Graduating Jewish studies student hopes to build human connection


December 7, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Growing up in Winslow, Arizona, Norma Jean Owens loved being around the diverse cultural experiences of pow wows, rodeos and meteor crater tours. But it was her mother’s dedication to helping her and her siblings have a better life in Phoenix that led Owens to pursue her academic studies in different fields. Norma Owens Norma Owens is graduating with a bachelor's degree in Jewish studies, a certificate in Hebrew and a teaching certificate. Download Full Image

“I am motivated by my late mother who did not have a higher-learning experience, but sought refuge in securing residence for her five children in the Phoenix inner-city housing project,” said Owens. “Eventually, she was able to accomplish her goal of purchasing our first home by her strong work ethic and determination.”

Owens started at Arizona State University in the 1980s and met her husband during her sophomore year. After getting married, they home-schooled their five children through the eighth grade. When their last daughter was in high school, she decided to return to complete her degree.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on business and English, 30 years after she began, but she didn’t stop there. Owens returned to ASU to earn a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, a certificate in Hebrew from the School of International Letters and Cultures and a teaching certificate from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Learning the culture and literature provided a global perspective of inclusivity, as the Jewish story can be found in all nations,” said Owens. “The sustainability of global resources such as water, agriculture and ecology, technology and medicine are at the forefront of Jewish research.”

Owens earned a scholarship to the Critical Languages Institute as well as the Jess Schwartz scholarship, Benjamin Goldberg Memorial scholarship and Jenny Norton and Bob Ramsey Religious Study in Israel scholarship.

Along with the scholarships she received as a student, Owens also created Histo-News Club, an academic service club to high school students at ASU in 2017. 

“For the past three years, we guided students in learning historical research by utilizing primary sources and various digitized tools,” said Owens. “The project is in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Museum History Unfolded program in Washington, D.C.”

As an outstanding graduating student this semester, she answered a few questions about her time at ASU.      

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

Answer: I registered for Judaism 101 with Dr. Norbert Samuelson, one of the first courses in my program. He sparked an "aha" lightbulb by his heart and passion of culture and religion coupled with his desire to see each student succeed. He had a back injury that was extremely painful for him to sit and move. He did not let this discomfort hinder the execution of the course, nor the transfer of knowledge to hungry students. He provided amazing feedback that made me grow in confidence to ask engaging questions on specific subjects. He retired the next semester, but his words, voice and passion have remained with me.

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

A: Success is more than an individual process. It requires a tribe of associates giving and receiving to accomplish it.  

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: ASU chose me. In my senior year at Tempe High School, our class was invited to meet several college students. They inspired our class and our counselors helped to register students who found value in the modeling of an ASU college student. I identified with the student in criminal justice studies, as social justice was a strength in this course of study.

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

A: Dr. Hava Samuelson, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has been a mentor, a model and an academic inspiration. She taught me to love learning, value education, engage in a lifestyle of activism in interconnectivity and inclusivity and integrate sustainable and ecological opportunities. She would say, "As you acquire your degree, acquire skills, attitudes and values necessary to become a responsible citizen.”

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

A: “Education is not received, it is achieved.” — Anonymous. Each day is an opportunity to grow forward and stretch into success!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: My hangout and place of study was the basement of the Language and Literature Building. It hosts several computer rooms, a podcast room and a critical think tank room with amazing technology. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will teach secondary English virtually as an online teacher.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: I would tackle "otherism," by investing money in educational programs that build connectivity through projects, community service, camps and peer groups that place students of mixed backgrounds, ethnicities and economic statuses together to build or create a sustainable project that benefits all people.

Rachel Bunning

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

 
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Nancy Gonzales named ASU's next university provost, executive VP

New university provost and ASU alum was 1st in her family to get college degree.
December 1, 2020

Dean of natural sciences' career dedicated to psychology research with culturally diverse populations, expanding access to education

Editor’s note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

When Nancy Gonzales graduated high school in Miami, Arizona, she was awarded an Arizona Board of Regents scholarship, which at the time was given to the top 1% of students in the state to attend any of the three state universities. There was never really any question that she would choose Arizona State University.

“My father was a huge Sun Devil supporter and football season ticket holder for as long as I can remember. This created a strong connection to the university that influenced my decision to attend ASU and become the first in my family to earn a college degree,” she said.

That decision launched a 25-year award-winning career in psychology with a focus on research and outreach to communities often underrepresented in higher education in the United States. Today, Gonzales is being named ASU’s next executive vice president and university provost.  

“As an undergraduate student at ASU I became engaged with outstanding, forward-thinking faculty members and research teams pursuing big ideas in the psychology department that were early exemplars of ASU’s community-embedded, use-inspired research,” said Gonzales. “Since I returned to ASU, it has been exciting to participate in the bold transformation of ASU as the New American University and to see our mission expand beyond anything we had imagined before.”  

Her appointment is subject to approval by the Arizona Board of Regents. She will serve as provost pro tem and work with current Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle until June 30, 2021, when he steps down and moves into the role of University Professor. Gonzales will start her official term as executive vice president and university provost on July 1.

Gonzales will be responsible for the Academic Enterprise of ASU and will lead a complex organization that provides a multitude of opportunities and challenges to ensure the university continues progress toward its charter and goals. She will engage in all aspects of the day-to-day operations of the university as well as developing and supporting long-term strategic initiatives to drive student and faculty success. Her duties also will include advancing academic excellence through the faculty recruitment, retention and renewal processes, and growing the quality, scope and scale of both campus immersion and online programs.

“Nancy is a highly credentialed, well-respected leader among her peers who is a natural fit to be our next executive vice president and university provost,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “As a first-generation college graduate, she is representative of so many of the students we currently serve and strive to serve more of. Her background and expertise will undoubtedly help the university advance its mission to be of the greatest public service to the citizens of Arizona that we can be.”

Gonzales said she considers herself the product of the right combination of opportunities, stemming from a strong family and a community with a focus on maintaining cultural strengths and being afforded a quality education despite limited financial resources.

“Part of what I hope to do is provide those conditions for success to more students ,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a big mystery as to what individuals need to thrive in life. But we need to find flexible ways to provide those opportunities for more of our students, and at times in life when they can benefit most. I am inspired by ASU’s charter that prioritizes access and inclusion, and our commitment to universal learning as a means to achieving these goals.”

Gonzales received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from ASU, then left Arizona to pursue her master’s degree and PhD in psychology from the University of Washington. She also completed an internship in clinical psychology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She came back to ASU in 1992 as an assistant professor in psychology and moved up through both the academic and administrative ranks, most recently serving as dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is also a Foundation Professor of psychology and co-director of the REACH Institute at ASU.

While at the University of Washington, she found a mentor in Ana Mari Cauce, then a professor of psychology and now president of the university. Cauce also served as provost and executive vice president.

Cauce’s focus on diverse populations — she is trained in community psychology focused on community change — was what Gonzales wanted to pursue in her career.

“I gravitated to Ana Mari because of her approach to research and her focus on underrepresented populations,” Gonzales said. “Thirty years ago, our knowledge of psychology was derived almost entirely from white middle-class populations.  In fact, too much of our research in psychology has been based on WEIRD populations — Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic — that ultimately limits our understanding of the human condition and ultimately leads to damaging assumptions and social policies.” 

Cauce said she can’t think of anyone better suited for this position at ASU — an excellent public research university that is so dedicated to, and successful at, increasing access to higher education for all.

“Her own journey is proof positive of the transformative power of higher education,” said Cauce. “The depth of her intelligence, curiosity, creativity and compassion, as well as sheer grit and determination, was evident from the moment we met. Serious, but with a wonderful sense of humor, she very quickly became a leader in the lab, dedicated to bringing out the best in others. She has an uncanny ability to read people and situations and adapt her leadership style accordingly. ASU and all of higher education will be better off with her in this position. I have no doubt that her impact will be broad and lasting.”

Gonzales has been active in developmental and clinical research with culturally diverse populations for more than 25 years, with continuous National Institutes of Health funding as a principal investigator on grants since 2001. Gonzales has published her research in top journals in her field.  

Her research on mental health and substance use problems has focused on culturally informed etiological pathways for Latino and other minority adolescents and young adults, including identification of health-compromising and health-promoting influences in the lives of the youths. Her work has particularly focused on the role of family and cultural strengths within immigrant and other minoritized populations that facilitate positive adaptation and educational success. Her research also includes development, implementation and dissemination of culturally informed interventions to prevent mental health and substance abuse problems and to promote college degree attainment in low-income communities.

Gonzales’ research is housed with the REACH Institute at ASU, a center of excellence that is dedicated to the dissemination of evidence-based prevention programs and practices. Funded by several federal agencies and foundations, the center has generated more than $88 million in the past 20 years to support research and implementation of programs nationally and internationally.

As dean of natural sciences, Gonzales oversees six interdisciplinary schools and departments at ASU: the School of Earth and Space Exploration, School of Life Sciences, School of Molecular Sciences, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, the Department of Psychology, and the Department of Physics. In this role she has been particularly dedicated to the pursuit of inclusive excellence in the sciences.  

In addition to her leadership at ASU, Gonzales has consulted with several organizations on issues of equity and inclusion, including the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Developing Indicators of Educational Equity; the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Association of Latino Elected Officials; and as a member of the board of trustees for the William T. Grant Foundation. She also serves on numerous professional boards, review panels and mentoring programs to advance the careers of students and early career faculty in the sciences. Gonzales has received numerous honors and awards including Fellow status in the American Psychological Association, the Advances in Culture and Diversity in Prevention Science Award from the Society for Prevention Research, the Eugene Garcia Award for Outstanding Latino/a Faculty Research in Higher Education from the Victoria Foundation, and the ASU Alumni Association Founders Day Faculty Research Achievement Award (watch her story below). 

Video by ASU

Top photo: Nancy Gonzales, pictured at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

PhD linguist, athlete goes from undocumented to unstoppable


November 25, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Cristian Lopez Villegas has achieved rare success in martial arts and in academia. But his journey was far from easy. Graduating ASU doctoral student Cristian Lopez Villegas stands outside a martial arts studio. / Photo by Josh Morris. Cristian Lopez Villegas, ASU doctoral graduate and martial arts enthusiast. Photo by Josh Morris. Download Full Image

A Brazilian jiujitsu enthusiast, Lopez Villegas went from feeling lost and failing most of his high school classes to winning on the mat and in the classroom. Through it all, Lopez Villegas focused on finding the good – in himself and others.

This fall, Lopez Villegas graduates with a PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics from Arizona State University. The doctoral journey can be arduous, pushing students to their mental capacities. In these times, Lopez Villegas turned to the disciplines learned through martial arts. One of the biggest helps was “that mental toughness of getting used to feeling overwhelmed,” Lopez Villegas told an interviewer for the Department of English’s newsletter in 2016. “You learn to keep your mind calm and your thoughts positive.”

So, did he ever think he would get here? Absolutely.

“I calibrated my compass toward the peak of Mount Linguistics – the doctorate – and never looked back,” he said. “As of a few days ago, I now stand upon this peak, up which I have been slowly trekking over half of my life. I am incredibly grateful to life for allowing me to reach this point.”

That perspective – one of gratitude – defines Lopez Villegas’s outlook. He has worked hard for what he has earned and in no way feels entitled. In fact, he is continually looking for a way to give back. As an athlete, he patiently mentored others in sport. As a language teacher, he applies lessons from martial arts to language arts. And he has found another cause to champion: animal well-being.

“Over the past 15 years, my life partner and I have devoted our lives and resources to helping abandoned and vulnerable animals,” he said. “Through volunteering with the Humane Society and various other organizations, we were able to take in dozens upon dozens of furry four-legged friends, provide them with love, restore them to health, and place them into loving homes.”

And, he added, “Many of the ‘unadoptable’ ones became permanent members of our family.”

Lopez Villegas won’t be hitting the job market after graduation; he’s already gainfully employed. He currently teaches English composition and ESL full-time at South Mountain Community College. We can expect that to be his “day job,” as Lopez Villegas is already preparing to reenter the world of athletics. “With a great vantage point, and invaluable tools and techniques acquired at Arizona State University, I will be planning and strategizing for my next journey,” he said.

Read on for more about how Lopez Villegas overcame adversity and reached his goals, one take-down at a time.

Cristian Lopez Villegas / South Mountain Community College profile photo

Cristian Lopez Villegas, South Mountain Community College profile photo

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

Answer: My “aha” moment was more like a series of micromoments of realization that occurred during a period of a few years. These brief moments of realization were profoundly impactful to me because they represented such a stark contrast to my overall life experience.

I am now slightly embarrassed to admit this, but growing up I was definitely not one of the “smart kids.” I was not even one of the “mediocre kids.” I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Things had started off well in kindergarten and elementary school but as I entered junior high, my ability to succeed in the classroom was becoming more dismal by the semester. Upon reaching my junior year of high school, I was officially removed from the normal high school experience and placed in a program called “Opportunities.”

I wanted to be a good student. I only pretended that I didn’t care as a coping mechanism. I struggled with being able to concentrate on academic things. I had failed basically every single class, every semester. However, there were two classes in which I had straight As: P.E. and French. Somehow, while the smartest kids in the grade (a couple of which were in my French class) were yanking out the hairs of their heads trying to understand French grammar, I was like, “Excuse moi, puis je vous aider?” This unexplainable success in French was such a contrast to everything else, that I made a mental note of it.

A short period after that, I was slowly catching back up on credits, working independently and going to my high school once a week to check in, turn in projects, and pick up new books. During that time, I had been attending a youth organization and a mentor named Tim Benbow took me under his wing and exposed me to classic world literature, theology, philosophy, history, etc. He was, at the time, studying Greek and when I expressed some interest, he began making copies of his materials and giving them to me. Once again, as with French, somehow Greek kind of made sense to me and I soon found myself helping him understanding some of the Greek conjugations. To me, they seemed just like the Spanish my family and I spoke at home. That was my second mini “aha” moment where I made a mental note that I really liked studying language.

A couple of years later, I had managed to finish high school after doing an extra year. I was doing my general education at the local community college, when I stumbled onto a Spanish grammar class for Spanish speakers. Once again, spending a lot of hours thinking about words was greatly enjoyable. At this moment, those very difficult questions that haunt many young college students, “What will I be? What will I major in?” were answered: I would pursue a major in Spanish.

Upon transferring to the university to pursue my upper division curriculum, serendipity placed me in the classroom of Dr. Ronald Harmon, professor of Spanish and Portuguese linguistics. From the first day of my first semester, with linguistics courses – in this case, Spanish phonetics and phonology and Spanish syntax and morphology – I knew what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing: studying human language from a scientific perspective.

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

A: I truly believe that Arizona State University is a beacon of light to all universities around the world for one simple reason. As stated by our university president, “ASU prides itself not on whom it excludes, but on whom it includes.” This perspective is so contrary to what most universities pursue. I am humbled and honored to have been part of such a revolutionary and daring university. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was in my junior year of college. The previous summer, I had participated in a study abroad program in the beautiful country of Brazil. While living there, I had met a special girl with whom I had established a strong friendship and connection. Over the course of the subsequent academic year, we remained in touch and I had been able to return to Brazil between semesters. After a year of a long-distance relationship, we decided to find a way to be close to each other.

Her brothers had been, prior to us meeting each other, living in Mesa, Arizona, through a high school foreign exchange program. They were now college students in the state and so the possibility of me transferring to an Arizona university came up. A few weeks later, my brother, a couple of friends, and I were driving through the California-Arizona desert. We visited Arizona State University and I immediately felt that this would be my new home. I remember seeing Hayden Library and being so impacted by its uniqueness. Then one hot summer day a few months later, I packed my car, and made the official move to the place I now call my home.

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

A: I am one among the many students who have been greatly and positively impacted by (Regents Professor) Elly van Gelderen in the linguistics program. Professor van Gelderen is a world-recognized scholar in the fields of syntax and historical linguistics. She has published books and articles in the most prestigious publications and journals. And yet, it is her simplicity, humility, openness, positivity and kindness that attracts people to her the most. Observing her taught me that the secret to academic, professional and personal growth is to harbor and maintain childlike curiosity and excitement towards life and to the pursuit of understanding.

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

A: The advice that I now give my own students is the following:

1. For the bachelor’s, pursue a double major. One of the majors should be your passion regardless of whether it will lead you to a direct job. The other major should be something that you can enjoy and that leads to a direct, well-paying, stable and nonvulnerable career immediately upon graduation. My experience living through two recessions taught me the importance of having options, and of the importance of balancing one’s true passions with that which will provide you security.

2. View the academic experience as something that you will continue to develop throughout your entire life. Be an eternal student. Commit to continuously enhancing your education through additional degrees, certificates, licenses, etc. Always be willing to move on from where you are or have been, to change majors, change careers, change paths.

3. Don’t be in a rush. The time will come when you will finish your degree. Don’t be so focused on the end result that you are not fully present in your current stage. Be at peace with and enjoy whatever life stage you are in.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: At this moment in my life, I have been a full-time student at Arizona State University for 12 years. Naturally inclined towards adventure and exploration, I can assert pretty confidently that I have perhaps taken academic refuge in every tiny nook and cranny that the ASU Tempe campus offers. From the libraries, to random unused classrooms in various buildings, to the recreation center, to little hidden corners of the ASU Art Museum, the music halls… you name it. However, the spot that ultimately became most special to me, because it represented much of my final years here, is the little-known Graduate Student Computer Lab, a slightly hidden, password protected, dusty room on the third floor of the Durham Language and Literature building.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Over the last almost two decades, my goal and dream had been to finish the PhD. Now that this dream has become a reality, I am entering a new stage in life where I will need to re-imagine and recalculate my interests, goals and life purposes. There are a few areas of my life that had been put on the backburner. Now that the universe has blessed me with this PhD dream, I would like to place these other goals at the forefront. One of them is my life as an athlete and competitor in the sports of Brazilian jiujitsu and judo.

In the years prior to returning to ASU for the PhD, I spent five years as a full-time athlete, competitor and coach. My claim to fame was in 2008 when I won the bronze medal at the Brazilian Jiujitsu World Championship, the minor-professional league of that sport. After that achievement, I entered the major-professional league and had the opportunity to compete against many of the top world champions. However, life circumstances and my greater dream to finish the PhD led me to step away from full-time dedication to the sport. I now plan on returning and attempting to reach the dreams that I still have in this sport.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: As a former undocumented immigrant, I grew up very aware of the financial, psychological and societal struggles that immigrants, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups experience throughout their lives. This unique experience made me highly aware and highly sensitive to the suffering and the injustices in the world. I have long fantasized about what I would do if came upon financial resources. Two main projects have been on my mind.

The first is the creation of a chain of “Centers for the Arts” established in low-income communities across the U.S. and the world. This Center for the Arts would be a place that provided professional level training in music, sports, languages, academics and trades. They would be free of charge and highly integrated with the public schools and local organizations. Children and teens from disadvantaged backgrounds would be taken in as apprentices to professionals and acquire ways of thinking and skills to open opportunities for upward mobility and self-realization.

Another cause that has been heavy on my heart is the plight of animals across the many facets of human civilization — food industry, labor, entertainment industry, clothing industry, science experimentation, animal testing, etc. I believe that one day in the future, humans will look back at our current and past societies and cringe in horror at the treatment we imposed on our most vulnerable fellow Earthlings. 

My desire is to contribute to the reconceptualization of our relationship and interaction with these fellow beings in order to help liberate them from human enslavement and abuse.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

 
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Psychology researcher receives scholarship to explore stress, sleep

Sophomore a recipient of new Jenessa Shapiro undergrad research scholarship.
November 24, 2020

Valeria Gutierrez is an ASU sophomore majoring in psychology who conducts research as part of the Arizona Twin Project

Valeria Gutierrez is a sophomore majoring in psychology who conducts research as part of the Arizona Twin Project. She is a recipient of the new Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship launched this fall in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology.

“I am currently a research assistant with the on-call team," Gutierrez said. "Our team is the one in charge of maintaining contact with all the families that participate in our study. When it's a family's time to participate, we send them actigraphy watches to record nighttime movement and see if they are getting effective sleep or if they are simply tossing and turning at night. We also send vials to collect saliva to measure their cortisol or stress levels.”

The Arizona Twin Project is a joint effort between the Child Emotion Center and the Adolescent Stress and Emotion Lab at ASU. The research is conducted by Associate Professor and Developmental Area Head Leah Doane, Professor Mary Davis and Professor Kathryn Lemery-Chalfant, who focus on the complex gene and environmental factors contributing to the development of stress, sleep and emotion regulation. This project is an ongoing longitudinal study funded over the last six years by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, designed to explore the risk and resilience predictors of common mental and physical health problems during infancy, childhood and adolescence.

The overarching goal of the Arizona Twin Project addresses a central developmental question — how resilience develops and affects the impact of early risk on child physical health and common mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct problems, anxiety and depression.  

Gutierrez’s interests are wide ranging, including exploring research into false confessions in criminology investigations and sleep deprivation.

“Personally, I’d like to investigate how stress may affect the efficiency of sleep or a lack of sleep,” Gutierrez said.

Video by the ASU Department of Psychology

Expanding opportunity for underrepresented women in STEM

According to the International Journal of STEM Education, women are “significantly underrepresented in STEM” careers, making up less than 25% of those working in STEM occupations. Additionally, Hispanic, Asian and African American women each receive less than 5% of the STEM bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.

Gutierrez has enjoyed being mentored by three different female faculty members and mentions that as a driving factor in her future research pursuits.

“All three faculty mentors are so different in their research and in their instruction, but they are all such incredibly strong women and it has been great to learn from each of them,” Gutierrez said.

The Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship, which is dedicated to supporting annually one to two students with funding of up to $5,000, is designed to support and augment research by underrepresented students by removing financial barriers to entry. These students previously may have had to work or meet certain time obligations outside of the lab that prevented in-depth research projects or participating in a research lab.

“One thing this scholarship allows me to do is to explore research beyond what I was planning on doing for my classes. It gives me the opportunity to really build up my research foundation for graduate school,” Gutierrez said.

“The important part of representing underrepresented students is that many of us don’t feel like we have a place in a research setting. We often feel excluded from research opportunities because it just isn’t our place. Choosing to support underrepresented students not only helps to raise them, but it raises their culture with them.”

Serving others

Gutierrez also a deep passion for service and has been participating in Rotary Club organizations since high school. She is now the social media chair for the Phoenix chapter of Rotaract.

The Rotaract club engages students with community leaders to work side by side and to take action through service, to ultimately change the lives of the local community.

 “A portion of our member dues gets donated to the Navajo Water Project. This helps to provide clean running water and solar to Navajao families,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of the times we forget about the needs in our own community, and I think that the Navajo community frequently gets forgotten and we can make a major impact locally.”

RELATED: Psychology student receives scholarship to research perception and neuroscience

Top photo of Valeria Gutierrez by Robert Ewing/ASU

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager , Department of Psychology

480-727-5054

Bountiful harvest celebrations from around the globe

Faculty in ASU's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies discuss the different religious and cultural backgrounds of harvest holidays


November 24, 2020

Throughout human history, the celebration of a bountiful harvest is weaved into many different cultures. Many of these celebrations are rooted in religious or cultural practices, including the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in the United States.

Today, harvests are celebrated around the world in different ways and for different reasons. Religious studies faculty in Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies gave insight on some celebrations from countries around the world. Grain in a field at sunset Photo courtesy of pexels.com. Download Full Image

Sombile

Sombile is a fall harvest festival on the day of the autumnal equinox that was celebrated by Muslim Turkic-speaking people of the Russian Federation, or Tatars, before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Although many of the prerevolutionary agrarian festivals, such as Sombile, faded away during  Soviet Union rule, the famous Sabantuy festival or the Plough festival remain in practice to this day.

“Currently Sombile is experiencing a comeback, especially in schools,” said Agnes Kefeli, clinical professor of religious studies. “People come from different villages to see children perform in plays that reenact the ancient festival as they imagined it to be in the past. A girl is chosen for her beauty and wit to represent Mother Nature.”

The girl is placed on a throne and people bring fruits of harvest to her. She is then asked to predict whether the winter will be cold or not.

“Because this festival has no Islamic basis, mullahs and female religious teachers, abystays, object to the renewal of this celebration in schools,” Kefeli said. “Nevertheless, many secular Tatar teachers welcome it because it is, in their view, an occasion for the community to speak and sing in Tatar, eat Tatar dishes and renew their commitment to their unique culture.”

Many Tatar people welcome Sombile as an ecological festival that reunites them with nature and their native landscape since many resent the damage caused by forced industrialization. 

Zhongqiu Jie (Middle Autumn Festival)

Zhongqiu Jie, the Middle Autumn Festival or the Moon Festival, is celebrated in China. The Chinese traditionally used the lunar calendar and this festival was timed for the 15th day of the eighth month. 

“The 15th of each month is always a full moon and, as you know, the ‘harvest moon’ is usually gorgeous,” said Regents Professor of religious studies and Chinese Stephen Bokenkamp. “It is also celebrated in Korea and Japan under other names. Chuseok ‘autumn eve’ in Korea and Tsukimi ‘moon viewing’ in Japan.”

This harvest’s earliest recorded celebration dates back to during the Shang dynasty, 1600–1046 BC, but its origin is unknown. Today, the festival is one of the few still based on the lunar calendar, so it falls at a different time each year according to the solar calendar. This year it was on Oct. 1. 

There is a custom of putting out lanterns, viewing the moon and eating moon cakes and other foods based on major crops such as rice and wheat for the festival. Many stories are associated with the festival, including ones of gods, goddesses and emperors.

“My favorite is that, on one moon festival night, the Tang emperor Li Longji asked the Daoist Ye Jingneng where the best lanterns in the kingdom might be situated,” Bokenkamp said. “The Daoist responded, but said that none matched the brilliance of those in the Moon Palace. He then conducted the emperor to the palaces of the moon where he learned the music to the Daoist dance ‘Rainbow Skirts and Feathered Robes’ from the performance of the ‘silk white maidens’ who entertained him there.”

The Celebration of the Coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw of Ethiopia

Rastafari communities around the world celebrate the coronation date of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw of Ethiopia on Nov. 2 of every year. The coronation occurred on that date in 1930 and was a monumental moment for the community because Ethiopia was one of the only sovereign nations in Africa at the time.

“The spectacle of a Black king and queen during white supremacist European imperialism was a transformative moment across Africa and the African diaspora,” said Shamara Wyllie Alhassan, assistant professor of religious studies. “This coronation was transformative because it exposed the lie or disinformation campaign that narrated Africa as ahistorical and Africans as inhuman. For Rastafari, the coronation signified Black humanity, Black royalty and Black divinity during a time when Black people desperately needed a symbol of hope.”

The celebration of the coronation is still held in Rastafari communities across the globe. Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw are divine in Rastafari cosmology, which originated with Leonard Percival Howell in his 1935 book, “The Promised Key.”

“A typical celebration looks like a large gathering with singing, drums, sharing food, reasonings or extended debates about several issues pertaining to the world and Rastafari spirituality,” Alhassan said. “The celebration reaffirms community, shared orientation and ideas amongst Rastafari communities.”

Saints Days

There are many harvest holidays celebrated across Eurasia, all beginning at different times and for different reasons but most revolve around the Russian Orthodox Church. 

In Ukraine, the harvest festivities begin on the feast day of the Great Martyr Saint Procopius the Harvester. The Russian Orthodox Church continues to use the Julian calendar, as did Russia from 1700 to 1918.

“Procopius’s feast day falls on July 8 in the Julian calendar, which is July 21 in the Gregorian,” said Eugene Clay, associate professor of religious studies. “The harvesters took the first few ears of grain solemnly to their home, where they placed them beneath a consecrated painted image of a saint or holy event and decorated them with crowns made from flowers. When the grain was milled, these first ears were processed separately so that they could be later mixed with the seeds that would be sown. In this way, the farmers returned fertility to the earth.”

In other places in Russia, the beginning of the harvest is celebrated on Saint Panteleimon’s Day with ears of grain solemnly brought to the church to be blessed.

“Likewise, at the end of the harvest, farmers left a few ears of grain in the field, which they call ‘the beard,’” said Clay. “According to the folklorist Vladimir Propp, people differed over whether these remaining grains represented the beard of St. Elijah, the beard of Christ or even the beard of the landlord. The peasants decorated these unharvested grains with ribbons or flowers and then made an appeal to them to guarantee the fertility of the fields.”

Andean Harvest Fiestas

Unlike most monotheistic harvest traditions, where there is a god who created crops and the Earth from outside of itself and therefore there is an abundance of resources, many native and Indigenous people view the Earth as something that needs to be replenished and thanked directly. This is true for people who are native to the Andes in South America. 

“The mountains in the Andes are thought of as being reservoirs or storehouses of every good thing,” said Tod Swanson, associate professor of religious studies. “But they are like a human body. They are like human beings in the sense that they can wear out; they can be exhausted.”

The Andean harvest festivals take place around the winter solstice, which south of the equator is around June. People from neighboring communities from up and down the mountains come together for days of feasting, drinking and dancing. 

The primary purpose of the festival is to elicit a reaction from the mountains to bring liquid rain so the next cycle of crops will grow. In these traditions, the fluids that come from the earth are thought of as emotional, bodily and sexual fluids such as tears or milk. 

“The idea here is that the mountains that are up around the earth are flowing water down to nourish the people,” Swanson said. “The idea here is that the people that are having the festival are the children of the mountains and the ancestors are inside those mountains and on the Earth.”

These festivals last days as people eat and drink alcohol. They also pour their drinks out on the ground, so that they are sharing their harvest with their ancestors and the earth.

“You are engaging the earth that is tied into your body through a circulation of fluids,” Swanson said. “It is somehow tied into you and you are, not paying the earth, but you are flirting with the earth or engaging the earth so as to create a response of love.”

Now, the harvest fiestas have become attached to different Catholic feast days, but remain an important celebration in the regions. 

Sukkoth

Sukkoth is the final harvest festival for Jewish people all over the world. It’s also known as Feast of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths and commemorates God protecting the Israelites during their desert wanderings.

“It originates in the Hebrew Bible and is one of three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Shavuot, when Jews would make pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple with offerings,” said Timothy Langille, lecturer of religious studies. “For Sukkoth, that offering would be from the autumn harvest. Before the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, Sukkoth also was a water-drawing festival when libations would be poured over the altar as people prayed for rain.”

As part of the celebration, as prescribed by the Torah, people build a “sukkah,” also known as a booth or temporary shelter, as a reminder that the Israelites lived in sukkahs after the exodus from Egypt. 

“These structures are built in yards, gardens or balconies and it’s customary to dwell in them,” Langille said. “The roof of the sukkah is covered with branches and plants and is decorated in various other ways, but the stars at night can be seen through the roof. If possible, meals during Sukkoth are eaten in the sukkah.”

This harvest is an eight-day festival for Jewish people in the diaspora and a seven-day festival for Jews living in Israel and it begins five days after Yom Kippur, the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Like an American Thanksgiving, Jewish people will use a cornucopia as a symbol of the holiday, but the holiday is also associated with palm, myrtle, willow and citron.

Rachel Bunning

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

ASU master's degree grad is on top of the world


November 24, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

When she began her Arizona State University career, online student Swati Shrestha was three years into a job in Mussoorie, India at a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills. “It was an incredible experience,” she said, “but it was also difficult to maintain a work-life balance. I wanted to do something that was just for me.” Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Swatio Shrestha on top of a Himalayan peak. Graduating online master’s student Swati Shrestha celebrates at approximately 13,000 feet after ascending Chandrashila Peak in the Himalayas. Download Full Image

Shrestha decided that earning a graduate degree was part of that self-care. She capitalized on a latent passion for literary studies and picked up where she left off with her undergraduate degree; Shrestha is graduating with a Master of Arts in English this December.

Attending online classes allowed her to crisscross the globe several times over during her studies, and to engage in other challenging pursuits – at many different altitudes. “Part of the reason I've taken two and a half years to complete my degree,” Shrestha said, “is because my first summer in the program, I spent 20 days climbing Bandarpunch, a snowpeak in the Indian Himalayas. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I was so grateful to be in a program where I could take the time to disconnect, spend time with friends as we learned to use icepicks and walk in snow boots, and slowly summit a mountain before returning to reality.”

But summiting 20,000-foot peaks wasn’t Shrestha’s only diversion. While simultaneously taking ASU classes, she continued to work as a college admissions counselor, attended conferences in Europe, and visited family in the U.S. states of South Dakota, Massachusetts, Texas and Oregon and in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shrestha capped off her world travels with a pandemic-era move to Bangkok, Thailand, where she now resides.

“I started my degree at 6500 feet," Shrestha joked, "and am ending it at sea-level." 

She continued, “I've learned so much from my master's program over the last two years, and I'm glad to have pursued a further degree.”

We caught up with Shrestha, as she rested between adventures, to ask a few more questions.

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

Answer: I loved reading as a kid, and read widely and voraciously. While researching colleges for my undergraduate degree, I remember absorbing the course descriptions for classes offered at my eventual alma mater, Reed College, and being thrilled that it was possible to study such a variety of topics within the field of English. Many years after I graduated from college, when I started to consider applying to graduate programs, I considered if I might want to pursue a degree in education, or counseling. However, as I looked through different programs, I realized that English was still a true passion of mine. I wanted to complete a graduate degree to be intellectually fulfilled, and I couldn't imagine that with any field other than English.

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

A: I took a class on posthumanism with Professor (Mark) Lussier that really stretched the way I considered how English as a field interacted with philosophy, and additionally, challenged how I thought about what it means to be human. I really enjoyed grappling with these big philosophical ideas in conjunction with media texts such as “Metropolis” and “Bladerunner.”

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU offered me the flexibility to complete my master's degree while I continued to work. I really like being a college counselor, but I was also ready to take on a challenge, and do something just for me. Plus, the English studies program at ASU offered a variety of classes in areas that I already knew I was interested in — magical realism, teaching young adult literature — and areas that I wanted to explore further — travel writing, teaching composition.

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

A: I have honestly been so grateful at how understanding and flexible my professors have been as I've figured out how to be a student in a distance learning mode. My professors were always understanding when I would email them months in advance to inquire about required texts. Living on the side of a mountain, I had to purchase most books online with enough time for them to wend their way across seas and up the hillside to my home. At one point, I realized that I would be on a school hike during the first week of classes, away from any kind of cell service in Govind Pashu National Park in northern India, climbing Kedarkantha Peak with a group of 22 students in grade ten. I contacted Professor (Claudia) Sadowski-Smith who was kind enough to think through the timeline with me, and open the class a few days early so that I could get my work for the first week completed before I left for the wilderness. I was so glad, because “Magical Realism as a Global Genre” was one of the classes I was most excited to take, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Throughout the course, Professor Sadowski-Smith was firm in her high expectations, but fair and flexible at the same time – a teaching approach I hope to emulate.

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

A: You can do it! Education online can feel like a solo slog, but make sure you're reaching out to your professors when you need help and keeping those in your life who care about you in the loop about your highs and lows. Most importantly, stay organized! I started keeping a note on my phone and computer for each class, which became the most helpful way for me to keep myself on track. I set up each note at the beginning of the session, with the course description, course objectives and rubric. Week by week, I include learning objectives, required reading, and assignments and discussions. Being able to check off the work I needed to complete week-by-week was not only satisfying, but also made sure I was on top of my schoolwork.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I was in a lot of places while I completed my degree! For most of it, I was living in Mussoorie, India, and my favorite spot for power studying there was next to our wood-burning stove, covered in blankets. But I've also got a special shout out for Harriet and Oak, a great little coffee shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, where I spent part of a summer quietly sounding out the phonetic alphabet for a linguistics class.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I've been working in college admission counseling for a decade now, and plan to continue working in this important field. However, I have loved being a student again! My degree gives me the confidence that I could pivot to another path in education or academia, if or when I choose to!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would put that money to work creating scholarships to help educate young people in developing countries and in regions of conflict, at all levels of education. Education is life changing. It changes the trajectory not only of a single person, but of their entire family or community. I have worked with students who are the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone college. For their siblings and relatives, they are an example of what is possible. But I also know that coming into a rigorous high school or college education can be really challenging, and constant financial stress can affect academic performance. I would want to support students in developing countries from a young age through to a college education, to help young people become changemakers in their communities.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

 
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ASU President Michael Crow addresses the impact of immigration on higher education

November 20, 2020

The panel discussion was part of the 2020 National Immigration Forum, held virtually from Nov. 16–19

This week, Arizona State University President Michael Crow spoke about the impact of immigration on higher education institutions at the National Immigration Forum’s virtual conference “Leading the Way 2020,” a multiday conference attended by a variety of influential speakers who engaged in critical conversations about one of the most pressing challenges our country faces: immigration.

Crow sat on a panel with Dan L. Boone, president at Trevecca Nazarene University, to discuss the higher education pipeline with moderator Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education.

“American colleges and universities have long been at the forefront of immigration issues,” said Mitchell. “Whether those are issues of undocumented students, DACA students and Dreamers, or whether at the other end of the academic pipeline, with graduate students who leave American colleges and universities with newly minted PhDs and aim to enter the entrepreneurship economy and need to be able to immigrate successfully in order to do that.”

ASU is at the forefront of diversity and access and is often in the news for demographic shifts in the state. Crow has experienced firsthand the unique challenges facing undocumented, DACA and Dreamer students at ASU. He related the story of a student who was in tears as he found out he was going to be deported back to Taiwan because he was an undocumented student whose parents had died.

“I’ve always viewed this as moral duty,” said Crow. “It’s a moral duty for us to find a way to advance children who find their way into this democracy to full achievement. That’s been something that we have tried to do all along.”

National Immigration Forum 2020

ASU serves DACA and Dreamer students from over 20 countries, and the Arizona Constitution guarantees the right of every child to have access to a free education through high school and an affordable university education.

“What we’ve tried to do is be the warm, welcoming democracy that’s built on immigration in particular,” said Crow. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need immigration policy, or immigration law, or immigration procedures. We do. But, in this case, relative to these students, we’re talking about people that are children. We’re talking about people that need to be treated justly. And that’s what we at ASU have decided to do.”

Mitchell asked both panelists what advice they would have for the new presidential administration to help support DACA students, Dreamers and the universities they attend. Crow encouraged the new administration to consider their actions in context with higher education’s core mission: to move students forward and build them up to succeed. 

“We need to be enabled and empowered to do that,” said Crow. “We need clear definitions, we need policies that are just and equitable, and then we also need, in the bigger picture, immigration reform so that we have a system that works. There are all kinds of ways to solve these issues; we just need to make decisions — so we also need leadership.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic downturn, which has been particularly hard on university students (particularly DACA and Dreamer students), Crow said that ASU had stepped in to provide resources to help.

Mitchell asked the panelists what higher education can do to send a message to DACA students, Dreamers, undocumented students and first-generation students that they have a place in higher education and that high education institutions are there for them.

“We’re empowering these students and their families to help shape the outcome of our socioeconomic structure,” said Crow. “I tell people that the economy is only going to work if we can find talent everywhere, empower that talent and that energy and that creativity, and move it forward. If we don’t do that, then we are going to be left with an underperforming economy, high social welfare costs, and high expenditures for low outcomes. We’re going to be left with lots of underrealized potential, we’re going to be left with social instability, and possibly with social unrest. All of those things are going to be derivative. Or we can take all of this talent and all of these kids who come from families where no one has ever been to college before and these DACA kids and help all of them to move their lives forward. That’s our choice.”

Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com 

ASU librarians create Black Lives Matter Library Guide


November 20, 2020

For the United States, 2020 has been a year of racial reckoning.

The question of how to build a more equitable and diverse society is challenging our learning like never before — and many are taking up the challenge.  A laptop next to a stack of books The library guide points learners in all directions: books, articles, films, podcasts, courses and talks about the history of systemic racism in America. Photo by iStock Download Full Image

For those needing some help on where to begin, the ASU Library’s Black Lives Matter Library Guide is such a place.

“We’ve had these collections and materials for years,” said Deborah Abston, a liaison librarian for the ASU Library's social science division. “Now is a good time to shine a light on them.”

Abston is among a circle of ASU librarians who came together, virtually, shortly after the killing of George Floyd and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing Black Lives Matter movement, to create a library guide with the intention that it might serve as a jumping-off point for research and personal education about systemic racism in America. 

“We are doing our best to provide the information that people need, in whatever form that needs to be,” said Abston.

The library guide points learners in all directions — to books, articles, films, podcasts, reports, courses and talks about the history of racial injustice — on everything from Jim Crow and the practice of redlining to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921.

There are sections devoted to police violence data, resources for K–12 learners and information about ASU allies. 

“We wanted to highlight educational, historical and self-care resources for all ages, and to help people shape their teaching and instruction,” said Rene Tanner, associate liaison librarian for the ASU Library's humanities division. “We also wanted to make it relevant to what’s going on here at ASU and in the United States.”

Abston says that although some of the terminology may be changing, the materials that the library has been collecting for decades has not.

“If you do a search for ‘Tulsa and race,’ the books that pop up are ones we’ve owned for a long time,” said Abston. “What happened in Tulsa close to a hundred years ago has always been called a riot, but really it was more like a massacre. The important thing is that people are starting to talk about it.”

So far the library guide has received over 4,000 views. 

The ASU Library’s statement of support for the Black community is featured on the front page: “We stand with the Black community of ASU and Arizona, and we will continue to support individuals as they speak their truth and document their stories of resiliency and acts of racism against marginalized communities across the state. We see you, we hear you, and you matter.”

A living document, the guide is updated weekly — and suggestions on how to improve it are welcome. The librarians say they’d like to see the guide used more widely for instruction, research and personal discovery. 

“No one asked us to do this,” said Karen Grondin, a licensing and copyright librarian. “We decided ourselves that it needed to be done.”

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

 
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Native Narratives program embraces storytelling, supports future leaders

November 20, 2020

Native students in two-year program complete specially designed courses, connect with university mentors

Storytelling is a tool that has been used cross-culturally for centuries as a means to teach lessons, express viewpoints and build communities. Arizona State University’s new Native Narratives program strives to expand on the tradition of storytelling in Native American culture by using it as a tool to prepare students for careers in the humanities and academia. 

In the two-year program, Native students from a variety of schools, departments and disciplines within ASU complete specialized courses designed to help them gain tools to effectively share their stories, connect with university mentors and receive ongoing support. Supported by a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program is a collaboration between The College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Center for Indian Education and Center for Imagination in the Borderlands

Bryan Brayboy, President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation, director of the Center for Indian Education and special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs, and Natalie Diaz, director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands, associate professor in the Department of English and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, launched the first interdisciplinary cohort in 2019. 

Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, and Diaz, a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, said they are fueled to do this work through their own personal experiences as Native scholars. The idea for the program came to be when they were exploring ways to build a community where Native students feel accepted and empowered to move forward in higher education.

“Natalie and I are both engaged in and grew up in and around communities where stories were one medium through which we learned lessons,” Brayboy said. “We thought about who we were as members of communities and as Native peoples, while drawing on who we are as cultural beings in a way that is consistent with the challenges of what it means to be an Indigenous person in the academy, which is not always kind to Native peoples and our lived realities. This was a first attempt for us to begin thinking about how we can create the conditions for students to think about themselves as writers and as intellectuals.”

Providing the tools to empower students

Chael Moore, an undergraduate student studying English and creative writing and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is one of eight students in the first cohort. Moore grew up in Crystal, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation with her siblings and parents. As the youngest in her family and the first to pursue a degree in the humanities, she said she has independently made connections and forged her path in higher education.

“My siblings are all in STEM and other things like architecture or law. My mom was focused on environmental science, and when my dad was going to school he was thinking about architecture. For me it was creative writing,” Moore said. “I was very hesitant to declare that to my family because of that. But it's also very rewarding because my family doesn't have any connections in that world. So I'm very proud of where I'm at right now, considering that I kind of did it all on my own in a way.”

Moore said through writing about her lived experiences as a Diné woman, she strives to honor her family while shedding light on a perspective seldom shared in mainstream literature. In one of her most recent writings, “Woshdee’ (come on in),” she passionately expresses some of the difficulties and prejudices she regularly encounters throughout her life.

"The first time I ever felt shame for being who I was
was in the first grade.
Sitting in my chair with ch’izhii brown skin, a little girl from the Rez
shielded from the world, I heard
‘Welcome Chael everyone, she’s Native American!’
 
Her words made me feel like I was her prize.
one she had just won from an ad that said:
Indian children for sale!
 
A second time I was at a bar.
I stood in line, minding my own damn business when this white couple approached me.
I tried my best to avoid conversation
She stood closer, inhaled my air, then said
‘Wow you have a very exotic face. Can I touch your cheek bones?’
Her husband nodded in agreement gazing over what was left of me
 
A third time, I was at a club with my friends.
A man approached me asking if he could take me home by whispering
‘Will you be my Pocahontas tonight?’
I stood there thinking not again.
 
You see, it is not all fun and games.
Because while you hear it, you see it, you condone it?
I experience it."

— Chael Moore, excerpt from "Woshdee’ (come on in)"

Moore said through the program she has not only honed her writing skills, she has also collaborated with researchers from around the world and made new connections.

“The program gives us the opportunity to rewrite our own narratives, instead of other people writing them for us,” Moore said. “I'm really appreciative to be in the spaces I've been in, like collaborating with Dr. Brayboy and his colleagues and Natalie Diaz. That's something I never imagined doing. My experiences in the program have opened a lot of doors for me because I’ve been able to connect with people who are interested in the things I want to do in the future. I've also been able to make new friends, and it’s just really nice to know more Indigenous students on campus.”

Every student in the program is assigned a mentor at ASU, each bringing a different set of skills, background and expertise for the students to learn from. Through the program, students are paired with an established ASU professor who has interests that align with their own. Students meet regularly with their mentors to assist with research and other scholarly projects, attend events together, and ask questions or express concerns they might have, both academic and personal in nature.

“What we know is that when Native students have positive relationships with someone at the university, they are more likely to persist and they are more likely to be successful than if they don’t,” Brayboy said. “Human beings broadly, but Native people in this case specifically, go through life with mentors who guide us and offer wisdom when it's necessary to help people navigate difficult situations.”

Brayboy and Diaz have found that through this aspect of the program, the student-mentor relationships have been mutually beneficial for the students and the mentors.

Native Narratives

Members of the Native Narratives cohort with Canadian writer and guest speaker for "The Power of Story" workshop Terese Mailhot: (standing, from left) Napolean Marrietta, Tally Totsoni, Elena Morris, Mailhot, Shauntel Redhouse and KaLynn Yazzie; (kneeling, from left) Chael Moore and Andra Gutierrez. Photo courtesy of Native Narratives

“The majority of our mentors are non-Native and we feel like that's really important because too often, just by default in our country, one of the ways we categorize and compartmentalize is by race or ethnicity. There's a presumption that Native students should stay in a certain area, in certain classes with certain mentors,” Diaz said. “What this program has shown is the immediate impact of our students interacting with some of our most visible faculty and scholars is that it creates a reciprocal relationship. Our students are benefiting from watching them research and from their interactions with them, and our faculty are building their own capacity to imagine Natives in their classroom and imagine Natives as being successful in these fields.”

Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, serves as a mentor to Shauntel Redhouse, a human nutrition major and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Redhouse is currently assisting Jackson with research related to high school sports and Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programming.

“Working with Victoria has helped widen my view of everything — from different research that is out there to all the resources that ASU has to offer,” Redhouse said. “If Native Narratives weren't around, I wouldn't have been able to make the connections I’ve made. I wouldn’t have the mentors I have now and I wouldn’t have met the people I'm surrounded by. Within the class structure, our professors talk about what it means to them to be Indigenous, and that has really motivated us to speak about our history and tell our stories.”

As a student who comes from a more scientific background, Redhouse said she most enjoyed the introductory narrative course she took through the program because it gave her the opportunity to explore other disciplines outside of her major.

“Native Narratives has challenged me to write my own story so I can help others,” she said. “I think that's what the program has helped us with the most, connecting us with other students and creating a space where we can share feedback and help each other out.”

Paving the way for future Native scholars

According to the U.S. Department of Education, despite an increase in the number of Native students attending college over time, they remain the highest underrepresented group in postsecondary institutions, representing less than 1% of enrolled students.

MORE: ASU strives to promote and advance Native American higher education

The underrepresentation of Native students also exists at the graduate level and among full-time faculty. Less than 0.5% of all students across the U.S. enrolled in graduate programs identify as American Indian, and faculty who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native or who are two or more races, each make up 1% or less of full-time faculty.

The Native Narratives program is one of many ASU initiatives working to improve these numbers and create new opportunities for Native students. This fall, ASU has seen a growing number of Native students enrolled, with 2,874 undergraduate and 596 graduate students. In addition, ASU is one of the nation's leaders in degrees granted to American Indian students annually. For the 2019-20 academic year, 663 Native undergraduate and graduate students earned 679 degrees from ASU.

A major goal of the Native Narratives program is to encourage and prepare students to pursue graduate school and eventually professorship or other careers in higher education. In addition, the program is aligned with the greater aspirations of The College and the humanities division to enable students to create the future of the humanities disciplines and make them their own.

Evolving with student and university needs 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Native Narratives program has evolved to be primarily online, with classes, events and mentoring sessions being held via Zoom. Although these experiences are quite different than the traditional, in-person gatherings that the cohort has become accustomed to, the community continues to thrive and meet students where they are.

Brayboy said he sees this shift to online learning as a metaphor for how he hopes to approach the evolution of Native Narratives. He and Diaz said they are intentionally unsure of what the future holds for Native Narratives, as they hope to evolve the program based on student and university demands.

“The idea that we're going to have 17 cohorts isn't something that I aspire to necessarily,” Brayboy said. “I'm much more interested in how we can evolve our thinking about this, but also the program and the students' presence in it. How does it evolve the institution so that the institution begins to behave and engage differently — to think about knowledge and writing and stories differently? That's going to create other opportunities for us to explore.” 

Brayboy and Diaz said they hope the efforts of this program will eventually eliminate the need for a program like this, because that would mean they accomplished what they set out to do — meaningfully increase Native American representation and participation in the university setting. With the first cohort underway and the second beginning in summer 2021, they are confident and hopeful that they can create a new future for Native students in higher education.

“As the university continues to evolve, we won't need this particular program because in a way, this program was a call to action as we imagine together in a very different way. It was a call to our mentors, to see who among our colleagues will join us in this collective imagining for how to receive Indigenous students better,” Diaz said. 

“Our students are teaching us the things that they need that are not the same things our students needed five years ago. We began this program, and that should be enough for Native presence; however, as with any program, we think a lot about innovation. Indigenous communities and imaginations are very innovative. So this program will continue to morph, to shift, to leap and become the next iterations.”

Top photo by ASU

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer , The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

New fellowship brings inclusivity to language analytics


November 19, 2020

We all have our biases. But few of us consider how biases can inadvertently shape the design and execution of research.

For example, testing mobile device ergonomics among mainly male participants could result in smartphones that are too large for many female hands. Or testing the safety of autonomous vehicle optical systems with only lighter-skinned pedestrians in well-lit environments may not protect darker-skinned individuals walking at night.  SLATE Lab In this photo from July 2017, human systems engineering Associate Professor Rod Roscoe provides direction to a student learning how computer-based tools can support effective learning processes at the Sustainable Learning and Adaptive Technology for Education Lab, or SLATE Lab. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Understanding the effects of cultural biases in a research setting has become a topic of interest among scientists in various fields. They ask, how does unintentionally excluding certain demographic groups from a study skew its results in a noninclusive way? And how might this perpetuate inequitable social conditions?

Human systems engineering Associate Professor Rod Roscoe at The Polytechnic School, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is partnering with the Learning Agency Lab (also known as the Lab) to expand understanding of the biases that exist specifically in language analytics research. Together, they have launched a fellowship program, funded by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation award, focusing on promoting inclusion and equity within research in this field.

“Language analytics is a fusion of fields like data science and linguistics, often using computer-based tools to detect features of natural language and then relying on that information to guide assessments, make decisions and advance human-computer interaction,” Roscoe said. “Examples of these applications are everywhere — automated tools for closed captioning or dictation, voice-activated controls, and software that gives feedback on writing style or grammar.” 

These applications function by using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to link key language components to valuable outcomes, like making cohesive text or understanding a spoken command. 

Inherently, algorithm formation depends heavily on the data source — in this case, the language that defines what the algorithm measures. Ideally, these algorithms should work with a healthy variety of language from people of different backgrounds and cultures, such as those who speak English as a second language or who speak with different dialects. This diversity allows the algorithms to capture and respond to an authentic range of how real people use language.

Roscoe and his colleagues believe that many current natural language processing tools and applications are not being developed in this way and are therefore contributing to inequity and exclusion in language-based technologies. He proposes the question, “Who decides what counts as good writing and communication?” 

“The people whose text is being used to develop language tools are most likely from a narrow demographic that doesn’t represent the general population or important subgroups,” Roscoe said. “If we aren’t careful, cultural and gender biases can be built into the algorithms that support these products. And once they are built into the algorithm, it becomes difficult to undo. They become part of the ‘black box’ of the software and taken for granted.”

Linguistic biases narrow the range of language that is considered correct or permissible, and they penalize users who aren’t using language according to those standards. For instance, restrictive beliefs about “proper English” or “professional English” might lead to devaluing ideas from those who are nonnative English speakers or have not been taught to write or speak in a certain way. 

“We are re-creating our prejudices by putting them into a computer,” said Roscoe, who will serve as the lead investigator on this project.

The collaborative goal of the Inclusive Language Analytics Fellowship Program is to advance both the research and the researchers in these fields. Roscoe and the Lab aim to recruit two recent doctoral graduates from underrepresented backgrounds as fellows to investigate inclusive language analytics and to be mentored by diverse learning engineering and language experts at ASU and from other institutions across the country.

Fellows will be encouraged and expected to participate in career and equity development opportunities, attend workshops on grant and resume writing and attend training programs that discuss racism, sexism and other societal issues.

At ASU, fellows will be invited to participate in events and dialogues sponsored by organizations such as the ASU Postdoctoral Affairs Office, the Committee for Campus Inclusion, the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Project Humanities and others.

The idea for this fellowship was developed alongside another project at the Lab to improve the algorithms that drive assisted writing feedback tools. In partnership with Georgia State University, the Lab has collected a robust dataset of student responses that will be available to fellows for research.  

The Lab will help manage the project by ensuring the fellows stay on track and share their findings in academic and public audience venues, and by finding speaker opportunities. A large network of professors with different specializations from various institutions will assist in providing research advice and career opportunities in addition to mentorship for the fellows.

“We want to provide layers and layers of support so the fellows feel validated in their research,” said Aigner Picou, program director at the Lab. “The best outcome would be that the fellows are placed at institutions in full-time positions sharing and implementing the knowledge they’ve learned at this fellowship.”

“If we are not thinking of diversity and equity as we build technologies, people will be excluded, or worse, punished or harmed based on the biases we build into the software,” Roscoe said. “Inclusive language analytics is about making sure that doesn’t happen or continue to happen.”

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1590

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