Social embeddedness a key part of ASU's identity

As the only major university in a population center of more than 4 million people, Arizona State University is one of the most significant players in the economic development of the region. And to a striking degree, ASU has been able to partner with the communities around the state in meeting their needs.

Far from being an “ivory tower,” the university has made social engagement – being embedded in the community – a key part of its identity. ASU has gone far beyond typical outreach activities to establish deep, ongoing partnerships with cities, towns, school districts and organizations across Arizona.

To be sure, outreach has a key role at ASU. Quantitatively, ASU has more than 500 community outreach programs in 187 locations, offered by 131 different units throughout the university.

Moreover, there are 159 service-learning courses offered in multiple disciplines across ASU. Students link social issues they learn about in the classroom, including homelessness and education disparities, with hands-on service projects at local nonprofit organizations. Courses are offered through the University Serving Learning (USL) office, with students completing between 70 to 100 hours of community service per course.

In 2010-2011, students enrolled in USL courses and programs completed 45,948 hours of service. These programs contribute to student learning and to the quality of research and teaching at ASU, as well as to the health of communities.

While the impact of ASU’s outreach is significant, the university has key partnerships far beyond the scope of the classroom.

Consider the significance of the Downtown Phoenix campus, an endeavor that has brought more than 9,000 students and 1,000 employees to what was a sluggish urban core. The campus has invigorated downtown businesses, brought educational opportunities to working adults and opened up clinical and internship opportunities to aspiring journalists, nurses, teachers and social workers.

In an innovative partnership, the university entered into an agreement with the City of Phoenix in 2005 to develop the campus, with the city providing land and buildings and ASU the academic programs, student housing and parking. The audacious plan received approval from the citizens of Phoenix in a March 2006 bond election, and classes began for about 3,000 students that fall.

ASU worked with the city to locate the campus along the path of the 20-mile light rail, a transportation project that had been on the books since 2000. The location was key to the success of both endeavors, as everything on campus was essentially a five-minute walk from the light rail and a bus transfer station. Students enthusiastically provided as much as half the early rail ridership, and thousands of ASU students now ride it each day.

On a smaller but no-less important scale, ASU has formed a community partnership to bring a campus to western Arizona, partnering with Lake Havasu City, the Lake Havasu United School District and the Lake Havasu Foundation for Higher Education.

The Colleges@ASU in Lake Havasu City will open this fall, offering degrees in communication, psychology, life sciences, general studies and organizational leadership. Phase 1 of the campus, to include the renovation of a middle school, is expected to enroll 200 to 400 students, with about 900 students enrolled at build-out.

ASU is working with nearby Mohave County Community College to increase transfer opportunities for students at Lake Havasu.

Starting this fall, ASU will begin offering students the chance to complete their bachelor's degree in nursing or organizational studies at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, to support the educational and economic needs of eastern Arizona communities. ASU also has been negotiating with the Town of Payson, in the mountains of east central Arizona, for a possible 6,000 student university campus.

Closer to home, the ASU Chandler Innovation Center has just been announced as an alliance between the City of Chandler and ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation. It will provide classes, engineering and technology studios and labs, with as many as 1,000 students in the program at full capacity.

ASU draws on its history as a teacher’s college in its commitment to local communities, promoting knowledge for the sake of helping others. But why has the university pushed the walls out so much further in this regard?

President Michael Crow in his 2002 inaugural address signaled his commitment to innovation and social embeddedness: “Beginning here in Phoenix, ASU needs to find out what our local communities need, and ASU should be structured to meet those needs.”

Social embeddedness became one of ASU’s eight design aspirations for a New American University. ASU announced that it would assume major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.

The university has geared up its tech transfer activities to infuse the state with new talent, ideas and energy. ASU’s Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the technology transfer organization for ASU, ranks in the top 10 for invention disclosures, licenses and options, and startups formed per $10 million in research.

AzTE has 48 spinout companies based on ASU intellectual property, and the value of ASU portfolio companies and their sub-licensees is estimated at more than $200 million.

“To many universities, outreach and social engagement means volunteering,” says Jacqueline Smith, director of ASU’s social embeddedness initiative. “At ASU, social embeddedness is a universitywide strategy to work in partnership with others for mutually beneficial outcomes. We are committed to positive change, and we can't do it alone.

"This commitment results in a diversity of partnerships than span across the state, and they address challenges ranging from health to education to human rights.”

The ASU Office of University Initiatives hosts an online database to keep track of hundreds of ongoing partnerships and projects. This supports the outreach efforts of existing colleges, centers, offices and student groups, helping them communicate with each other and share resources.

With 72,000 students across four campuses, and 2,750 faculty members, ASU’s resources are vast, and its impact on the community is significant. Its goal is for every student to be exposed to the idea that each person has the capacity to bring about important changes in society.

Educating students as changemakers

Helping to realize this goal, in 2010 ASU was the first Western university and one of only 10 universities nationally to be invited to join the Changemaker Consortium by Ashoka, an organization dedicated to fostering social entrepreneurship. The university hosted the group’s international meeting this spring.

ASU stepped up to open Changemaker Central last fall, a student-run resource hub on each campus to bolster students’ community engagement and create a culture committed to student-driven social change. It provides resources, meeting space and mentors, connecting students with each other and with existing organizations that either need help or can offer assistance. Since the center opened, the ASU Community Service Program has experienced a 150 percent participation increase in some of its events.

Connecting with community

ASU has built a vibrant online database, ASU Community Connect, which catalogs hundreds of programs and projects at ASU, including health clinics, public lectures, service learning, professional development, summer camps and more. It connects the public with the university, and connects faculty and students with nonprofits, businesses and community organizations who may need interns, volunteers or employees.

This summer ASU is hosting 70 summer programs for children and adults, focusing on arts, music, robotics, science, math, sports, writing, reading, engineering and leadership development.

Twice a year ASU holds a community dialogue series, Ignite @ ASU, with almost two dozen five-minute presentations by people from ASU and the external community who have an idea or project that creates a positive social impact. The most recent event, on the Evolution of Community, was held April 4 on the Downtown Phoenix campus. See an archive of videos from past events.

Opening charter schools

Some of ASU’s efforts toward social embeddedness are highly visible. Two ASU Preparatory Academies launched in 2010, one in downtown Phoenix and one at the Polytechnic campus in Mesa. The innovative charter schools offer a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for college, learning Mandarin, competing in robotics, writing a mini-thesis and learning in a safe and supportive environment. 

Both schools expanded from preK-8 to include 9th grade last fall, with 700 students enrolled in Phoenix and 450 in Mesa. This year’s ninth-graders are working on a community-based project which will continue through their senior year, in a further effort to build a pipeline of socially engaged students.

Providing health care

Another extremely visible component of ASU’s outreach are its nonprofit nurse-managed health clinics in downtown Phoenix. The clinics give students in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation the opportunity to move to the forefront of health care, while providing access to quality care for uninsured and underinsured populations. In 2009, clinic staff treated more than 4,000 patients in more than 7,800 patient visits.

In another health care partnership, Mayo Clinic and ASU have worked together since 2003 on a variety of successful efforts, including a joint nursing education program, collaborative research projects, joint faculty appointments and dual degree programs. ASU relocated its Department of Biomedical Informatics to the Scottsdale Mayo campus. At a new Mayo medical school branch to be built at that campus, all medical students will also complete a specialized master’s degree in the science of health care delivery granted by ASU.

Supporting teachers

ASU believes a crucial service it can provide communities is to support classroom teachers, to ensure quality education for each child and to help create a population of college-ready young people. The BEST (Building Educator Support Teams) program, an initiative of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, works with school districts to provide mentors and instructional coaches, ongoing professional development, leadership modeling and training to teachers.

In 2008-2009, BEST supported 125 school partnerships and 294 professional development sessions, and conducted more than 3,000 standards-based instructional coaching visits. These activities impacted more than 78,000 K-12 students.

ASU also joined forces with Teach For America, adapting its most successful tools and developing an improved national model for teacher preparation.  Future teachers now are recruited from a wider pool and learn through an innovative curriculum, to increase their chances of success in the profession. Best practices are shared with the education community at large. This project receives support from a grant from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.

Supporting parents

ASU’s American Dream Academy, a school-based program teaching low-income families how to help their children succeed in school, has become a model university-community partnership that won the national 2009 C. Peter Magrath University Community Engagement Award.

The program has reached more than 19,000 parents through a free 10-week interventional program that teaches them how to create a positive learning environment at home, build self-esteem and work with their child’s teacher. More than 41,000 Maricopa County students in 125 Title I schools have a parent who has attended the academy.

Providing community service

Of course, community service projects are still part of the culture at ASU. They connect students with community needs in an immediate way, harnessing their idealism and energy to make a tangible difference. About 700 students volunteered for the 12th annual student-run “Devils in Disguise” Day of Service on March 10, traveling to 25 different agency sites to sort and distribute food, clean and paint facilities, perform landscaping chores, make repairs and work with homeless youth.

Last year about 14,000 ASU students participated in community service activities, performing more than 400,000 hours of service.

ASU embraces the idea of transforming society, by increasing access to education to everyone, improving high school and college graduation rates and producing citizens who will bring about positive change. The possibilities for transformation are limitless, considering what ASU can accomplish by partnering with the community.

Written by Sarah Auffret