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Transforming distraction into action

May 6, 2022

Biochemistry major also eyeing steps toward conflict resolution in Tigray

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Distracted learning can be a problem for some college students — or a problem statement for Sabrina Mehari’s thesis study.

An ocean away from a conflict weighing heavy on her mind, Mehari, a Barrett, The Honors College student at ASU, took a detour from her studies in science and biochemistry to transform her distraction into an academic call to action for the international community to address the turmoil in Tigray. Ongoing since November 2020, the conflict in the northern region of Ethiopia is personal and real to Mehari, who spent three of her formative years living in a Tigrayan refugee camp before relocating to Tucson with her parents and younger siblings just over a decade ago.

As a non-native English speaker unfamiliar with the texts of international law and political science, the Eritrean-born Mehari admits she wasn’t “super confident” she could pull off a thesis on the topic, but after reaching out to ASU scholars Victor Peskin and Daniel Rothenberg — both instructors in the School of Politics and Global Studies — she did just that. 

“Because she was not trained in international affairs, or political science or law, she wanted to learn and pursue several different paths of inquiry,” said Peskin, recalling his first meetings with Mehari in the summer of 2021. “She was interested in the crime of genocide, gender violence and how the Ethiopian government uses warfare and disinformation to perpetuate its war. Usually, if you are a political science major or global studies major, you're already taking these classes, so you're much more familiar. Sabrina took to the study in such an impressive way in a short period of time, which speaks to her devotion to her country and efforts to understand this terrible war and address it.”

Mehari said she chose to focus on Tigray for her thesis because the atrocities of the civil war between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces just isn’t getting the media coverage it deserves. More than half a million people have died since the conflict began —  Mehari’s uncle, a journalist who was covering the war, and several other relatives among them. With grim news trickling out of Ethiopia infrequently due to government restrictions on communication, Mehari said she found it difficult to focus on her biochemistry studies and lab work at ASU and decided to channel her emotional energy into her thesis.

Rothenberg said he was struck by how Mehari dealt with such a personal and emotional subject in a measured fashion. “She hadn’t been particularly engaged in these issues, and through this process, she started to reflect on her heritage and learned about a lot of things that are going on that are really terrible. With no background in this kind of work, she wrote a far better thesis, in my opinion, on political science and human rights issues than many of the students who studied this.”

Majoring in biochemistry, minoring in women and gender studies, and tackling a whole new area of study in international politics for her undergraduate dissertation, Mehari somehow found time to attend a rally in support of Tigray in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2021, work in a research lab and support other students as a teaching assistant and member of the Ethiopian & Eritrean Student Association, the RISE Summer Leadership Institute and REACT — the Refugee Education and Clinic Team that works to address the health care disparities of refugee communities in the Phoenix area.

Passionately looking forward to beginning a career in medicine, Mehari has been shadowing a Phoenix-area doctor who has become a mentor, while preparing for her Medical College Admission Test. As for a possible future in politics or law after her thesis on Tigray, Mehari says she is not ruling that out either, and is exploring combined medical doctor-juris doctor programs to align her interests in medicine and law. Recalling her own mother giving birth in the refugee camp her family lived in in Tigray, Mehari says she would eventually like to go back to the region — and the same refugee camp — to help other women who may be in a similar situation.

Mehari is the first in her family to graduate from university. She is graduating summa cum laude from ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College on May 9.

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

Answer: I knew I wanted to pursue medicine coming into college and so I came in with a biomedical sciences major, but upon taking some chemistry classes, I realized that I loved learning about cellular processes and mechanisms, so I changed my major to biochemistry. My research lab where I study infectious diseases also allowed me to (apply what I was learning in my classes to real life), which further confirmed my love and appreciation for biochemistry.

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

A: I also minored in women and gender studies, and with every class I took, I was always shocked by how little women’s rights issues/policies have progressed over the years. We know so much more about the male body/cells than we do about women’s bodies and cells, and there is not a lot of active research to decrease this knowledge gap. I want to pursue women’s health and medicine to better understand the issues women all around the world face and be part of the process of expanding the research/field.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Living in Tucson at the time I chose ASU, I had a 2-year-old brother at the time and three other younger siblings, so I knew I wanted to stay in state and be near them. But I also wanted to be away from home to become more independent, so ASU was a great solution. I also really liked the structure and opportunities Barrett, The Honors College had to offer. Through the honor’s contract, I got to explore separate projects and make connections with professors.

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

A: The most important lesson I learned has to be the importance of following my passion, and I learned this from my first semester chemistry professor Ron Briggs. I didn’t have the best experience with chemistry in high school, but when I took his class, I saw how much he loved teaching and how well he taught it. This inspired me to change my major and pursue my passion. If I do what I love, I’ll ultimately be great at it because I’ll always be motivated to improve.

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

A: To make connections, network and don’t be scared to approach professors. I used to be super intimidated to approach professors or those ahead of me career-wise, but everyone I reached out to was eager to help and talk to me. All the amazing opportunities I have had are largely due to the connections I've made.

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

A: I am really devastated by the lack of international coverage and help Tigray has gotten in the past year-and-a-half. Tigrayans are at risk of perishing due to starvation and many other humanitarian crises, so I would allocate that money to feeding the millions starving in and around Tigray.

Top photo: Charlie Leight/ASU News

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

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Watts IDEA Office marks 1st year with programs that encourage inclusion, anti-racism

IDEA Scholars, grant-funded 'good work' among first initiatives


May 6, 2022

Last year, Chandra Crudup set out to use her new position as a Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions associate dean to put what she called “real feet” to ASU’s Charter to uphold inclusion over exclusion, meeting that goal by doing “we work, not me work.”

Crudup, who is also a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work, reflects on the first year of the Inclusive Design for Equity and Access (IDEA) Office, which she oversees, and has identified several initiatives well underway with a record of significant accomplishment. Visitors at booths at Celebrating Black Brilliance event, Watts College, IDEA Office, April 2022 Dozens visited booths in the lobby of the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus' University Center in April during the three-day Celebrating Black Brilliance event, presented by the inclusive Design for Equity and Access (IDEA) Office at the Watts College for Public Service and Community Service. The IDEA Office recently marked its first anniversary. Photo by Chandra Crudup/ASU Download Full Image

Among examples of that “we work,” she said, are:

  • Establishing the IDEA Scholars program.
  • Issuing IDEA mini-grants to financially support the work to achieve inclusivity at the college.

IDEA Scholars work on projects, plan events

The IDEA Scholars and Junior Scholars framework provides students with the opportunity to develop leadership skills and promote inclusivity by assisting with college programming and other projects.

The IDEA Scholars — Cynthia Mackey, Tasha Holmes and Trey Jenkins — are PhD students, each working on different projects, ranging from exploring ways the Watts community can learn from the experiences of Black students to reviewing the college curriculum for improvement opportunities

For example, Jenkins’ project involves creating an evaluation process.

“I began my project guiding the team of scholars — with support from Dr. Crudup — in a conversation that led to the co-creation of the IDEA mission, definitions of our key concepts and the foundation that the office will use to measure success,” Jenkins said. “Key to the mission of the IDEA Office is collaborative, active partnerships in creating a Watts College that is inclusive and anti-racist. Our next steps are to work with the college's diversity committee and other stakeholders to finalize language and measures of success.”

Celebrating Black Brilliance, University Center, IDEA Office, Watts College, April 2022

IDEA Senior Scholar Cynthia Mackey, a Watts College PhD student, speaks to attendees on April 14 during the Celebrating Black Brilliance Event at the University Center on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Mark Scarp/ASU

Two Junior Scholars — Jeri Perkins and Qihao Zhan — are pursuing master’s degrees. They are implementing all of the college’s programming celebrating various heritage months, Crudup said. Heritage months honor and recognize underrepresented groups.

Perkins and Zhan are responsible for coordinating a directory of resources for the Watts Day of Learning, during which members of the college are encouraged to take time to read, watch a movie, participate in an organized activity or volunteer in the community to learn more about the group that is the focus of the heritage month. They also produce the AZWattsInfluencers’ Heritage Month "Mosaic" podcast series on Podbean.com, and generate social media content to promote both the Day of Learning and the podcast. 

Perkins said she wants to use the platform to help change the narrative of how the Black, Indigenous and other people of color communities are portrayed in the curriculum, curriculum delivery and culture within Watts College and the ASU community.

“The goal of heritage month programming is to represent ‘culture as a strength and not a deficit’ by highlighting the many contributions of those who have positively influenced us,” Perkins said. “By amplifying the voices of heritage month influencers on our podcast series, we create a strengths-based narrative that empowers diverse communities to celebrate their cultural identity.”

Zhan said she sees the podcast series as providing opportunities for more people to know about the impactful work the influencers are doing or have done, as well as to empower diverse communities to move forward.

“I have learned so much by talking and working with our AZWattsInfluencers, Dr. Crudup and my amazing colleagues on the team,” Zhan said.

Grants fund projects throughout the college

In the past year, the IDEA Office issued nine mini-grants, up to $2,000 each, to provide modest funding to members, groups and projects that are working to build a more inclusive, equitable and accessible Watts community, such as the Diverse Perspectives on Justice 2022 series of speakers.

The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Graduate Student Committee began the series in 2020 with two primary aims: to uplift and center the voices of diverse scholars and research agendas that challenge existing assumptions on justice, and to create more opportunities for ASU students to hear from scholars whose experiences, ideas and research provide insights on criminological problems that extend past what is offered within traditional curriculum, said Skyler Morgan, a doctoral student and graduate research assistant in the school.

The mini-grant is funding three speakers in spring 2022.The idea for the mini-grants stemmed from findings that many people in the college were already doing good equity and inclusion work that doesn’t always get funded.

Celebrating Black Brilliance, University Center, IDEA Office, Watts College, April 2022

A visitor looks over information at a booth at the Watts College IDEA Office

Recipients throughout the college included:

  • The ASU Watts College Women Faculty of Color Initiative, which provides a supportive community specifically for faculty who identify as women of color through luncheons, professional development workshops and other events, with the goal that this historically underrepresented group will thrive at ASU and in academia, according to Lily Hsueh, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs.
  • A new borderlands course offered this spring by the School of Social Work at ASU’s Tucson campus. The course, co-led by Assistant Professor Matt Ignacio and Professor Michael Shafer “is designed to expose students to the range of roles and responsibilities social workers perform in an ethical, evidence-informed and socially just manner,” Ignacio said. Taught in ASU Sync, it also involves three in-person Saturday field immersion experiences in Tucson, Nogales and Sells, Arizona. The course, SWU457/SWG557 Immigration and Border Issues, is planned to be offered again in spring 2023. It is designed to develop, strengthen and sustain partnerships between The School of Social Work's Tucson campus and the agencies and systems serving migrants and refugees in southern Arizona, Nogales and the Sonoran borderlands region.
  • Creation of the Youth Education Program, a brand new tutoring program for youth experiencing juvenile detention, said School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Adam Fine. Its first cohort of ASU student tutors, which includes Nia Black, Malia Wilson, Jonathan Cruz and Naya Craig, began in February 2022. 
  • Updates to the School of Social Work's PhD program manual, based on doctoral student input, led by Associate Professor David Androff, the school’s associate director for doctoral education. “Our goal is to turn the current, outdated PhD student manual into a useful tool that promotes accessibility, inclusion and allows all students to be able to see themselves in the program,” he said.
  • Marisol Diaz, senior research analyst at the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center and the Collective for Research Equity and Diversity (CRED), a Watts College ad hoc group, to host an April talk on decolonizing research by Jameson D. Lopez of the University of Arizona. The funding will also support encouraging college-wide learning and conversation about equitable and inclusive research methodologies, as well as to sustain learning and dialogue through ongoing and future CRED activities. CRED formed to advance learning and build a network of scholars, educators, students and community members committed to anti-racist and decolonizing research.
  • School of Social Work Lecturer Brett Petersen and the Yuma Student Mentor program, to support the launch of a formal mentoring program pairing current School of Soical Work Yuma students with recent graduates and community members.
  • School of Social Work Assistant Professor Stephanie Lechuga-Peña and Latin@s Unid@s, the school's Latino student mentorship program composed of undergraduate and graduate students who support Latino students in academic and professional pursuits, to support the continued activities and efforts of the group to help students feel connected during their time at ASU, while also engaging in their community. They are planning events on the Downtown Phoenix campus and Yuma location, as well as ways to include other campuses and online students.
  • School of Public Affairs Visiting Professor Colleen Wessel-McCoy and the Welfare Rights Collaborative Research Project, to support an April in-person research talk, “Welfare Rights Activism as Grassroots Moral Leadership,” and a course guest lecture by Carolyn Baker. The grant provides an opportunity for ASU faculty, staff and students and the larger community to learn from both the research partnership and the important history of marginalized and oppressed women of color.
Celebrating Black Brilliance, University Center, IDEA Office, Watts College, April 2022

An artist works on a drawing during the Watts College IDEA Office

Watts College Dean Cynthia Lietz praised Crudup for the impact she is making as she leads the college’s efforts to create an inclusive work and learning environment.

“Associate Dean Crudup’s knowledge, energy and ability to bring people together is creating space for us to have important conversations about what it means to be an anti-racist college,” Lietz said. “We are not there yet, but with Chandra’s leadership and the integration of this commitment across every aspect of the college, we are making huge strides in realizing this goal.”

The IDEA Office is now in its second year, with more projects to come. 

“We’re going to keep the momentum going in our community with dialogue, continuing to attune the work we’re doing to be more anti-racist and anti-oppressive,” Crudup said.

She said it’s been gratifying to watch the growth that has occurred and she’s eager to continue building on the efforts that were already underway when she began her position a little more than a year ago.

“This work is not new to the college. The Watts Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and other committees across the college, as well as a number of faculty and staff who have been committed to this work, have forged the way and requested a commitment, like the IDEA Office, from the college,” she said. “Building on this foundation of work, it is encouraging to see the progress we have made in just one year of a dedicated IDEA Office. This work is not ‘me’ work, it is ‘we’ work!”

Mark J. Scarp

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

602-496-0001