New legislator says relationship-building is key to understanding diverse views, serving entire community

ASU grad follows family legacy of public service, shelves plans to go to law school to win Arizona House seat

January 5, 2023

Lorena Austin decided to take a break from her plans to study law. For the next two years, she’ll be making laws instead.

The 2020 Arizona State University graduate in Chicano/a and Latino/a studies will take the oath of office Monday as a new member of the Arizona House of Representatives. In November, voters in District 9, composed of west Mesa and a few precincts from Tempe, elected Austin to represent the part of the East Valley where she grew up and where her family has lived since the time of the Civil War. ASU alum Lorena Austin is pictured smiling in an outdoor setting. ASU graduate Lorena Austin is a member of the 2023–24 Arizona House of Representatives. She will be sworn in Jan. 9. Photo courtesy Lorena Austin Download Full Image

“I actually had no intention of running for office this year, as I was actively applying for law school,” said Austin, 34, a Democrat. “However, when redistricting was finalized in Arizona due to the 2020 U.S. census results, a brand new legislative district was created in my neighborhood where my family has resided for over 100 years.”

Austin’s family has a history of community involvement. Her father is a civil rights attorney; her mother is a social worker and teacher; and her late grandparents were store owners who sat on several community boards.

After Austin spoke with several members of her community, she said it became clear to her that some candidates were mulling relocating to the district to escape crowded primary fields where they lived.

“I didn’t think that was right,” she said. “I believed that someone who was from our community — someone who lives, works and understands their community — should be advocating for our community. So I pulled my law school applications and decided to run for office.”

Austin was the top vote-getter in the race for two House seats in her district, receiving 30,980 votes.

While in the House, she will be unable to continue her job as student government advisor at Mesa Community College (MCC), where at one time she was student body president, because lawmakers are not allowed to have state employment outside of drawing their legislative pay. Having two jobs for a change will be interesting, she said, because last year she held three jobs to make ends meet. “As a child, I grew up living in Section 8 housing,” she said, recalling the past. “It saved my life.”

Austin’s degree program in the School of Transborder Studies, housed within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, included a specialization in U.S. and Mexico regional administration policy and economy, and certification in cross-sector leadership. She also trained at the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Read on to learn more about Austin’s educational, political and public service journey.

Question: What was a typical day of campaigning like?

Answer: I knocked on doors every day. There were speaking events, I studied issues and policy, made connections. People would ask me what I did yesterday and I couldn’t remember. ... I never knew that your brain could have the capacity for so much, because it is the most multitasking and demanding thing you could ask for. ... I enjoyed it. People tried to prepare me, but it’s something you can’t understand what it’s like until you do it.

Q: What kinds of opinions did you encounter when in neighborhoods?

A: Definitely there were people who didn’t want to talk. But the majority of them were really receptive. Across the spectrum, people said they were tired of divisive politics and rhetoric. I work in higher education, so it made it easier to make things relatable to people. When they asked how long I lived in Mesa — I couldn’t believe how many people went to MCC when I said I went there — it was easy for me to connect with people and start a relationship. That way, it’s easy to start discussing issues in a respectful manner.

With some people, we didn’t agree and we left it at that, but I was running to represent everybody. I grew up here; I know how diverse it is, the religious views, the economic status. I want to build bridges between legislators and community members so they know what resources are available to them, to make sure they don’t have misinformation.

Q: How did your time at ASU, and particularly the Pastor Center, prepare you for a career in public service?

A: ASU was an incredibly important stepping stone in my educational journey. After transferring from Mesa Community College, I was afforded unique opportunities, which really allowed me to diversify my leadership skills. My time with the Pastor Center exemplified a bipartisan, fact-based research style approach to civic engagement, which proved to be extremely valuable in my campaign.The staff (shout-out to Alberto Olivas!) is incredible, and overall, the program is a powerful legacy honoring the late Congressman Ed Pastor, who was well known for his community-centered approach in the legislature.

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

A: I actually didn’t know what my major at ASU was going to be until a week before school started. I initially was going to major in sociology, but my advisor at Mesa Community College told me about the School of Transborder Studies (STS); I had never heard of it. After speaking with the advisor at STS, Patricia Corona, I decided to change my major, and it was the best decision I ever made. The required classes covered immigration policy, history of the Southwest, urban development, culture, research projects, pop culture, folklore and so many other intersectional topics. I had never been in an educational setting where I could relate to my peers and world-class professors on a personal and cultural level. It was also the first time I never had to correct the pronunciation of my name in all of my classes. Truly, it was a life-changing experience.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was accepted to the Next Generation Service Corps (NGSC) leadership program at ASU, which allowed me to obtain a certificate in cross-sector leadership. NGSC was equally pivotal in my success at ASU. I was able to work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors while taking courses that centered on creating character-driven leaders who could solve complex problems through cross-sector collaboration. 

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?

A: All of them. I actually keep in really close contact with staff and professors from the School of Transborder Studies, and also the program staff from Next Generation Service Corps. However, I will say that representation matters. I was able to see that firsthand in my degree program in transborder studies. Seeing professors that looked like me, who could understand my culture and community, was such a confidence game changer. Something else I will never forget is how my professors handled our courses during the pandemic. I was the first graduating class during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. The grace and patience they showed is something I remember often.

Q: Running for public office is difficult and filled with plenty of criticism from political opponents. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those considering becoming a candidate?

A: This is a great question. If I had any apprehensions about being a candidate because I didn’t feel like I had enough experience or I didn’t have the right amount of education, I don’t any more. I am a firm believer in changing what we believe a politician should look like. You don’t need to have a degree from an Ivy League school, or be an attorney. You do need to be invested in your community so you can understand the needs of your constituents. Being an active figure in your community and building genuine relationships is what will separate you from other candidates.

Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A: That I dropped out of college five times after high school because I didn’t think I was smart enough to pass math. I was never good at it. I completed my bachelor’s degree 14 years later. I learned that grades do not define your intelligence! 

Mark J. Scarp

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


Master of Healthcare Innovation program set ASU staffer up for critical role during pandemic

January 5, 2023

As chief of staff for Arizona State University's public enterprise, Kerri Robinson leads and directs a wide range of strategic activities, initiatives and executive duties that advance the university's role for public good while supporting the ASU Charter as one of the most inclusive, high-performing and innovative universities in the world.

It's a deeply fulfulling role that she says she wouldn't have had the confidence to pursue without first having obtained her degree in health care innovation from ASU's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Portrait of ASU alum Kerri Robinson smiling directly at the camera. Kerri Robinson pulled from her experience in the Master of Healthcare Innovation program in order to create and lead ASU's COVID-19 off-site testing program. Photo courtesy the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Download Full Image

The skills and knowledge she gained through Edson College's Master of Healthcare Innovation (MHI) program were also immensely useful when, in March 2020, COVID-19 began to rapidly spread across the United States and Robinson was appointed to be the director of ASU’s COVID-19 partner relations, logistics and off-site testing. Responding to a global pandemic was uncharted territory for just about everybody; and as one might imagine, those early days on the job were especially challenging and stressful.

There were a myriad of unknown factors involved when I was appointed to design, develop and launch dozens of COVID drive-thru test sites — with crucial logistics, building a scalable operational infrastructure model to follow and writing SOPs for a novel virus, which no one had ever dealt with before,” Robinson said.

We also held a briefing after each event to understand what we could have done better; this learning is critical, and the knowledge I gained during my MHI program was exceptionally useful."

Within a year of taking on the role, Robinson and her team opened hundreds of sites, setting a record for overseeing 644 locations across the state for testing and vaccination.

“One of the most important leadership decisions I made was to personally serve on sites as much as possible — setting up and working with teams, clinicians, technologists, security, etc. on multiple sites in scrubs and full PPE for many months,” Robinson said.

Thanks to her terrific efforts as the director of ASU's COVID-19 off-site testing strategy, along with her former role as senior director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute, Robinson was voted one of the most admired leaders in 2021 by the Phoenix Business Journal.

Robinson said that she was honored to receive the title and that it “reminded me that my efforts (and that of the many teams involved) were valued and helped ASU, our community and the state of Arizona during a time of need.”

Below, Robinson reminisces on her time in Edson College’s MHI program and shares some of the valuable knowledge she learned that helps in her current position.

Question: How did your degree program help you in achieving and maintaining the position you have now?

Answer: My degree in health care innovation from ASU allowed me to gain relevant and timely knowledge, which was immediately applicable, which ultimately gave me the confidence and ability to apply for and receive a promotion to a larger leadership position within my organization.   

Q: What is a favorite memory from your time in your program?

A: I greatly enjoyed working with fabulous instructors and a wonderful cohort of fellow students.  

Q: What advice would you give students currently enrolled in the program?

A:  Keep plugging away — the principles of innovation can be applied to technology, health care, leadership, operations, human resources and so much more! The knowledge you gain now will continue to benefit you in the future.  

Q: What were some unique challenges, if any, you had to overcome while pursuing this degree?

A: At times, it was challenging to work full time and attend school — given family, church and other time commitments — but it was very worthwhile. 

Q: What is one thing you learned from your degree program that has helped you out in your current position?

A: Fail fast. Learn. Grow. Iterate.

Written by Max Baker