required covering housing and transportation expenses. This wasn’t affordable for her without a full-ride scholarship.
Disappointed, yet determined to go to college, she considered options that were best aligned with her needs and resources.
Vera decided to attend Arizona Western College (AWC) in Yuma, Arizona, which proved to be a transformative experience. She took part in many extracurricular activities available on campus, eventually serving as the president of the AWC Student Government Association. Attending the college also helped defray the cost of completing credits toward her bachelor’s degree while staying close to family.
“Completing my associate’s degree from AWC has helped me grow as a person,” she said.
Vera learned about ASU Local through her AWC transfer services counselor.
“I was going to graduate and didn’t know what was next,” she said. “I filled out a form and enrollment coach Janeth Encinas contacted me. The more we discussed ASU Local, the more confident I felt that it was the right choice for me.”
ASU Local is a new university experience from Arizona State University that brings bachelor’s degree options to students in the communities where they are rooted. Students benefit from in-person college and career success coaching and programming, intentionally designed to help them in their academic and professional success. They also enjoy the flexibility of completing coursework anytime, anywhere through ASU’s online learning platforms, choosing from more than 130 online majors.
She describes her transition from AWC to ASU Local as “smooth” and appreciates the guidance throughout the process.
“I love the ASU Local space and the diversity of students,” she shared. “We’ve all had different life experiences and majors. It’s only been a month since we met each other, but I feel like myself in that space; I feel understood.”
Liz Vasquez, the assistant site director of ASU Local–Yuma, is familiar with that transition process.
“I was born in Yuma and share many of the same experiences as our students. These powerful experiences include being the first in my family to graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and wanting to be successful in my career,” Vasquez said. “Serving as a Yuma leader for ASU Local is an impactful avenue for me to pay it forward and give back to my community.”
Balancing school with personal and professional life
Esteban Zermeno is an ASU Local speech and hearing science major. He works full time as a licensed speech therapist in addition to being a husband and father to his two-year-old daughter.
“My motivation (to get my bachelor’s degree) is my family, my daughter. I want them to feel that I’ve accomplished something. I want to do it for them,” he said.
Committed to his goals, Zermeno gets out of work at 7 p.m. and begins working on his homework online around 9 p.m. for two to three hours. Balancing all his responsibilities is not easy, but the support he receives from his family makes all the difference.
“My wife is a key supporter,” he said, laughing. “She holds me accountable by constantly reminding me: ‘Did you read? You have to read.’”
“ASU Local was designed to empower students, like Karla and Esteban, who are working diligently in the pursuit of their dreams of a successful career and a fulfilling personal life,” said Martha Juarez, head of ASU Local. “Many of our students are the first in their family to go to college, often balancing this with jobs and other responsibilities. The pressure can be overwhelming and isolating.
“At the core of the program is a success coach who supports and meets each and every student where they are and ensures that they are accessing the resources they need to succeed. We focus on helping students build connections within and outside of ASU, develop soft skills for future success, and lay the foundation for the career path of their choice.”
ASU Local is the latest offering from Arizona State University’s nearly decade-long partnership with Arizona Western College. AWC graduates also have access to ASU@Yuma, one of four local transfer degree pathways offered at AWC, and ASU Online, a fully online learning offering. Through ASU Local, AWC students can enjoy a hybrid university experience that provides in-person coaching and college and career success experiences with online degree options. Students also remain embedded within the AWC community for a seamless transition.
Setting and meeting audacious goals
This collaboration is designed to help meet the goal of doubling the baccalaureate attainment rate in Yuma and La Paz counties by 2035 — a goal that AWC calls one of its “big, hairy, audacious goals” — and fuel the region’s economic growth. This collaboration also continues to advance ASU’s mission of expanding access to high quality education to students from all backgrounds and communities.
Data analyzed by ASU’s Helios Decision Center for Educational Excellence in 2018 shows that many Yuma and La Paz county high schools, which have a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches, sent students to college at rates that exceeded those at similar Arizona high schools.
“The data is evidence that students and their families want to pursue a college education,” said Maria Anguiano, executive vice president of ASU Learning Enterprise and the creative mind behind ASU Local. “As institutions committed to expanding access and boosting our communities’ vitality, ASU and AWC are working together to nurture and serve these students as they pursue their dreams.
“Eighty percent of our Yuma students are Latino, 70% are first-generation and 60% are Pell Grant-eligible. We have intentionally designed this experience to ensure that it is accessible while holding our students to high expectations of performance. It’s important to us that they are building connections and thriving while staying in their beloved community.”
Transferring made accessible
Zermeno is a first-generation college student. For his parents, going to college was a big deal.
“My father used to say, ‘If you don’t go to college, you have to work,’” he said. “First, I chose work and he took me to the fields. Later, I changed my mind and decided to pursue my degree.”
Like Vera, Zermeno learned about ASU Local through his AWC adviser. He was excited to know that the ASU Local Scholarship and other federal financial aid could fund his education.
All ASU Local–Yuma students who transfer from AWC receive the ASU Local Scholarship, which reduces the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree significantly. For Pell Grant-eligible students, the annual cost of attending ASU Local full time could be $500–$1,500, depending on the major.
The ASU Local–Yuma location is housed in the Student Success Center in the AWC–Yuma campus where the students meet once a week for study sessions, college and career success workshops, project consultancies and more. They also visit the space to have one-on-one, individualized coaching sessions with Liz Vasquez, who is personally working with this first cohort of ASU Local students.
“Liz is supportive, available and always checking on us. She worries about our stress levels and teaches us ways to find our balance and practice well-being,” Zermeno said. “I also appreciate having dedicated time to work on homework in between our in-person workshops on Mondays.”
Deepening roots to grow and thrive
For Vera and Zermeno, being rooted in Yuma means many things. Most importantly, it means staying close to family and retaining their current jobs or continuing to build connections in their community so that they can advance their careers.
“My parents and in-laws are here, and I want my daughter to continue having that bond with them,” Zermeno said.
After completing his bachelor’s, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in speech therapy and open his clinic in Yuma to help satisfy the high demand for male therapists in the region.
“My grandpa used to say, ‘Everything can be accomplished if you put your mind to it.'”
For Vera, being in Yuma and seeing the people working the fields reminds her of the sacrifices others have made.
“It’s a constant reminder that I have the opportunity to do something for myself and my community,” she said. “That keeps me going sometimes when I’m tired. It makes me happy to be home. If I ever take a wrong turn, I always know where I am.”
ASU Local–Yuma recently held its launch celebrations on Wednesday, March 9, at Arizona Western College’s Yuma campus. The program is accepting applications from AWC graduates to join the fall 2022 or spring 2023 cohorts. For more information, visit asulocal.asu.edu/yuma.
Written by Anahi Mendez/ASU Local
Top photo: ASU Local–Yuma Assistant Site Director Liz Vasquez stands in the center with two students from the inaugural cohort: Karla Vera (left) and Enery Cervantes Cortez (right) at the launch celebration for the ASU Local—Yuma location on March 9. All photos by Daniel Rodriguez/Arizona Western College
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