ASU IT event aims to empower communities: Those we serve and those we belong to

May 31, 2022

As society evolves, so do the technologies that serve us. Today, technology impacts the way that we think, learn, grow and communicate — and, in doing so, has transformed our sense of community. Take, for example, the role that technology has played during the pandemic. Online learning and remote working are just two major areas that have affected Arizona State University and the way that we interact with one another.

And as technology continues to transform our interactions, we must prioritize the human impact for the individual and the community.  Woman standing on a stage speaking to a crowd of people seated at tables. UTO's Chief Culture Officer Christine Whitney Sanchez kicks off Empower with a message about the importance of community. Photo by Mike Sanchez/UTO Download Full Image

That was the premise for this year’s Empower, ASU’s IT professional community event, which focused on “empowering the communities we serve.” Tied directly to ASU’s design aspiration of transforming society, this means that ASU works to catalyze social change by being connected to social needs.

“We are empowered by a shared purpose – having a real sense of how we want to work together and how we want to treat each other,” UTO Chief Culture Officer Christine Whitney Sanchez said during her opening remarks. 

Over the course of the week, ASU teams went into the community to volunteer with local organizations. Then, over 500 team members convened on Wednesday, May 18, to discuss, connect ideas and reflect on key themes related to the intersection of technology, human impact and community.

Starting local, thinking global

Throughout the full week of Empower, ASU IT community members volunteered with organizations that have missions to better the lives of Arizonans. Areas of support were food donations, technology access for seniors and more. 

One such project included hosting workshops with senior residents. There, ASU IT professionals partnered with local seniors to create online grocery shopping accounts. Together, they set up an account and got to shopping using the $10 gift certificate provided to each resident. Seniors also got to ask tech questions about their devices.

“It was powerful to see our teams use their skills in the local community, like working with senior residents to better navigate their devices for real-world tasks," said Breanna Smith, event coordinator for Empower. "In doing so, our impact reaches beyond UTO, beyond ASU and into the communities we live and serve."

In addition to local volunteer opportunities, ASU’s IT community is advancing a series of initiatives that serve the broader Arizona community.  

During Empower, ASU Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick took the stage to share examples of this work in action, starting with the Digital Equity Initiative. In partnership with Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions' Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative, ASU’s IT community is helping to bring high-speed, reliable internet access to local families in Phoenix through the use of millimeter wave technology. 

Continuing to advance success for the entire ASU community

Gonick also shared projects like the university’s use of chatbots to enhance students’ interactions when, for instance, seeking financial aid information. He announced the T4 Leadership Academy, which cultivates IT leaders who are globally engaged and locally attuned to the role of technology for social benefit and invested in designing the intergenerational workforce of the future.

Then a panel of six ASU, industry and local leaders took the stage to expand upon the theme of community, diving into their shared and unique experiences across the workforce. 

Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities at ASU, challenged participants to disrupt the notion of “the community” and realize that there are many communities around the world in which we can feel included and part of. He explained that he came to that realization when he saw places where he was included, but felt excluded or invisible.

“So, community is when I felt and knew that I was connected and being heard and being seen,” said Lester.

With a greater and more diverse definition of community shared by the panelists, teams were primed to tackle eight IT areas to transform society. Spanning digital trust, communications, data architecture and learning technologies, the topics focused on:

  • Fostering a cohesive environment and way of working that enables understanding, belonging and attracting new talent
  • Unsiloing and leveraging data to inform journeys for all learners, faculty, researchers and staff.
  • Advancing digital equity to ensure all learners can connect with one another and ASU resources.
  • Leading with privacy and security by design, while supporting agency and reducing risk.
  • Financial planning that identifies enterprise-level spending, creates allocations for enterprise initiatives and empowers unit-level decision-making.
  • Supporting all learners, faculty, researchers and staff with digital tools while advancing the next learning realms.
  • Accelerating cloud computing and other practices to bolster ASU’s research abilities and standing.
  • Optimizing how ASU designs, delivers and supports technical services across all learners, faculty, researchers and staff.

Panelist and ASU Chief Research Information Officer Sean Dudley contextualized the development of helpful technology within these spheres at the university.

“For those of us who are proficient in technology, we can lose sight of some of the basics, which can truly be transformative for people,” Dudley said, adding that innovation must be human-centered and not just for the sake of technical improvements.

For example, as Debbie Esparza, chief executive officer of YMCA Metropolitan Phoenix, put it in regards to YWCA’s “Meals on Wheels” program, “there was an assumption seniors couldn’t access technology.” But that assumption was wrong, and new technology interfaces have been implemented as a result.

Coming together to uplift the ASU IT community

When it comes to creating a sense of community for ASU’s IT professionals, it’s about creating an environment where all feel empowered.

“We are intentional about the way that we designed the (ASU IT) community, the way we actionalize and operationalize the community, and find ways to sustain the community,” Gonick said. 

The Empower event turns this notion into action for the ASU IT community. 

Teams spent the second half of the day connecting with colleagues and developing new ideas around the eight focus areas during World Cafe-style discussions. The World Cafe Method pulls from integrated design principles that make discussion simple and effective for large group conversations. 

“It was an excellent opportunity to engage with so many amazing colleagues across our community,” said Eddie Garcia, director of law information technology for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. “I truly enjoyed this humanizing and thought-provoking event.”

Serving and belonging to communities

For the past five years, the University Technology Office has hosted the annual event to give Sun Devils time to foster a stronger sense of community amongst the university’s IT network. This fifth Empower emphasized that connection, as more than 500 Sun Devils joined together last week at the Student Pavilion on Tempe campus. 

When asked what community means to them, ASU’s IT professionals used words like belonging, equality, respect, happiness, connection and kindness. By exploring IT themes through the lens of human impact, teams were able to build connections and more closely collaborate to better serve the ASU community and beyond.


Special thanks to the leadership panels: 

  • Rudy Bellavia, managing director and chief of staff, Office of Business and Finance, ASU.
  • Diana Bowman, professor, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, ASU.
  • Angela Daniels, senior program manager, Slack for Good.
  • Sean Dudley, chief research information officer, ASU.
  • Debbie Esparza, chief executive officer, YMCA Metropolitan Phoenix.
  • Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities, ASU.

And to community partners:

  • Feeding America. 
  • NourishPHX.
  • St. Mary’s Food Bank.
  • Tempe Community Action Agency.
  • United Sound.
Stephanie King

Content Strategist, University Technology Office

Students reflect on final projects from Buddhism course

May 31, 2022

James Edmonds, an Arizona State University alumnus who earned his PhD in religious studies in 2021, taught a course as a faculty associate on Buddhism this spring for the first time and opened the final project up to artistic interpretations. 

The course was originally designed by Associate Professor of religious studies Huaiyu Chen and provides an overview of the historical, sociocultural and textual life of Buddhism. The topics include the life of the historical Buddha, the development and movement of Buddhism into East Asia and the way in which Western colonialism has often used, appropriated and created Buddhism as a religion that fits into the category of religion as a colonial invention. Photo of a Buddha statue alone on leaves in a wooded area. Photo courtesy of Pexels Download Full Image

For the final project of the course, Edmunds assigned students to either write an essay or develop an artistic way to demonstrate what they learned during the semester. Many of his students, however, were drawing their understanding of Buddhism from popular American culture, and this final project was his attempt to nourish the students’ individual desires to study Buddhism while countering what they thought was true about things such as karma, dhamma — which is loosely translated to mean natural law or moral order — and meditation.

“In my experience, students have felt even more uncertain than before,” said Edmunds. “I began the project with ‘life is hard,’ because for most people, life has been very difficult. I wanted to help students understand or reorient themselves to the history and lived reality of Buddhism while doing things that were personally interesting or fulfilling to them.”

Their final projects exceeded his expectations, with students creating paintings, documentary-style film productions, lesson plans and papers that were five to 10 pages over the required amount.

“This allows them to learn while also developing skills that are more in line with what they want to do with their education,” said Edmunds. “I have found that flexibility in the final project allows students the freedom that they want to be themselves, and students usually do more work and more learning when given the opportunity to create something that makes sense to them.”

A few of the students shared their reason for signing up for the class, their experience with the final project and what they learned throughout the course.

Images of happiness

Megan Richard is an undergraduate student earning her bachelor’s in integrative health from the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. She registered for the course because of her genuine interest in religious studies and wanted to evaluate what other cultures define as the “ultimate truth.”

“Personally, I have several friends who began their bodhisattvaSomeone who has achieved enlightenment but puts off entering nirvana in order to help others. journey years ago who have experienced remarkable changes in their lives, so I wanted to acquire more knowledge about Buddhism,” said Richard.

Her final project focused on comparing different interpretations of how happiness is defined in various cultures. She researched Eastern and Western ideologies and assessed their differences and what they shared in common.

“This was a challenging project, as it dealt with such an ambiguous topic with a multiplicity of interpretations,” said Richard.

She decided to conduct interviews with a variety of people and asked them each to draw a quick sketch of what they perceived as happiness. The people involved were a middle-aged Mormon man, an elderly Baptist woman, a 30-year-old agnostic, an 8-year-old girl, a bodhisattva of 10 years and a 2-year-old boy. 

After completing their sketches, Richard asked them to describe what their images meant to them and how they believed happiness could be achieved. See their answers in the gallery below.

Comparing the idea of ‘self’

Aidan Fox is an undergraduate earning his bachelor’s degree in film (film and media studies) from the Department of English. In the summer of 2020, he converted to Zen Buddhism and enrolled in the course to pursue an academic approach to understanding Buddhism and Buddhist historical development.

“I converted to Zen Buddhism as a means of changing my worldview and addressing my developing mental health conditions as a result of the pandemic,” said Fox. “This class filled much-needed elective credits while also covering subject matter near and dear to my heart.”

He wrote an essay for his final project on the commonalities between Buddhism and Marxism, specifically their understanding of human suffering. His essay focused on the Marxist idea of rejecting individualism and the importance of learning how humans are all connected and the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the rejection of there being a “true self.”

“I begin to philosophically analyze what conclusions these respective schools of thought come to as a result of their observations regarding ‘self’ and ‘individuality,’” said Fox. “I truly believe that everyone, regardless of their faith, should research Buddhism. I think Buddhism has core principles that can be applied to virtually anyone's lifestyle without having to radically convert to it.”

The Noble Truths and Alcoholics Anonymous

Nicholas Tkachyk is earning his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. He enrolled in the class in part because he was nervous to jump back into his college education after taking some time away and assumed the class would be easier than enrolling in math or psychology. The other part of his enrollment came from an enthusiasm for spirituality and learning how different groups of people seek God and themselves.

“The title of my final project was, ‘Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous: Parallels to Awakening,’” said Tkachyk. “The paper explored various similarities between the path of a Buddhist and the path of a recovering alcoholic.”

After his own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he realized the methods and principles involved in the program may have originated from the Buddhist way of life. 

Photo of Nicholas Tkachyk playing the drums

Nicholas Tkachyk plays the drums with his band, Spafford. Photo courtesy Paul Citone

“Exploring the topic of similar paths to awakening was challenging in that it seemed like everything was the same,” said Tkachyk. “Therefore, I had to pick and choose which specific points to highlight in my paper.” 

He chose to compare three ideas of AA and Buddhism. The first parallel he drew was between Buddhism's First Noble Truth, known as the truth of suffering, and AA's first step, admitting powerlessness over alcohol. 

The second comparison looked at the Buddhist Eightfold Path, which is the path of adopting the right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, against AA's Twelve Steps, the full program used by AA.

His final parallel was between the bodhisattva, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings, compared to the AA's Twelfth Step, which is to carry the message to others.

“This is an interesting topic to me, and in the future I would like to expand on parallels between all spiritual and religious paths,” said Tkachyk. “I would highly recommend anyone interested in religion, spirituality, history, science, God, humans, the universe, etc., to experience this course with an open mind and an open heart. It felt fun, liberating and exciting to take this course.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies