Overcoming the silo mentality with a multifaceted education

ASU grad blends STEM, classical liberal education and the arts to better serve underrepresented communities

May 23, 2022

Most individuals are interested in one area of study, try to master one skill, and – if they are lucky – strive to succeed in one career track. That is not the case with Ariana Afshari, an outstanding neurobiology researcher, a talented artist and a thoughtful thinker interested in philosophy, morality and ethics.

The spring 2022 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Life Sciences earned a biological sciences major and a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership from the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership — and interweaving science and the humanities was a planned decision. Portrait of ASU grad Ariana Afshari. Ariana Afshari is dedicated to breaking down barriers separating the scientific community, the humanities and the arts. Download Full Image

“I knew I would have an emphasis in STEM, and I looked for a complementary component that would make me a holistic learner in the future,” Afshari said. 

Afshari is a rare student.

“She is deeply interested in the natural sciences, but she is also interested in politics, the arts and the humanities,” said Professor of Practice Peter McNamara. “It was this latter group of interests that brought her to SCETLSchool of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.”

This summer, Afshari begins an impressive mission: to simultaneously do research in developmental neuroscience at Stanford Medical School and teach biology in the Bay Area through Teach for America at a school serving an underrepresented community, where 98% of students are Hispanic. After that, she will apply to medical school.

“My goal is to serve communities that look like me, that come from a background like me,” she said. 

“I grew up in a low-income Hispanic household. There is a lot that you can learn from serving those communities, but certain topics are difficult to teach. One thing is to learn about it; the other thing is to live it. And I believe that there are indescribable factors that equip me to serve these communities I come from. Hopefully, I can be in a community that resonates with my background growing up.”

Bridging science and humanities 

Afshari's plans to earn a multidisciplinary college education began in the spring of her first year at ASU, when she applied for the course Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons. The course, which is taught in Prescott, Arizona, solidified her interest in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as a complementary part of her career. 

“I was wary about a full immersion into Shakespeare, of reading the texts from beginning to end, acting them out, and not only to get the meaning of what the characters are saying but also grappling with what they are saying. But I walked in, and everyone was in the same boat and wanting to learn. We all walked away with something really valuable,” she said.

“I loved the experience. Learning in the pines, where you are vulnerable, where you get a raw experience of learning, is a lot different from learning in a traditional setting."

Ariana with her cohort of friends and professors during the Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons

Ariana Afshari (bottom row, third from right) in Prescott, Arizona, with the cohort of students in the course Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons.

Afshari then joined the cohort of students who traveled to New Delhi for the Global Intensive Experience: SCETL Leadership and Service in India, where they studied and discussed the history, culture and politics of India, and reflected on global leadership and citizenship.

But when the pandemic hit, it became evident that the scientific community and parts of the American civil society (and other societies around the world) were at odds, particularly on matters related to public health policies versus individual liberties. 

You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.

– Ariana Afshari

As the global crisis unfolded, Afshari noticed an urgent need for cross-disciplinary conversations between health professionals, policymakers, professionals working tirelessly on the frontlines, professors, etc. 

Ariana Afshari in the center with professor Susan Carrese in India

Ariana Afshari (center) with Clinical Assistant Professor Susan Carrese in New Delhi during the GIE course SCETL Leadership and Service in India.

“I realized that we must develop interdisciplinary understanding and support about how each of these disciplines interacts with one another. That’s when it came to light what I was looking for at SCETL. I was trying to find something at the cusp of philosophy that I could bring to science,” she said.

This pivoting starts with each individual, she said.

“I see the interaction between disciplines as not even complementary, but necessary. It makes you better all around. It’s great to be specialized, but it’s even more important to be aware and prudent about how your discipline affects others.”

Afshari's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership courses allowed her to exercise an important habit: questioning. The Socratic method utilized by School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership professors encourages students to participate in discussions and question what they are taught, which is something Afshari believes enables students to be more successful in their fields.

“I’m better in my STEM classes because of SCETL, but I’m also better in my SCETL classes because of my STEM major,” she said, adding that she had not “seen an education like this before. (In STEM classes), you’re never going to go to any of your classes and ask what this means. No one is going to ask why. In SCETL, that is the purpose."

SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU,” she said. “In the broader discourse of the nation, you see everyone trying to prove they are right and prove authority. At SCETL, instead, the faculty brings (the discussion) back to questions of ‘What is authority?’ ‘Where do individual liberties come from?’ ‘Who actually has a say in policymaking, and whose authority matters?’ The pandemic brought to life issues that SCETL can contribute to, and the school created several conversations about science and its role.”

Ariana Afshari with her group of friends and professors in India

Ariana Afshari (bottom row, second from right) in New Delhi with her cohort of ASU students and professors for the Leadership and Service in India course.

The school’s emphasis on civil discourse, political thought and civic education was complementary to Afshari's dedication to serving her community.

“SCETL equipped me to be open-minded to discourse and to face future challenges when talking about important science topics. I can contribute to those conversations in a more fruitful way than many people would without this perspective,” she said.

“Getting an education in STEM has been extremely valuable because I want to build a career in science; it’s what I love to learn. But, at times, it can be really transactional. There isn’t a lot of human connection and conversation,” she said. “SCETL has an effective, evidence-based approach to teaching humanities in classrooms with fewer than 30 students, and professors who are your mentors, who are dedicated to guiding you, and topics such as morality, ethics, etc. SCETL teaches you humanities. You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.”

SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU.
– Ariana Afshari

In this process, Afshari was grateful for the strong relationships she developed with her mentors at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

“I’ve had classes at STEM where the syllabi say, ‘Do not ask me for recommendation letters.’ It’s disheartening as a student because the integrity you show in class is great, but you don’t get to develop a relationship," she said. "On the other hand, at SCETL, every professor makes it clear to you that they are there to support you, to love you, to see you do your best, and I’ve had the honor of meeting so many wonderful professors at SCETL. I credit a lot of my success to them.”

Her scientific skills were in fact an addition to SCETL’s learning environment.

“Ariana’s ability to think deeply about both the scientific process and the elements of politics, religious faith and institutions, and social forces revealed to all of us her exceptional talent and rare combination of intellectual and aesthetic gifts,” said Assistant Professor Karen Taliaferro. “She is thoughtful, creative, responsible, articulate and curious, able to read widely and deeply and write beautifully.” 

Painting encapsulates cross-sectionality between leading disciplines 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Afshari threw herself into a new challenge. She painted a 60-by-40-inch mural for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership inspired by Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Ariana's painting displays icons of several disciplines, including Plato, Aristotle, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo.

The painting is on display at the school's library common room, on the sixth floor of Coor Hall on ASU's Tempe campus. The room is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Marcia Paterman Brookey

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership


Understanding, accepting people who stutter focus of film by 2 ASU students

May 24, 2022

George Ramos and Jesus Ledezma think stuttering is a misunderstood condition and that myths about it should be dispelled.

They agree that people who stutter are neither less intelligent nor less productive than others, and that in some ways, they are smarter and stronger than other people because they have to navigate through an impatient world that stigmatizes them. ASU grad George Ramos (left) wears his graduation regalia while standing next to current ASU student Jesus Ledezma. George Ramos (left), who graduated from ASU in May, and Jesus Ledezma, a rising senior double majoring in filmmaking and health care compliance and regulations, made a documentary film focusing on the experiences of people who stutter. Photo courtesy George Ramos and Jesus Ledezma Download Full Image

Ramos, who graduated from Arizona State University in May with a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science with honors from Barrett, The Honors College, and Ledezma, a rising senior honors student double majoring in filmmaking practices and health care compliance and regulations, worked together on an honors creative project focusing on people who stutter.

The project, called “A Conversation on Stuttering,” is a documentary film aimed at raising awareness about stuttering. Still not fully understood by modern research, stuttering (called stammering in the United Kingdom) is a diagnosis often accompanied by ridicule, shame and misconceptions.

According to The Stuttering Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping people who stutter, there are 70 million stutterers worldwide and about 3 million of them are in the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden and King George VI, father of Elizabeth II, the current queen of England, are two well-known stutterers.

Ramos and Ledezma, both from Mesa, Arizona, set out to interview researchers, clinicians and people who stutter to gain insight into the impact stuttering can have and to promote acceptance and understanding of stutterers.

Ledezma said he and Ramos spent nearly a year working on the project, doing in-depth research, finding and interviewing subjects, and filming and editing. People who appear in the film include an artist, a managing director at a technical school and a young Arizonan who stutters, as well as a speech language pathologist and a researcher.

The film captures conversations on a range of experiences from sometimes emotional interviews with people who stutter.

Ramos said that through this project, he and Ledezma hope to further open dialogue about the themes of identity and understanding differences and diverse perspectives that can make for a more accepting world.

Ramos, who plans to stay at ASU to pursue a master’s degree in communication disorders and ultimately work with clients who have speech fluency disorders, said that working on the film “taught me the importance of listening to people and really taking in who they are and how they feel and making time with them count.”

Ledezma said that as a filmmaker, “this was my first time dealing with a topic this sensitive, and I learned how to be more empathetic through filmmaking practices by incorporating editing techniques and flows that helped convey the genuine responses and messages the interviewees had for the documentary."

In the film, Jaclyn Boyes, managing director at Per Scholas in Phoenix, talked about her experiences as a person who stutters.

“The video did a wonderful job of balancing the real-life experiences of adult stutterers and the clinical perspective. The result is an educational film that also promotes empathy in viewers,” Boyes said. 

“We all share a fundamental human desire to be understood by others. The video does a beautiful job of sharing the stuttering experience. My hope is those who watch it will be better able to understand and connect with people in their lives who stutter,” she said.

Eric Sundt, an artist who stutters, from Apache Junction, Arizona, also appeared in the film. He said he wanted to help shed light on a condition many people are not familiar with and “to have people know what it’s like to be in my shoes and what I have to do to deal with their not understanding.”

Myra Schatzki, a clinical associate professor of speech and hearing science in ASU’s College of Health Solutions who advised Ramos and Ledezma on the project, said more information about what it’s like to live as a stutterer is needed to promote understanding and lessen the stigma placed on people who stutter, and “A Conversation on Stuttering” helps fill that need.

“Gaining perspective on the emotions and struggles behind stuttering directly from stutterers has value in how we, as a society, can be more supportive of our differences. From a therapeutic perspective, the project adds the emotional element to stuttering that we still need to understand and develop in how we can support our clients,” Schatzki said.

Schatzki said stutterers face lifelong challenges in a world that has expectations of fluent communication and that health insurance does not cover the cost of therapeutic treatment and other services for them because stuttering is seen as a developmental disorder.

“If our society continues to have expectations of fluent communication, then we need to support their treatment,” she said.

Jennifer Buckler, a speech pathologist and clinical assistant professor at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, who appeared in the film, said stuttering has been making its way into the public eye recently with films such as “My Beautiful Stutter” and people who stutter – like President Biden and singer Ed Sheeran – sharing their experiences publicly.

“We have a long way to go. Those who speak differently still experience bullying and are targets of jokes or dismissal of themselves as individuals because of their differences. By making the discussion of stuttering something that all feel free to engage with, it creates understanding and alliances,” she said.

“Stuttering is just a different way of speaking. It is not something a parent did or some calamity that the person experienced. It is not contagious and it is not something a person can just ‘think about’ or ‘breathe through’ to change. It is a part of who they are. I’d like the world to be more patient, compassionate and better listeners, not just with stuttering, but with getting to know and accepting others,” she said.

Ramos and Ledezma screened a 42-minute version of the film in April and received great interest from ASU faculty members who wanted to use it as a teaching tool. The film already has been shown to ASU speech and hearing science graduate students and members of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association at ASU, a professional organization for speech and hearing science students.

Ramos and Ledezma plan to re-edit the film to add more footage. They hope to present the film at the 2023 conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, enter it in festivals and offer it to educators in the field of speech and hearing science for classroom use and training.

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College