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Designing for social justice at ASU: Twin brothers are 'first generation' college grads

Clemente, left, and Maurilio Rico Rodriguez will graduate from The Design School
May 08, 2014

Clemente Rico Rodriguez and Maurilio Rico Rodriguez were born five minutes apart on March 5, 1991, in a small town in central Mexico, into what they describe as a tight-knit, “extremely traditional” Mexican family.

Eleven years later, they arrived in the United States, with their parents and siblings, and embarked on a new and very different path.

The move was prompted in part by the boys’ older sister, Yolanda, who’d settled in Arizona and was adamant that they needed to come to the States and go to school.

“In Mexico, school is not an option,” Clemente explains. “The norm is to turn 16 and then go to work.”

The boys' two older brothers both work construction. Working alongside them for a couple of years as teenagers, Maurilio says, he and Clemente gained a sense of architecture and the construction of buildings. They also learned to really appreciate education, Maurilio says with a slight smile.

On May 15, the twins will both receive degrees in landscape architecture from The Design School at Arizona State University. They are “first generation,” as Clemente puts it – the first in their family to graduate from college.

“The highest level of education in our family (before us) is elementary school,” he adds.

Clemente is graduating with multiple honors, including being named the Jose Ronstadt Outstanding Undergraduate Student. He’ll receive that award at Hispanic Convocation, one of three graduation ceremonies he and his brother will attend next week (first ASU, then Herberger Institute and finally Hispanic Convocation, all on consecutive days).

He’s also been selected as a 2014 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist, one of six finalists (three grad, three undergrad) chosen from a pool of the top 35 landscape architecture students in the U.S. and Canada.

The Olmsted Scholars Program recognizes and supports students with “exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.” Each accredited university program in North America nominates one student for the program.

Rebecca Fish Ewan, associate professor in The Design School, says that when the landscape architecture faculty at ASU got together to nominate a student, the decision to pick Clemente was unanimous.

“Clemente personifies the spirit of the New American University,” says Craig Barton, the director of The Design School. “He was distinguished throughout his career at The Design School by his imagination and skill as a designer and by his commitment to projects and practices intended to transform society.” 

After graduation, the brothers will go their separate ways, at least for now. Maurilio will continue working at the landscape architecture firm in north Scottsdale that recently offered him a job as a project manager. He plans to apply to graduate school for architecture in a couple of years; he’s looking at Harvard, among other places. He's particularly interested in product design.

Clemente plans to take the year off and backpack around Europe for three months with his girlfriend, then apply to law school, where he wants to study environmental law. He also plans on getting a master's degree in urban planning.

“I went to D.C. with the Doran Community Scholars Program,” Clemente says. “I had an amazing experience. Just the power that city has, it really affects every single citizen in the U.S.”

Now, Clemente says, he wants to work in Washington, D.C.

“One of the biggest problems I have with design,” he says, “is the people who have design are the rich people. Why can’t every person have good design? If you work in policy, you enact policy that requires cities to create good design for everyone.

“Policy is what makes a society.”

Clemente participates in a volunteer group called “Freedom by Design,” which focuses on design interventions for underprivileged communities. And he recently developed a program for high school students called “Future Designers,” which he implemented in the same academically challenged high school in the Phoenix Union School District that he and Maurilio attended.

Maurilio says he’s proud of his brother, and Clemente says the same about Maurilio. They haven’t always been close, they admit – in middle school and then high school, in west Phoenix, they’d pass each other in the hallways with barely a hello.

Although they look almost identical, they're temperamentally different. Clemente is the outgoing twin. Maurilio describes him as very determined and very active, whereas both brothers agree that Maurilio is more inward and solitary. Their differences are evident in their hobbies: Clemente plays soccer, and Maurilio is a self-taught guitarist.

Once they got to college, they say, the brothers grew closer. Today they work as a team, united by a shared passion for design and for social justice.

As their senior project, they set out to mitigate air and noise pollution around the portion of the I-17 highway that runs through south Phoenix, adversely affecting the inhabitants there, including students at several schools. "The place is so bad now that plants wouldn't survive," Clemente says. He and Maurilio used bio mimicry – looking to nature for a solution – to design a canopy patterned after the biology of a leaf. Lined with titanium dioxide, which cleans the air, the canopy arches over the freeway and produces nutrients for plants as a byproduct of the cleaning process. The project is called “Urban Air.”

"Landscape architecture focuses on the outdoor environment, and sometimes you need structures that will enhance plant growth," Clemente says.

They are both very aware that they are setting an example for their nieces and nephews; they would like to see their young relatives not only follow in their footsteps by going to college, but surpass them in their achievements. They're pleased that their younger sister, Maria, is pursuing a degree in criminal justice at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

And they sound identical when they talk about how fortunate they are to have received the practical and financial support that has allowed them to reach this point in their lives. Both emphasize the responsibility they feel to give back. They credit ASU with helping them to see the world through a more philosophical lens.

“Coming from an immigrant family, you always try to make some money to have a good life,” Maurilio says. “Throughout the years at ASU, you learn that a good life isn’t just about a good salary.”

Clemente sums it up this way: Don’t choose a major based on how much money you can make, choose a major based on how much impact you can make.

“I believe that with privilege we have responsibility,” Clemente says. “ASU and Herberger Institute definitely set that tone where we want to give back to the community.”

“The faculty in The Design School saw the potential, so they encouraged us. The faculty personally – they’ve influenced the way I see things.”

According to Rebecca Fish Ewan, the influencing goes both ways.

“A good student makes you think” she explains. “But a great student changes the way that you think. Clemente has absolutely changed the way that I think – about design education, about landscape architecture, and about how profoundly they can help at-risk young people.”