Even with 3 majors, ASU grad still found time for political engagement

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Armando Montero is graduating with three degrees in political science, economics and mathematics with a focus in statistics. He is a student in Barrett, The Honors College  as well as a 2022 Harry S. Truman Scholar representing Arizona. Throughout his undergraduate experience, he found multiple ways to get involved in political and community engagement. A Headshot of Armando montero Among his many activities and accomplishments, Armando Montero was elected as the youngest ever member of the Tempe Union High School district governing board in 2020. Download Full Image

In his first two years alone, he was involved in Undergraduate Student Government, the Refugee Education and Clinic Team (REACT), the Arizona Students Association ASU Chapter and ASU Young Democrats. He also took part in the SPGS Junior Fellows program with James Strickland and studied lobbying at the state and local level after taking POS 216 (State and Local Government), as well as an internship that entailed a collaboration between ASU and the Grand Canyon Institute to research the economic variables and policy solutions to the rise in discouraged workers in Arizona.

At the Arizona Students Association, Montero worked as a regional director, helping lead voter registration and youth engagement on ASU's campus. He was elected as the youngest ever member of the Tempe Union High School district governing board in 2020, and he was elected by school board members across the county to serve as the Maricopa County co-director on the Board of Directors of the Arizona School Boards Association in 2022. In 2021, he worked  as a policy analyst on ASU’s Enterprise Policy Analysis Group, led by Max Goshert and housed in the Office of University Affairs.

The highlight of his time at ASU was being able to meet and learn from such a diverse group of students and professors all with various passions, skills and backgrounds. 

Montero grew up in the Phoenix area and started at ASU immediately after finishing high school. He had planned to go out of state for college, but as he got closer to graduation he began to see all of the opportunities and resources ASU had to offer. As someone who ended up wanting to find ways to make a positive impact on the community he was raised in and having been involved with local politics for several years already, he said that ASU provided the best possibility to get a world-class, purpose-driven education that complimented the work he was able to continue to do in the surrounding community.

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

Answer: I began ASU just as a political science major, which I knew I wanted to pursue since my sophomore year of high school. I first got involved in local politics around that time, mostly around the issue of mental health in our K–12 public school system. After going through many of my own struggles at the beginning of high school and losing a friend of mine, I became more galvanized to raise awareness and work to create change at the local level. That started with volunteering on local campaigns and organizations as well as approaching the Tempe Union governing board at the time to prioritize mental health. 

I first approached the board in 2018 with a group of students to write and introduce a resolution making mental health a priority and advocating for additional resources from the state. From there, I had the chance to work with leadership to find ways to increase student representation in the decision-making process, and it was these interactions that allowed me to see the positive impact that policymaking and the law can have on others' lives and how it can be a conduit to create real, lasting change. 

Once I started at ASU, the classes I took made me realize the importance of other disciplines in order to better understand and analyze various concepts. That's when I decided to study economics, given that it went hand-in-hand with political science. It was then Dr. Derrick Anderson who challenged me to think outside the box through an honors contract for another way to create a cross-disciplinary approach to my education, which helped me settle on studying mathematics given not only the chance to bolster the quantitative skills for analysis in political science and economics (and vice versa) but to also take advantage of the logic-based thinking and other skills utilized in that field to combine ways to think and respond to complex issues from different perspectives.

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

A: I think one of the most important things that I learned at ASU is that there are no bounds to what you can accomplish given the right amount of dedication, commitment and passion. As someone who struggled through much of high school, I would have never believed that I would be graduating with three degrees, let alone simultaneously running for and holding public office.

Always having the bigger picture in mind as well as the motivation and guidance from so many students and professors along the way helped push past the numerous (and sometimes seemingly insurmountable) challenges that came with pursuing this educational path and wading into the political field at a relatively young age. My time at ASU truly opened my eyes and motivated me to push beyond what we might traditionally think is beyond our reach and to not underestimate the impact that we as individuals can have.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I think ASU's overall philosophy and purpose-driven mission are what gravitated me towards attending here. ASU has taken the mantle of breaking down many traditional barriers and assumptions to education and takes seriously the drive to have a positive impact on the surrounding community and world. I truly believe ASU provided the structures and encouragement to pursue a cross-disciplinary education in three different fields, all while building the skills to simultaneously create a positive impact on the surrounding community through various roles. While there is often a stigma around state universities, ASU has broken it down and led the way to create a new frontier in higher education, and I was glad to see the impact of that during my four years here.

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

A: While many professors contributed greatly to my time at ASU, I think the one that had the most profound impact on me was Derrick Anderson, who I had my first semester in PAF 340 (Contemporary Policy Challenges) and my last semester in PAF 547 (Science, Tech and Public Affairs). He was one of the first professors to really empower me to think outside of the box and challenge me to pursue three different degrees, which was a scary concept at the time. Just in the classroom, he taught me to think, contextualize and synthesize information in unique ways to take on complex challenges.

But beyond that, he truly took a vested interest in educational and professional careers while guiding and mentoring me throughout my time here at ASU. The lessons, connections and opportunities Anderson provided through the culmination of instruction and mentorship were integral to where I am today and where I'm headed in the future.

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

A: Take a step back and take advantage of the endless amount of resources, connections and opportunities that are available. The time goes by fast, and we often are so focused on the future that we miss the opportunities that are right in front of us. These four years are a unique opportunity to take risks, try something new and find what you are passionate about.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will be in Washington, D.C., for the summer with the Truman Foundation (still working on an exact intern location) and plan to take a gap year while working and continuing to serve on the Tempe Union governing board before starting law school at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in the fall of 2024. I hope to use these skills to then work in educational law.

Grace Peserik

Communications Assistant, School of Politics and Global Studies

ASU graduate aims to demystify AI through children's book

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

How do we understand the story of artificial intelligence? Student Kacy Hatfield Kacy Hatfield Download Full Image

Kacy Hatfield is a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who aims to make the story of AI accessible to all – and is doing so by writing a children’s book. Kacy is graduating this May with a degree in digital culture, and is an undergraduate researcher for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.

After graduation, she will pursue a master's degree and has been invited to participate in the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs

She shared more about her college journey below. 

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience at ASU and how you came to study digital culture.

Answer: I actually came to ASU as a biochemistry major; I love chemistry and math, but the career path wasn't exactly what I wanted. I then explored career and creative job opportunities where I found digital culture and in just three days I was hooked and made the switch. And there is still so much of what I love in studying AI, and I get to integrate my love for chemistry and math into that. 

I actually hadn't even heard of machine learning until spring 2021, and after my professor introduced it to us, I asked her for book recommendations. From then on, I was obsessed with AI.

Q: What inspired you to pursue undergraduate research? 

A: Well, I actually did my honors thesis shortly after I learned about AI and machine learning. I decided that I wanted to pursue it, even though I really didn’t know much about the subject, and I pitched it to several professors I wanted to work with, who all were very supportive. I defended my thesis almost exactly a year after I had first learned about machine learning, and I just had such an amazing time working on my thesis that I wanted to continue doing research. 

I then found the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, which had an undergraduate research opportunity on responsible AI. I met with Research Program Manager Erica O’Neil over Zoom, and I thought it would be the perfect continuation of my work. It’s amazing to keep doing research on this, not just to learn but to ultimately come away with more questions. 

Q: You're working on a really fascinating project, in which you’re developing a children’s book on AI. Can you share more on this project? 

A: The premise is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of an algorithm named Pip — like the command in Python Programming Language — and Pip has to classify seashells on the beach. How Pip classifies them starts out in very simple terms, and as waves wash up on the shore, more advanced terminology is revealed. There’s also a character named Epoch — another term in Python — as well as a character that represents the human in the loop. All of them are placed very strategically to represent what would take place if a machine learning algorithm were to be integrated in this area. 

Image of a book cover for Your Pal, PipThe goal is to help people feel less scared about machine learning. I often see AI described as a black box; something that that people can't see into, and can't understand. But I think the test of a good machine learning algorithm – and a good programmer — is to translate that black box into something that is easily understood.

Part of the reason I love machine learning is because even if I dedicate my entire life to studying AI, I will never have a fully comprehensive grasp of it, because it's just always expanding and advancing so fast. I think that's key in why people feel uncertainty about machine learning, especially when the Hollywood narrative of AI is the humanoid robot that is going to take over. The thing is, these technologies are amoral, not immoral. 

My goal as a researcher is to start mitigating skepticism around the subject of machine learning through this book. And this starts with younger people, but the book is also meant to be used by people of all ages. 

Q: How has your time in the responsible AI research group related back to your work? 

A: I love being in this research group. It's actually my second semester; last semester I did a project on the risks and mitigations of AI-powered autonomous spacecraft, which is another one of my interests. It’s so awesome to be part of a group of people that have such different backgrounds and different approaches to AI. There are so many interdisciplinary perspectives and topics brought up in discussion. 

I think that in terms of responsible AI – and a lot of people may disagree with me on this – it is integral for a programmer to also be able to see the ethical implications of whatever they're employing into the world. There’s often the argument that we should wait five years before evaluating those possible impacts; when I am working on programming, I'm immediately thinking about how it may affect the real world and be used. 

Machine learning is like a mirror - it's going to reflect whatever we give it, and humans are not perfect. This is why I think the conversations on ethics have to go hand in hand with the research itself, and it's really interesting to see how it comes about on all different fronts.

Q: What comes next for you in your career and future?

A: That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I always have a list of problems that I can research! This may be a nerdy confession, but I love doing research even in my free time. I hope to direct that energy into the pursuit of a master's degree and possibly even a PhD. I have also been invited to join the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs in summer 2023 as an undergraduate engineer, which is a very exciting opportunity. 

The amazing thing about this field is it's always changing, and in some regard, I will always feel like a student. And because the study of AI is so new, I feel like taking the ethical and programming approach at the same time would be a lot easier to integrate than something that's already established. I hope to keep these skills as best practices in the future. 

There is a lot of skepticism around AI and machine learning, and often I hear people say that it’s too complicated or complex. Everybody has the capability to understand AI, and it's not as scary as it seems. Even though it's been tremendously skewed for entertainment, which makes it easier to vilify, there are so many benefits to using machine learning, and we can employ it in the right ways to augment our human experience and not hinder it.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics