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Justice for the land, justice for the people

November 19, 2020

ASU’s Project Humanities hosts Native panel to explore colonialism and environmental racism's effect on Indigenous communities

Many historians have stated that this country was founded on the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and the Earth.

Their land has been colonized for centuries. Resources such as water, minerals and wildlife were once honored and abundant, but now are polluted and scarce.

This history is why Native Americans have been consistent allies to environmental movements.

Arizona State University’s Project Humanities hosted a Nov. 17 livestream event titled “Environmental Justice: Indigenous Communities” to explore the intersection of justice for the Earth, justice for Indigenous peoples and how to mend the wounds of the past.

“If nothing else, the summer 2020 crisis in racial justice has forced conversation about systemic racism to name ‘white supremacy’ as the proverbial unnamed monster in the room,” said Neal A. Lester, professor of English and director of Project Humanities. “That many are looking at racial (in)justice in its myriad manifestations and permutations is exactly why this conversation about Indigenous communities and lands is imperative and beneficial. That we have such a panel of experts doing this work is truly an honor. Our desire is that coming together for this conversation will move us all to some action — great or small — to make us better and to make us think differently about our relationship with each other and with the stolen land upon which this very USA created itself.”

The event panel featured Alycia de Mesa, a senior sustainability scholar for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation; Melissa K. Nelson, professor of Indigenous sustainability in ASU’s School of Sustainability; Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, a grassroots organization focused on preserving and protecting the environment; Vanessa Nosie, employed with the San Carlos Apache Tribe Historic Preservation and Archeology Department as the NAGPRA project director and archeology aide; and her daughter, Naelyn Pike, an internationally renowned Indigenous rights and environmental leader and activist. Manuel Pino, a professor of sociology and coordinator of American Indian studies at Scottsdale Community College, served as the evening’s facilitator.  

Together, the panel examined the roots of environmental racism, colonialism, corporate mining and its impacts to Native lands, water diversion to fill the need of larger cities, climate change, demonstrating empathy for Native American tribes and how to become an ally to Indigenous peoples.

Screenshot of a virtual panel on Native environmental justice

Panelists at Project Humanities' Nov. 17 discussion on environmentalism and Indigenous communities include (top row, from left) sustainability instructor and PhD student Alycia de Mesa; San Carlos Apache preservationist Vanessa Nosie and her daughter, activist Naelyn Pike; Melissa Nelson, an ASU professor of Indigenous sustainability; (bottom row, from left) panel facilitator and Scottsdale Community College Professor Manuel Pino; and Navajo environmentalist Nicole Horseherder.

The group spent the first half of the program defining and tracing the roots of environmental racism. Pino, who hails from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, said he grew up next to a uranium mine that contaminated the environment and claimed the lives of a handful of his relatives. Pino added that those same mines were abandoned decades ago and were never reclaimed or cleaned up.

“All of these companies have abandoned and left us with our contaminated aboriginal homelands,” Pino said. “It not only had impacts to the environment, but to human health.”

Nelson said the roots of environmental racism trace back more than 500 years to explorer Christopher Columbus. She cited American Indian thinker Jack D. Forbes’ book "Columbus and the Other Cannibals" as a vital text.

“He (Forbes) talked about how when Columbus first came here, he brought this spirit of conquest and this spirit of colonialism. And, of course, it was fueled by the Vatican and the pope’s Doctrine of Discovery,” said Nelson, an Indigenous writer, editor and scholar-activist. “That basically said that these Indigenous lands and the millions of people who are here are pretty much invisible because they’re not Christian and weren’t tending to the land properly … so it goes way back and it has many faces.”

Horseherder, a Diné from Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona, said years of coal mining decimated their land and polluted their water.

“In all of the years that I had been growing up there, there were no more springs. And all of Black Mesa, we don’t have running rivers and springs, and we had springs all over the plateau,” Horseherder said. “The springs near my home was also gone. And that’s where my search began.”

Horseherder added that the Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant near the Arizona-Utah border shut down a year ago and was a major victory, but the work continues.

“One of the things we have to make sure of now is reclamation will occur under the federal government,” Horseherder said. “We as Indigenous people have to stay vigilant and (make sure it) happens to the standard that we need it to happen so that people can go back and live on those lands the way they used to.”

Nosie said environmental racism is much more than damage to Native land; it equates to cultural destruction and genocide.

“Our environment is a key source to our identity and who we are as Indigenous people,” said Nosie, who is a community organizer for her tribe. “Our cultural resources come from the Earth in order to conduct a lot of our resources. So when you talk about environmental racism, you’re talking about cultural destruction and genocide on our people.”

De Mesa, a fourth-generation Arizonan whose heritage is a mix of Mexican, Western Apache, Indigenous Mexican of Durango, Japanese and British/German, said it’s every non-Native’s duty to inform themselves about the history of these lands and become an ally. 

“We need to understand what is our environment, especially if you’re someone living in a big city,” de Mesa said. “Where does our water come from? Where does our energy come from? What are the backs that are being broken for you to enjoy Wi-Fi, electricity or anything else? We have to understand this historically, and we have to understand what’s happening in the present … investigate, ask questions, read. Obviously, empathy is a huge part of this.”

Pike said taking action by putting pressure on political leaders is not only effective, but every citizen’s right.

“Make your voice be heard because we are the people, we elect them to represent us so your voice needs to be heard,” said Pike, who co-leads (with her grandfather Wendsler Nosie Sr. and mother Vanessa Nosie) the nonprofit Apache Stronghold, which is fighting to stop a mining project that they say would desecrate Oak Flat, an Apache sacred site near the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. “Ask the question, ‘Who am I? Where do I come from?’ You’ll find a connection not just to yourself and your people, but it’ll also help you connect to what we’re trying to do.”

Pino said getting corporations and politicians to stop desecrating Native land has been a lifelong battle for him and others. It's something Pino said he may not see come to fruition during his lifetime, but he's not stopping no matter what.

“I started as a young man. Now I’m an old man,” Pino said. “And we’re still fighting.”

Project Humanities' suggested action items for the public

Top image courtesy of Project Humanities

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU students, staff, faculty and organizations named Catalyst Awardees

November 18, 2020

They’re student advocates and storytellers. They’re leading the way in making their classrooms and workplaces more equitable. They’re providing invaluable resources to students. They’re creating community and much more.

Thirteen ASU students, student groups, organizations, staff and faculty have been named 2020 Catalyst Awardees by the Arizona State University Committee for Campus Inclusion for their work fostering and promoting diversity and inclusion at ASU and beyond.  2020 Catalyst Award Winners Committee for Campus Inclusion Download Full Image

The 2020 awards included 35 nominees across six categories. The nominees are submitted by the ASU community, and recipients are chosen by the Committee for Campus Inclusion executive board, which is made up of staff and faculty from across ASU departments and campuses. The committee is an advisory group to the vice provost for inclusion and community engagement, and promotes a positive campus environment that fosters inclusion and diversity through advocacy, resources and programming.

Vice Provost Stanlie James, who leads the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement, oversees the work of the Committee for Campus Inclusion and the Catalyst Awards. She said the impetus for the awards was to recognize campuswide excellence in implementing the ASU Charter and to honor the collaborative work of students, faculty and staff, organizations and others. The charter emphasizes that ASU will be “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.”

“With (the committee), we were able to design an award that recognizes the critical work across campus and from different configurations such as departments, student organizations and faculty or staff endeavors that were identifying needs and issues of diversity, inclusion, equity and justice,” James said. “We felt it was imperative to provide a way to honor that important, innovative work, which is representative of our commitment to the charter.”

The Committee for Campus Inclusion is a core committee that falls under James’ leadership in the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement. James said she’s been heartened and inspired by the commitment of the ASU community to making a difference in the world and that she appreciates the work of the committee to solicit and carefully consider nominations. She mentioned that each year the awards also recognize the outstanding work of the committee, and this year the Committee for Campus Inclusion Chair’s Award was given to an instructional professional in comparative culture and language, Arina Melkozernova, for her contributions to the work of the committee.  

“The nominees and the recipients, as in years past, reflect the very best initiatives that ASU has to offer to making our campus a safe and welcoming place and to preparing our students as well as our faculty and staff to contribute innovative ideas to their home communities and to other places around the world where they might find themselves when they leave ASU,” James said. 

Turning Points magazine, the first magazine in the United States created by and for Native American college students, was a recipient in the employee clubs/organizations/teams category. Launched in 2017, the magazine publishes once per semester and allows students to tell the story of their own higher education journeys grounded within their own home, family and culture. 

Senior editor Taylor Notah, a management intern for the Center for Indian Education and 2018 journalism graduate from ASU, said that the publication, its podcast and other content enriches Native students’ college experience and provides a platform to share the stories of their homelands and “the needs of Indian Country.”

“This win is a recognition for all of the Indigenous student designers, writers, scholars, thinkers and creatives who have contributed to our student magazine and shared stories of their college experiences and journeys since 2017, when our first issue was published,” Notah said. “This is a recognition of how powerful and impactful the Indigenous voice can be — and is — within institutions that weren’t originally intended for us.” 

Notah said that the Turning Points team is honored to be recognized alongside other advocates on campus and that the impact of collective inclusion work is vital.

“Inclusivity begins when we listen to the stories and experiences that we don’t often hear from, and it is only after listening when we can empower and support others through engagement of resources, mentorship and more,” she said. “Inclusivity begins when the community as a whole respects and appreciates what makes each of us different. ... We have seen that the collective voices within a community can become even stronger when like-minded individuals seek change and foster spaces to do so.”

Mako Fitts Ward earned recognition in the faculty category for her dedication to transforming communities, raising awareness about social inequality, the histories of racism and violence, and how to respond to these issues with care. She said being recognized by the Committee for Campus Inclusion is a true honor.

“This award means so much to me. It is a recognition by the community of my most treasured peers, the steadfast JEDI leaders across ASU committed to walk the talk and to boldly speak truth to power,” Ward said.

Ward, who is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Social Transformation, said that inclusive social justice principles are the foundation of her work and that creating communities of care that value difference is what inclusion is all about.

“Inclusion is part of the ASU Charter, and we must invest in difference to stimulate innovation and growth,” she said. 

ASU W. P. Carey School of Business public service and public policy major Aniyah Braveboy — who is president of the Black African Coalition; undergraduate student representative on the W. P. Carey Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee; and appointee to President Michael Crow’s Advisory Council for African American Affairs —  was honored for her extensive service work to combat racism in campus communities. She has helped move forward inclusion initiatives such as advocating for a multicultural center on campus, establishing a scholarship for Black students and promoting the hiring of more diverse faculty and staff.

Braveboy said receiving the award is an honor, and the news inspired a lot of feelings.

“I have worked extremely hard over the past seven months, and the recognition means that people are seeing the changes and believe in my abilities to continue to break barriers for the Black community at ASU,” Braveboy said. “As the president of the (Black African Coalition), I continuously place the needs of our organizations and students before myself, which I will continue to do in the future as I am always pleased to see Black students succeed. This award makes all of the meetings, sleepless nights and stress worth it.”

Braveboy said she was inspired to take action after she experienced racism in the classroom. 

“I wanted to conjure up ways to ensure other Black and brown students did not have to experience what I did. I put myself on the line countless times to advocate and stand tall for the (Black African Coalition), and whenever I was afraid, I thought of Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman and many others. Their advocacy and dedication to their communities is what drives me to work harder,” she said.

Cassandra Aska, ASU deputy vice president and dean of students for ASU’s Tempe campus, serves as the university chair for the Committee for Campus Inclusion, overseeing and leading the committee. She said it’s an honor to recognize the 2020 recipients for their work and that all of the nominations detailed the outstanding and extensive work being done at ASU and beyond, fulfilling the ASU Charter in innovative and impactful ways. 

“Our awardees embody the continued need for us to be solution-oriented as we all work toward evolving ourselves as individuals and our communities in which we work, live and serve,” Aska said. “Our awardees inspire more dialogue, give voice to more people, foster connection and cultivate innovation. In their own way, they are raising awareness on varying topics that educate and advance change and inclusion. We are a better community because of their contributions to the university.” 

The 2020 Catalyst Awardees are listed below. Visit the 2020 Catalyst Awards site for the list of recipients and descriptions.

ASU Committee for Campus Inclusion Catalyst Award 2020 recipients

  • Supriya, postdoctoral scholar, School of Life Sciences, staff category.

  • Melinda Borucki, communication and events coordinator, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, staff category.

  • Mako Fitts Ward, faculty head and clinical assistant professor, African and African American studies, School of Social Transformation, faculty category.

  • Sara Brownell, associate professor, School of Life Sciences, faculty category.

  • Aniyah Braveboy, undergraduate student, public service and public policy, W. P. Carey School of Business, student category.

  • Liam Gleason, doctoral student, evolutionary anthropology, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, student category.

  • Healthy Lifestyles Organization at ASU, student clubs/organizations/teams category.

  • Multicultural Student Journalists Coalition, student clubs/organizations/teams category.

  • TRIO Devils Poly, student clubs/organizations/teams category.

  • ASU Poly Sol, employee clubs/organizations/teams category.

  • University Technology Office Giving Back Team, employee clubs/organizations/teams category.

  • University programs category: Turning Points magazine.

  • Arina Melkozernova, Committee for Campus Inclusion Chairs Award recipient.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services


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ASU launches new virtual Leonardo Imagination Fellowship Program

November 16, 2020

Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and the ASU-Leonardo Initiative have launched a new eight-week virtual fellowship program for fall 2020.

Three fellows, representing different parts of the globe, were selected from a talented pool of applicants to carry out experimental projects that combine innovative art and science practices across multiple publishing and broadcast media platforms. All of their projects align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and are either related to water, sustainability or community.

“Our center seeks to inspire collective imagination for better futures,” said Ed Finn, the founding director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts“These fellows are working on a fantastic set of projects to deepen our understanding of sustainability by bringing together art and science. Addressing the challenges of the 21st century is going to require us to imagine positive futures together, and art is a very powerful way to do just that.”

In addition to their projects, fellows will participate in a Mentorship Matrix that connects them with younger students who might benefit or learn from their experiences through the program. Through the ASU-Leonardo Initiative, which was established in 2019, the fellows will also lead a Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) event — a global salon series that brings together artists and scientists for informal presentations and conversations with audience members.

“As an enterprising think tank, ASU-Leonardo integrates hybrid, creative inquiry and practice as catalysts to solve compelling problems, explore timeless mysteries, and shape a finer future,” said Diana Ayton-Shenker, executive director of ASU-Leonardo Initiative, professor of practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and faculty member in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. “It's essential that art and science coexist to inquire, inspire, innovate and instigate insights into who we are in the world.”

One of the goals of the program is to empower fellows to build new connections to artists and researchers at ASU. Ayton-Shenker says she hopes fellows will “develop their transdisciplinary, creative practice; build pivotal connections with each other, mentors/peers/proteges; and increase their visibility as changemakers who advance social justice and the sustainable development goals.”

And although the virtual format is an adjustment — and somewhat experimental — given the circumstances of the  pandemic, Finn explains the model allows the program to be more inclusive.

“The virtual format allows us to include people who might not otherwise have the means or the time to spend several weeks with us in Arizona.” Finn adds, “This way we can invite them into the ASU family as well as learn more about their collaborators and communities in very different parts of the world.”

Learn more about the fellows below.

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Nandita Kumar

Nandita Kumar

Kumar is a new media artist who uses art, science and technology to create interactive installations and sensory narratives by exploring the impact of innovative technologies on human lives and natural ecosystems.

Her project, “Sounding the Invisible: An Elegant Symbiosis,” gives audience members in India audio and visual insights into the way certain plants naturally absorb pollutants out of water. The installation includes barcoded test tubes that play the sound frequency of each plant and 41 pollutants, while an accompanying book outlines the pollutants’ health impacts and the plants' additional uses such as in food or medicine.

“This project uses data visualization (and) interactive technology alongside a sonic experience to transpire imagination, connect thoughts and build reconnection to the various case studies being explored,” Kumar said. “We need to collect and represent data that is meaningful to individuals and communities to increase their awareness about the importance of preserving water, the impact of our technology and to encourage a global culture of sustainability.”

Kumar said she started this project after talking to a fisherman in Mumbai whose nets were getting caught in a whorl, or vortex, created by the dumping of untreated sewage from nearby suburban communities. For the first time, through the Leonardo Imagination Fellowship Program, Kumar feels that her work can be designed at a macro level, helping her understand how technology may impact lives and whether technology and nature can coexist.

“As our technology has increased in complexity, the tools we use to control nature have become more powerful and the materials of that technology have become more alien to nature; more difficult or impossible to reassimilate back into its processes.” Kumar added, “I often question, what if rather than reshaping the world to solely suit man’s needs, technology was shaped in harmony with nature — in turn changing humanity's future?”

Kumar has shown her work in festivals and exhibitions throughout the world including the New Zealand International Film Festival, Rome International Film Festival and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. She also curated a community project called “Ghar Pe/At Home,” which has been documented online by Asian Art Archive (Hong Kong).

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Melanie Valencia

Melanie Valencia

Valencia, who is originally from Ambato, Ecuador, is pursuing her PhD in the circular economy: a system centered around eliminating waste, and the pursuit of reusing resources. She is particularly interested in how this model could be applied to the informal sector in Latin America, since she explains many of the repair jobs there are dying, falling victim to convenience and cheap products.

Inspired by biomimicry, which Valencia believes is at the core of innovation and eco-design for a circular economy, and her time spent talking to waste pickers throughout the global south, among other things, Valencia’s fellowship project will be a collection of stories about the people who are using secondhand material and bartering; and the impact of doing so, especially during a pandemic.

“I have learned that these conversations cannot be limited to academics and policymakers, rather we all should be engaging with each other to transform our economies,” Valencia said. “With this fellowship I hope to visualize the connection between nature and society, urban and rural, you and other, and to showcase the work of multiple actors working informally to reach a more harmonious socioecological reality through care, care for the planet, care for our elders, our children, each other, and future generations.”

Valencia hopes her work and stories can inspire communities to find a common ground in the circular economy and zero-waste movements. She believes there’s a huge disconnect between consumerism and what that really does to the planet’s resources. Valencia says the circular economy must make it easier for citizens to choose what is best for the planet.

Valencia adds, “I am especially eager to share what I have to offer and hoping to learn so much more from the other fellows and this network of peers that have already been extremely generous, holding on to this sense of community even when we are so far away and interacting virtually.”

Valencia was recently a consultant for circular economy projects at Universidad San Francisco de Quito — a private university in Ecuador. She was also named MIT Innovator Under 35 in 2016 for her work in CarboCycle, a biotech startup transforming organic waste into a palm oil substitute.

Leonardo Imagination Fellowship

Brook Thompson

Brook Thompson

Thompson is a Yurok and Karuk Native from Northern California who is currently working on her Master of Science in environmental engineering at Stanford University.  She has been using her engineering background and artwork to start dialogues about improving water quality and water rights for Native Americans. 

ASU’s Leonardo Imagination Fellowship is important to Thompson because she points out that women, and especially Native Americans, are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. She is hoping to use her voice to educate the public and valuable stakeholders about Native Americans and their beliefs, especially when it comes to sustainability, and how they value the land they live on.

As part of her fellowship project, Thompson plans to create four beaded medallions in the shape of puzzle pieces to tell her story about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) — the understanding gained by Indigenous communities by living on and with the land. Each puzzle piece will represent a TEK and a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal and will have a video component online — infusing modern technology with traditional storytelling. Thompson said she was inspired by Jaime Ocuma, a Native American visual artist and fashion designer who is known for her beadwork, and tribes who use Wampanog beads for storytelling.

“I want to bring traditional ecological knowledge to the forefront,” Thompson said. “I hope people start to think about and understand a few concepts of TEK through my artwork that make them reconsider what it means to be knowledgeable, and who is considered knowledgeable in the Western world.”

Thompson was the 2019 American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s Region 1 representative. She was an intern for the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in D.C. In 2017, Brook was awarded the American Indian Graduate Center’s undergraduate student of the year award. In 2020, Thompson won Unity’s 25 Under 25 award.

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Jimena Garrison

Copywriter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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ASU strives to promote and advance Native American higher education

November 13, 2020

The university is a national leader when it comes to support, education and graduation for Indigenous students

It was seeing herself reflected that made the college decision for Maria Walker.

The high school senior had been all set to go to Columbia University on a full scholarship, but then Tribal Nations Tour visited her school in the White Mountain Apache community. The outreach program brings Arizona State University students to schools throughout the state with large populations of American Indian students.

That spring 2017 visit made all the difference for Walker.

“It was heartwarming to see other Native Americans from ASU, who were successful and took the time to share their stories with us,” said Walker, now a senior in ASU's College of Health Solutions. “It made me realize that if I went to ASU, I’d be studying with fellow Native Americans and be taught by Native staff who could help me along the way.

"I decided that I’d rather have a community at ASU rather than travel across the country and not know anyone or have the support I have now.”

Walker is part of a growing number of Native American students at ASU, which reached almost 3,500This number reflects students who self-identify as Native American. ASU's enrollment according to IPEDS — the data program for the National Center for Education Statistics that is commonly used to compare institutions — is lower, because if a student identifies as both Hispanic and Native American, the Hispanic category takes precedence and the student is counted only as Hispanic. — 2,874 undergraduate and 596 graduate students — this fall. That number appears to be the largest among U.S. colleges and universities, according to ASU Now's research. ASU also is one of the nation's leaders in degrees granted to American Indian students on an annual basis; for the 2019-20 academic year, 663 Native American undergraduate and graduate students earned 679 degrees here.

Maria Walker

Maria Walker, shown here on Palm Walk on the Tempe campus, chose ASU in order to be part of a community of Native American students. Photo by Ashlyn Young

American Indian students make up less than 1% of all college students in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and only about 13% of all Native Americans have a college degree. Those numbers are starting to change, and ASU — whose Tempe campus sits on the ancestral homelands of many Indigenous peoples, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Xalychidom Piipaash (Maricopa) — is striving to do its part.

"There is so much potential here, and indeed, potential that is already being realized in very big ways," ASU President Michael M. Crow said. "There is unbelievable energy to be found by asking, 'Where is there opportunity to grow in understanding?' ASU is making it a priority to serve Native American students, and in turn, these students are enriching the ASU community."

What follows is how ASU got here, and how it is working collaboratively with tribal nations to help them become stronger and more vibrant by building capacity. This work is accomplished through community engagement, research and offering place and space for American Indian and Alaska Native students, faculty and programs to create futures of their own making.

The beginning of a change

Sixty years ago, when ASU opened the Center for Indian Education, the university had 17 Indigenous students enrolled at the university. Peterson Zah, the last chairman and the first president of the Navajo Nation and a consultant to ASU's Office of Tribal Relations, first attended the university in 1959. He said getting to ASU was an adventure and an education in life.

Zah packed his luggage — a brown paper sack — placed his clothes and whatever possessions he owned in it, and hopped in the back of a pickup truck, commandeered by his uncle with his aunt riding shotgun.

“On the way down from the reservation, we stopped at a store in Payson to eat and gas up,” Zah said from his home in Window Rock, Arizona. “I could barely read or speak English, but I noticed a sign in the window that read, ‘Any good Indian is a dead Indian.’ I asked my uncle what that was about. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘People are just that way around here.’

“I asked him, ‘What am I going to school for?’” Zah said.

Soon he would find out — to help build capacity for his people and other tribes. When Zah graduated in 1963 with a degree in education, he had several jobs. He taught high school in Window Rock, worked as a construction estimator for the tribe, did a stint with the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer program, and helped the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe build the one of the earliest major Indian casinos in Ledyard, Connecticut. In 1995, Zah was hired and tasked by then ASU President Lattie Coor to look for innovative ways to increase the number of American Indian students at ASU, which numbered 672 at the time.

Twenty-five years later, that number is far more substantial.

Donald Fixico

Regents Professor Donald Fixico. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“I have always marveled at the number of American Indian students receiving their degrees every year in December, and especially at spring graduation in May,” said ASU Regents Professor Donald Fixico, one of the nation’s preeminent American Indian history scholars. “It is impressive to see all of the families, relatives and friends that fill the auditorium. At last, ASU has reached a milestone by graduating more Native students than any other university in the United States. This says a lot — that ASU is a university that welcomes and supports American Indian students.”

Rising above the challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit tribal communities particularly hard in 2020. Long-standing health disparities have left American Indian people more vulnerable to the pandemic. Relatives and family members have died. Reservations have implemented weekend-long lockdowns and curfews. Inadequate infrastructure in water, housing, education, health care delivery and limited or no broadband accessibility has been exacerbated, and funding for scholarships have taken a big hit.

But that didn’t stop American Indian students from seeking their education. This group has historically been driven by a sense of community and purpose, according to Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. Native students often get a degree to pay it forward, by going back to their community and helping to strengthen and sustain it.

Students like Mariah Black Bird.

The 27-year-old is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and she is enrolled in ASU’s Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

With financial burdens growing up, the death of her father when she was 14, and coming from an impoverished tribal community, Black Bird has had a lot of obstacles to overcome. But she knew education was her pathway to a brighter future.

“There were a lot of sacrifices that had to be made. I sold my car, worked summers and my mom let me borrow her car to come down to Phoenix,” said Black Bird, who is on an ASU scholarship, which she says covers about 75% of her costs. “Sometimes I don’t get to have a social life because I have to study, or I need to stick to a budget because things are tight. But I know it’s only temporary.

Mariah Black Bird

Mariah Black Bird. Photo by Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

“I look at our history and know that even though we’re no longer battling it out at Wounded Knee or other famous sites, we’re still fighting. … I want to try to help my tribe any way I can, and our weapon of choice has to be education.”

That’s a statement that resonates with Megan Bang. As the senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation and as a learning sciences professor at Northwestern University, Bang believes that higher education degrees for Native peoples is of the utmost importance for tribes and also advances the possibility of a just United States.

“The success at ASU is remarkable on multiple fronts, and the multitiered work is critical to appropriately recruiting and serving Native students,” said Bang, an Ojibwe tribe member and renowned researcher who serves on the Board on Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences. “ASU has also made substantial investments in Indigenous faculty and staff, Indigenous research and dedicated centers, support for students to engage in and with each other around important communal and cultural practices, and long-term partnerships with Indigenous communities, amongst other remarkable efforts.”

Bang added: “The university has built the institutional capacity to serve Native students with a rigor and seriousness unparalleled. ASU’s leadership is a model for the rest of us to learn.”

From the reservation to the campus

In the not-so-distant past, an academic recruiting trip to a reservation in the state of Arizona was almost inconceivable. The trips were long and the reservations were hard to navigate, with populations spread out over wide spaces. The barriers were great.

That mindset changed about a decade ago, said Annabell Bowen, director of American Indian Initiatives for the Office of University Affairs. That’s when her team, with the help of Zah, created the Tribal Nations Tour outreach program. Each year, the tour holds presentations on wellness, college readiness, career preparation and the pursuit of academic degrees.

“ASU can’t be viewed as invisible, and we’re not waiting for students in tribal communities to come and visit us,” said Bowen, who schedules visits to all of Arizona’s tribes and has plans to visit other states such as California, New Mexico and South Dakota. “Through these visits, Indigenous youth are able to see themselves in our students and faculty.”

Shaandiin Parrish

Then-ASU senior and Miss Indian Arizona Shaandiin Parrish speaks to a group of students at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation reservation on Nov. 5, 2016, as part of the Tribal Nations Tour. Parrish spoke with youth in the community to inspire them to further their education. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

In addition to the Tribal Nations Tour, ASU has built a suite of programs to recruit, retain and build a sense of community for its Indigenous students.

Those pathways begin with RECHARGE, a one-day college and career readiness day put together in collaboration with ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services. In spring 2019, the program attracted approximately 700 American Indian students from around the state. The second offering is INSPIRE, a weeklong summer bridge program for high school students that, pre-COVID-19, drew more than 250 applications for 100 slots. Another community engagement program is SPIRIT, a two-week final ramp-up orientation before the start of the fall semester for incoming American Indian first-year students. The program moves students into the dorms early in order to get acclimated to their new environment and make new friends in anticipation of often-experienced culture shock during what, for many students, is their first time away from home.

“Many times when Indigenous students come to this university to visit our campus, they are accompanied by their families,” Brayboy said. “Nine times out of 10, the parents will say to us, ‘We are entrusting you to take care of our child.’ It’s a promise and responsibility we take seriously at the university.”

Additional resources are the American Indian Student Support Services, the Alliance of Indigenous People student-led coalition and the American Indian Graduate Student Association.

Inspire program

Window Rock High School sophomore Quentin Tsosie (left) works with mentor and Assistant Professor Henry Quintero during ASU's Inspire Program for Native high school students held at Coor Hall in Tempe on June 23, 2017. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Beyond creating a welcoming environment, ASU realizes that connection is a worldview in how Native Americans are brought up, and that leaving the reservation is, in a way, a loss. Staff have worked hard over the years to present experiences of connection, belonging and shared identity. The university does that in a variety of ways and initiatives.

In 2017, ASU began publishing Turning Points, a first-of-its-kind magazine that comes out twice a year. It is geared specifically toward Native American students and is written by an all-Indigenous staff of students.

A year later, the Dream Warriors, a collective of Native American artists, came to ASU’s Tempe campus to kick off the “Heal It Tour,” which included two days of poetry, music, sharing, self-empowerment and healing.

For more than three decades, the university has hosted the ASU Pow Wow. The annual event draws thousands of spectators representing more than 100 tribes from around the U.S. and Canada for a three-day gathering. In April 2019, dancers and singers wore traditional regalia and continued the social and spiritual practices of their ancestors in Sun Devil Stadium, the first time the event had been held at the stadium since its inaugural year in 1986.

At the West campus, the Veterans Day Weekend Traditional Pow Wow has been a campus fixture since 2000. Unlike the spring event on the Tempe campus, which is a dancing competition, the West one is a traditional social gathering whose focus is honoring the military service of Native Americans. Because of COVID-19, its 20th anniversary will be celebrated in 2021.

The university also has plans underway to redesign the campus to reflect Indigenous culture. Last year, the ASU Library announced its expansion of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center, which features thousands of books, journals, Native Nations newspapers and primary source materials, such as photographs, oral histories and manuscript collections. The Labriola Center now has two locations; Fletcher Library on the West campus and Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

Future ideas include adding traditional Gila River pottery artwork to Sun Devil Stadium and building a storytelling pavilion and gathering place on campus. A “welcome wall” that includes the languages of the nearly two dozen tribes in Arizona was incorporated into the renovated Hayden Library.

Through these efforts, ASU is raising awareness of its Indigenous connection to all students, not just Native Americans.

Seeing themselves in faculty

When Native students arrive on campus and are taught by Native faculty, they don't just see their physical selves reflected, they also find a reflection of their experiences and values of community, said Natalie Diaz, a poet, associate professor in ASU’s Department of English and winner of a 2018 MacArthur "genius" grant.

“ASU is building a community in which our Native students won’t have to become someone else to arrive here and succeed, and where they instead can be themselves and who they are will be impactful to our entire community at ASU,” said Diaz, who was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, and is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.

“One of the things I love about being at ASU is that I have the freedom to be 100% Native while I’m here, as well as all the other things I believe I am. It isn't necessarily a new home; rather it is an extension of my home, which I carry with me everywhere I go.”

Natalie Diaz

Associate Professor Natalie Diaz. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Diaz is one of many world-class Native professors at ASU. Others include Brayboy (Lumbee), director of the Center for Indian Education; Gary F. Moore (Powhatan Pamunkey) assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery; K. Tsianina Lomawaima (Mvskoke/Creek Nation) in the School of Social Transformation; and Fixico (Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Muscogee Creek and Seminole) in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies — all of whom have either been inducted into major academies or had significant awards bestowed upon them.

In the last year alone, ASU added several new Native American faculty hires. One of them is Matthew Ignacio, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

“I feel like I hit the jackpot because this is where I’m supposed to be,” said Ignacio, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who specializes in the study of diversity, oppression, healing and wellness of Native Americans. “ASU is so vibrant on so many levels and across all four campuses. They work with tribal nations and understand the challenges of Native American students. I’m honored to be in this position and to give back to the students. I want to be a role model.”

So does Benjamin Timpson, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Art who runs a nationally ranked photography department.

“I love being at ASU because it’s an incredible place to be and they have a built-in outreach platform for Native American students,” said Timpson, who is a Yale-Smithsonian Poynter Fellow and descendant of the Pueblo Indian Tribes. “I’ve been at other schools where it’s an every-man-for-himself kind of place, and those are not healthy institutions. Not here. They really do a great job of building people up. Students come here and right away they’re all treated as equals no matter what level they were in the past. This is a very progressive place.”

The university’s latest superstar hire is Professor Rebecca L. Sandefur, a sociologist with the T. Denny Sanford School of Family Dynamics. Sandefur, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant the same year as Diaz, said she is impressed with her new academic home.

“The ASU Charter highlights the importance of serving ASU’s many communities and fostering inclusive success,” said Sandefur, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. “As Native American faculty, I am gratified to learn that ASU is the No. 1 educator of Native Americans in the country. I look forward to ASU’s continuing progress in supporting the success of Native American students.”

RISE meeting

From left: Justice studies student Nicholas Bustamante, Assistant Research Professor Colin Ben and justice studies JD student Jeremiah Chin assign tasks during a weekly meeting at the Center for Indian Education on Feb. 1, 2017. The center is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now 

Success is a two-way street

True success begins when you start giving back — that’s a lesson ASU has learned over the years when interacting with vibrant tribal nations, communities and students. ASU scholars also offer a spectrum of resources to tribes locally, regionally and beyond, and the university has a wide breadth of research and interaction taking place in Indian Country.

Last year, the American Indian Policy Institute at ASU offered an insightful and timely look at technology use on Indian lands. The paper, “Tribal Technology Assessment: The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands” revealed that many Native Americans do not have equal access to the internet and are using smartphones to access it, although at much slower speeds and with less reliability.

Denise E. Bates, a historian and assistant professor of leadership and integrative studies in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU, is nation-building through her work by helping tribes in the Southeast document their histories through community-driven initiatives. She does this through archiving material, recording oral history and writing books.

School of Social Work Assistant Professor Shanondora Billiot studies how climate change is affecting tribes in Louisiana due to rising sea levels. According to Billiot, the state's coastal areas have lost about 35 square miles a year for the last half century.

“Many who feel threatened by these changes have mental health challenges or meet criteria for depression, anxiety or PTSD,” said Billiot, who is a member of the United Houma Nation in southern Louisiana. “The second leg of my research is trying to discover what is the tipping point for people when they decide to move. It’s confusing and often heartbreaking.”

Realizing that many Native Americans live in remote areas, ASU has figured out a way to bring the campus to the reservation and other parts of the world. In 2012, ASU’s School of Social Transformation launched the Pueblo Indian Doctoral Program, which facilitates the training of practitioner-researcher-scholars within Pueblo communities in New Mexico. Five years later, the school also developed an online MA in Indigenous Education program that allowed students to stay within their own communities while strengthening their ability to work in the field of Indian education and within tribal nations’ education programs.

ASU is also civic-minded when it comes to helping tribal communities. The Native Vote Election Project through ASU’s Indian Legal Clinic aims to ensure that Native Americans exercise their right to vote in federal and state elections. The program trains volunteers to offer aid at polling sites around the state, helping Indigenous peoples navigate problems such as intimidation, acceptable forms of identification and legal procedures on Election Day.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe was able to open the third tribal college in the state in 2017 after 18 months of intense planning and preparation, much of it done with the assistance of ASU. Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler had a vision to create a college, and he asked Crow for help. The San Carlos Apache Tribe leveraged the expertise of Maria Hesse, then vice provost for academic partnerships at ASU, and Jacob Moore, the university’s associate vice president for tribal relations.

“I'm very thankful to ASU for what it's done for us and also for our people, because this is a game changer for our people,” Rambler said. “ ... Hopefully somewhere down the road, when I'm not around – way down the road – our community becomes an educated community. And they will look back to that time when a few stepped up – like ASU – and helped us.”

San Carlos Apache College is currently a two-year college. Rambler said the goal is for the school to have its own bachelor's degree program someday, linked to ASU.

And his hopes extend beyond the classroom.

“Someday, hopefully the environment will be better where we can create our own San Carlos Apache College basketball team,” he said. “I can't wait for that day.”

Over the summer, a team of ASU alumni instituted the First Peoples’ COVID-19 Resource Drive, an initiative to deliver much-needed supplies to tribal communities struggling with the impact of the pandemic. They sent emergency supplies Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, Havasupai and White Mountain Apache communities.

“Initiatives like the First Peoples’ Drive assist tribal governments and agencies with relief efforts,” said Marcus Denetdale, program director for ASU’s Construction in Indian Country program. “In this case, the supplies went from Sun Devil Stadium to tribal doorsteps in three days or less.”

COVID drive

Volunteers for the First Peoples’ COVID-19 Resource Drive line up near the Sun Devil Stadium on ASU's Tempe campus before the drop-offs begin on May 7. Photo by Marcus Denetdale/ASU

The university has also provided to tribal communities COVID-19 test kits, testing research, medical and public health support, and PPE supplies. In the upcoming months, Ignacio of the School of Social Work will be traveling to various reservations to discuss the efficacy and safety of a COVID-19 vaccine. He doesn’t know if he can talk reluctant members into taking the vaccine, but he does know the door is always open for discussion.

“That relationship is there, and that’s a necessary part of being engaged with the community,” Ignacio said. “ASU’s attitude has always been, ‘Let’s make this a win-win situation and create positive change.’ Wherever the need is, I’m willing to help.”

That willingness to help is what makes ASU stand out in the field of American Indian studies, said Teresa McCarty, the G.F. Kneller Chair in Education and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“In many respects it’s not surprising that ASU has realized these milestones,” McCarty said, who is a member of the National Academy of Education. “All of this is a credit to ASU, but it is equally a testimony to the committed efforts of Native nations, communities and individuals who have reached out to ASU to build partnerships and offer their expertise. It is heartening to see the fruits of these reciprocal tribal-university investments reflected in ASU’s enrollment and degree-conferral milestones.”

These community ties, the record numbers of enrolled students and the fact that ASU is producing PhDs, lawyers, judges, nurses, artists, CPAs, chemists, social workers and educators — all of it brings a smile to Zah’s face. It's a far cry from when he was one of just 17 Indigenous students on campus.

“What does it do to my heart … the fact that ASU is the No. 1 educator of Native Americans?” Zah said. “Well, it makes me feel good and it’s something to be proud of. There’s a lot of joy in that statement, and I’m very, very happy.”

Infographic breaking down the Native American enrollment numbers at ASU

Infographic by Alejandro Cabrera Ramirez/ASU

Top photo: Air Force veteran Janilda Garnier receives her hood from Clinical Professor Andrew Carter for earning a Master of Legal Studies at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Convocation at the former Comerica Theatre, on May 10, 2017. She is a member of the Navajo Nation.

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Wellness in the woods

November 12, 2020

Pilot program takes veterans into Tonto National Forest for wilderness hikes meant to challenge the body and enrich the soul

The wilderness therapy program Huts for Vets allows veterans to commune with nature in the Colorado Rockies and experience a perspective shift to more fully integrate with civilian life.

Now Arizona State University's Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement is adopting that model, swapping the mountainous Rockies for Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.

They are calling it the Arizona Warriors’ Wilderness Journey, and it's showing great promise for ASU veterans.

“It’s been a healing process for me, because it’s hard to put yourself in a vulnerable situation because it’s uncomfortable,” said Melvin Cruz, a public service and public policy major and Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq.

Cruz was one of 14 participants in the Arizona Warriors' Wilderness Journey pilot program. “Veterans often like to control their environments but this opportunity allowed me to let people in, which has been a long time coming.”

And so has the journey.

Offered by ASU’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and funded by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services as made available through the Arizona Veterans’ Donation Fund, the four-day retreat (Oct. 29–Nov. 2) was several years in the making.

ASU veterans have participated in Huts for Vets since 2018. Based in Aspen, Colorado, the program has offered men and women a total immersion in nature, literature-based philosophical exploration, contemplative thought and camaraderie, with a curriculum designed for reflection, introspection, resilience, empowerment and even transcendence at 12,000 feet.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

“As a species, man has lived in wilderness settings a thousand times longer than it has in an industrial setting. Wilderness offers a homecoming to the nurturing womb of our common genesis,” said Paul Andersen, Huts for Vets founder and executive director. Andersen started the nonprofit in 2013 with support from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank and global forum that has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors and Nobel laureates to the Rockies. “Nature is about connecting with a sense of self, and it can defined by a natural wilderness setting. It’s healing for veterans because nature works on the mind, body and spirit, especially for veterans who engage with a peer group of qualified listeners.”

Andersen initiated the Aspen Institute's Nature and Society Executive Seminar in 2004 for corporate executives, policymakers and educators because he wanted them to have a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature in order to make more enlightened decisions on their boards. Even though these powerful people had to trade a soft pillow and comfortable bed for a bunk in a cabin, many found that exposure to wilderness was reinvigorating and afforded a new sense of purpose. Researchers have also found that nature immersion can reduce stress and cortisone levels, slow down heart rates, and improve various functions of the immune system and brain activity.

The Japanese term for this “shinrin-yoku,” which translates literally to "forest bathing" and is a medical prescription for Japan’s often overstressed work force. Physicians there often prescibe shinrin-yoku by guiding patients to Japan’s old growth forests for therapeutic healing in what is considered one of the most industrialized nations in the world.

After reading an article based on a 2016 report published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Andersen felt military veterans returning home from service or combat could benefit from this practice. The report, which reviewed and analyzed 55 million veterans’ records over a 35-year period, estimated that almost 20 veterans per day were being lost to suicide. Today, that number is up to 22 veteran suicides a day.

A protester of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Andersen felt compelled to take action.

“Veterans who served in combat are suffering from moral injury from either what they saw, did or were complicit in. Many can benefit from a new source of life energy in order to be living people again,” Anderson said. “This is a moral issue, a social justice issue, and something we need to address and offer some kind of solution.”

Nancy Dallett, associate director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, believes this program is a piece of the healing puzzle. Dallett said transitioning from military service to civilian life is rife with life-changing opportunities and challenges. Members of the military are part of a large mission, they train and serve in an intensely hierarchal system, live a very structured life and form close bonds with one another. As civilians, they lose that camaraderie, especially in academic life.

“After sending student-veterans to the Rockies for several years, we heard from the participants, without exception, that the experience was profound, transformative and inspiring for them,” Dallett said. “In turn, they inspired us to collaborate with Huts for Vets and experiment whether we could increase opportunities for more student-veterans closer to home in Arizona's magnificent landscapes.”

It sounded great, but the timing wasn’t good. The COVID-19 pandemic weighed heavy on everyone’s minds, said Manuel G. Aviles-Santiago, director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement.

"In spite of COVID-19 we pushed ahead, and with the help of experts throughout ASU we put in place health and safety protocols to protect the participants and enable the program to happen,” Aviles-Santiago said.  

Before any of the 14 participants met in Tonto National Forest, they took a COVID-19 test. Many of them were able to take advantage of the rapid saliva test made available through The Biodesign Institute at all four ASU campuses. No one tested positive and they were able to interact freely during the wilderness journey. The crew was also tested when they got back to ASU as an additional protocol. All of the results came back negative.

The goal of the retreat was to establish a familiarity with the Huts for Vets methodology so it can be replicated for a target audience of military-affiliated students, staff and faculty at ASU.

Andersen did a pilot run with 14 military-affiliated members of the ASU community in the Tonto National Forest, where ASU will schedule a full retreat with student-veterans in spring 2021. The purpose of this trip was to train future advisers and facilitators who can employ nature-based discussions as a retention strategy for veterans in their post-traumatic growth journey.

The training session was necessary, said Michelle Loposky, assistant director of Outreach and Engagement for ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

“This first trip is mostly for people in academia because we wanted to examine all of the intricate things and different layers before it’s presented to the student-veterans,” said Loposky, a former U.S. Army combat field medic who was deployed after the Bosnian war in the Stabilization Force humanitarian efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We want our program to be purposeful because we want it to also be impactful. We want our student-veterans who just got out to need this even if they don’t think they need it. They’ll walk away saying, ‘I’m glad I did this.’”

Dan Shilling, a Vietnam veteran who has served on several committees and commissions at ASU, said he was glad he did it as well. An avid hiker, sustainability instructor and author, Shilling believes the forest setting is conducive to veterans.

“Nature doesn’t judge because nature is so welcoming,” said Shilling, who was given the Distinguished Alumnus Award by ASU in 2005 for his service to the school and state. “The setting paired with the readings serve as a springboard. They seem to open a window and from there, the emotions just seem to flow out.”

But it took time to get to that place.

The first morning commenced with an 8-mile hike along the Mogollon Rim, which started at the Pine Trailhead and finished seven hours later at Camp Geronimo. The hike offered spectacular views of Arizona’s vistas, which can reach up to 7,000 feet. It was interspersed with plenty of stops for reading and discussion sessions based on the works of writers and poets such as Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Robert Frost, Cara Hoffman, Viktor Franki, Auden Schendler, and Chief Luther Standing Bear. The idea is to elicit philosophical musings as a means of exploring issues many veterans face, while also allowing unstructured conversations during the course of the trip.

“There’s always this awkwardness when you start because many of us did not know each other when we started the hike,” said Shawn Banzhaf, a senior military advocate at ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center who participated in the two previous Huts for Vets programs in the wilderness near Aspen. “Out on the trail you start to have these really in-depth conversations and you find out what people are passionate about. By about the third day, it’s like you’re long-lost friends, battle buddies.

“The idea is for our student-veterans to go on this wilderness journey so they can start the semester with a battle buddy.”

The days that followed were filled with group hikes, solo meditations, further readings and discussions, group meals, nightly campfires, and ideally, a sense of esprit de corps.

For Patricia Murphy, a poet, author and principal lecturer with the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, the goal of the trip was different.

“I wasn’t here to teach. I was a student and I was very deliberate in that,” said Murphy, founding editor of Superstition Review, ASU’s online literary magazine. “I’m here to connect with others and understand their trauma and their experiences. I came here to be more present for those who need me.”

That included Cruz, whose transformation by the end of the trip was palpable to everyone, including himself.

“For a few years I’ve been walking around with this inner turmoil inside of my head and many veterans are like me. We don’t often talk to people about our problems because either we think they can’t relate or we’ll be judged,” Cruz said. “Having that human connection with other veterans allows you to feel understood, so you feel more comfortable and allow yourself to breathe and relax.

“This experience opened up a lot of feelings and emotions that I had down deep. Sometimes veterans just need a positive push. Everyone from this trip is going away with something positive, and I just love that they gave each of us that seed.”

Top photo: Veterans sit together at the side of Webber Creek to discuss service and returning to civilian life along with several other subjects on Oct. 31, 2020. Huts for Vets organized an Arizona experience including veterans and civilians for a program of hiking, readings and discussions near Camp Geronimo outside of Payson, Arizona, on the Mogollon Rim. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

American Sign Language students, professors adapt to virtual learning

November 12, 2020

With the shift to mostly virtual classes this year, American Sign Language (ASL) students and professors at Arizona State University have had to get creative with their approaches to language learning. 

Psychology sophomore Alexa Velasquez had to experiment with how to arrange the Zoom display on her laptop so that she could see her professor and all of her classmates at the same time, plus access course materials like PowerPoint presentations. 
 ASL lecturer Paul Quinn, wearing light blue jeans and a black polo shirt, sits in a black chair in front of a desk covered with several computer monitors. The faces of his students are visible on one screen. He is demonstrating a sign with his right hand. ASL Lecturer Paul Quinn demonstrates a sign for his students, who are watching via Zoom video. Quinn uses multiple monitors as well as a laptop and desktop computer as part of his setup so that he can monitor his class while also seeing his own video feed and accessing course materials. Download Full Image

Kyle Erlandson, a junior studying graphic design, learned to regularly scan the grid of faces on his screen to check if a classmate was waving to get his attention.

And Paul Quinn, a lecturer in the School of International Letters and Cultures, added several monitors to his desk so that he could view his students on one screen, his own camera feed on another, and his instructional materials on a third display.

“I feel like I am producing a television show for every class,” he said after explaining his elaborate setup.

Quinn’s classes are taught in an immersive style with no spoken English communication. Even though many students begin his American Sign Language I class with no previous knowledge of ASL, they quickly master the signs for basic vocabulary words and conversational phrases. As a last resort, students can use the chat box on Zoom to ask questions or clarify what they are trying to sign. 

“This class is fully immersive, so we do not talk, and I think that’s the best way,” said Erlandson, who is currently enrolled in one of Quinn’s American Sign Language I classes. “It challenges you to really learn the language and not rely on voice.” 

Rather than just watching their professors demonstrate signs, students sign along with them, which helps the students stay engaged and become more comfortable with a different communication method. Individual lessons can focus on linguistic elements like grammar, vocabulary, or sentence structure. Students can use breakout rooms to practice one-on-one with a partner or in small groups, signing entire conversations as the instructor drops in to observe their technique. 

Quinn’s classes are taught using ASU Sync, which allows students who prefer an in-person learning environment to attend class on campus at the same time as their peers studying from their dorm rooms or homes. However, most students have chosen a fully remote learning style, which gives them greater control over variables like internet signal and camera position.  

“It’s sometimes hard seeing other people signing online because of many reasons, such as lighting, internet speed and connectivity, how close or far away someone is from their camera, and overall learning how to work everything virtually,” Velasquez said. She prefers in-person classes, but has adjusted to learning ASL remotely. “It’s still fun and manageable once the initial hurdles are over with!” 

Students in ASL Lecturer Paul Quinn's American Sign Language I class practice fingerspelling sentences to improve their skills. Each student is represented by a small square video feed. The videos are arranged in a grid across one of Quinn's monitors.

Students in ASL Lecturer Paul Quinn's American Sign Language I class practice fingerspelling sentences to improve their skills.

Students who choose to learn in person have to wear face coverings in their classrooms, which presents another obstacle. Facial expressions are an important component of ASL in addition to signs. They can convey emphasis and other valuable details such as the size of an object being discussed or the type of question being asked. Face masks leave a person’s eyebrows visible, which grants them some ability to convey extra information, but it’s not ideal. 

“In ASL, masks seriously impact the message by blocking important expressions that are part of ASL. Natural expressions are blocked as well,” Quinn said. “Many people don’t understand that ASL is more than hands.” 

Hannah Hawkins, a junior studying psychology, has taken both in-person and virtual ASL classes at ASU. She said there are a lot of challenges associated with virtual ASL instruction, but she appreciates that the remote format does offer the benefit of being able to communicate without wearing face coverings.  

“In ASL, a lot of signs have grammatical differences that lie in the way you hold your face when completing the sign. With masks on, reading these facial cues is very difficult, if not completely impossible,” Hawkins explained. 

However, several students agreed that in-person instruction is the best possible format for ASL learning. They look forward to returning to the classroom soon so that they can more naturally converse with their classmates. Their professors, too, miss the opportunity to closely observe the students as they sign to each other. 

Hawkins also said that in-person instruction offers more opportunities to sign with a variety of classmates and grow familiar with different styles of sign language. The breakout rooms utilized by Quinn and other ASL professors on Zoom help to replicate this experience even if students aren’t in a physical classroom location together. 

“Each person who signs has their own personal style, even if we are all learning the same thing,” Hawkins said. “Being exposed to more than one person in a single class period can help you learn to better adapt to understanding possible differences in sign styles that you might come across.” 

Quinn has invested a lot of extra time in adapting his ASL courses for the virtual format. Beyond the addition of his multiple monitors, he also takes steps to make sure his personality comes through across the video format, so that students don’t see him as “only a two-dimensional figure.” His in-person classes in previous semesters had a vibrant and active energy that encouraged students to socialize with each other and develop friendships, so he works hard to channel that liveliness over Zoom. 

“It adds a layer of difficulty, but we make it work,” he said. “I still find it amazing that my students knew no sign language in August and only a few months later, they are communicating fully in ASL. It’s particularly incredible in this pandemic environment.” 

Kimberly Koerth

Content Writer, School of International Letters and Cultures

For 12 years, parents memorialized son with annual tournament for ASU scholarships

2020 was final year for popular fundraiser

November 9, 2020

Christopher Rearley spent his life beating the odds. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 6 and was permanently using a wheelchair by 11. By the time he started college at 18, his doctors, knowing that his breathing capacity was only 20% of normal, said he would live only months, a year at most.

That prediction didn’t hold up. He started community college, then came to Arizona State University, defying his doctors’ prognosis. Christopher Rearley, Rearly Family, poker, tournament, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, scholarships Christopher Rearley, seated, and members of his family including his parents, Bob and Carolyn, standing immediately behind him, pose for this undated photo. After Christopher Rearley died in 2007, his parents started a charity poker tournament in his name that for 12 years has raised money for scholarships for students dealing with disabilities in ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Photo courtesy of Bob and Carolyn Rearley Download Full Image

Rearley received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from ASU in 1997. His gamble paid off in that he lived 15 more years — not one — which is why it is no surprise to know that he loved playing poker.

After spending most of his life living with the effects of MD, Rearley passed away in December 2007 at 33. His parents, Carolyn and Bob Rearley, wanted to honor him and the field he studied by raising money for scholarships specifically for students with disabilities attending Arizona State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. They decided to hold a poker tournament.

There are plenty of other ways to raise money for a cause, from formal dinners in hotel ballrooms to car washes and everything in between. But it just seemed right to the Rearleys to raise it in a way their son would have found personally delightful and be enjoyable to those involved.

A poker tournament said so much about their son, who particularly enjoyed playing a variation known as Texas Hold ’em. Poker also symbolized his overcoming the many challenges he faced. So the Rearleys started planning.

“We had a cabin in the mountains for several years. Chris wasn’t able to go with us any longer because of the altitude and some other challenges,” Bob Rearley said. “When we were gone on the weekends he and a group of friends liked to play Texas Hold ’em. They’d get together on Saturday evenings. I didn’t know about the game at the time and I still know little about it. I know five-card stud.”

Christopher Rearley, Rearley Family, poker, tournament, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, scholarships

Chips are displayed from each of the 12 annual charity poker tournaments held by the family of Christopher Rearley to benefit scholarships for School of Criminology and Criminal Justice students. Photo courtesy of Bob and Carolyn Rearley

In March 2009, the Rearleys held their first-ever charity poker tournament at their Scottsdale home to benefit the school where Chris earned his degree. The first event brought about 50 players and 30 volunteers. Many were Chris’ former poker buddies, who used to join him on those weekends over stacks of chips and decks of cards while his parents were out of town. 

“We couldn’t believe all these people were here supporting us and helping us to achieve our goal.” Carolyn Rearley said. “But we realized that to keep this alive we couldn’t keep holding it at our house.”

She said that first tournament was organized in only two months.

“I look back and can’t believe we did it in such a short amount of time. About $5,000 was raised and it was amazing to me that we made that much,” Carolyn Rearley said. The table limit was $40, she said, so she and her husband weren’t worried about anyone losing a lot of money.

Starting the second year, the event moved to a golf course clubhouse, taking about nine months to plan. “Bob and I are perfectionists so everything had to be just so,” Carolyn Rearley said. It must have been pretty close to perfect, because the tournament was held annually for 11 more years.

Chris himself always had an unmistakable presence at each tournament, which was testimony to his love of laughter. Every year, a caricature of him was prominently placed at the entrance to the event. In the drawing, Chris is depicted wearing a favorite shirt. Each year he had a seat at the head table, with that shirt draped over the chair and his favorite ASU hat on the table.

“So he was always there,” his mother said. “The dealer would put in chips for him and many times he would stay in the game longer than some of the other players.”

The prizes also became more attractive as time went on, to the point where contestants who won enough hands to make it to the final table of eight players each won a prize. Whomever was the final winner had first choice, followed by the second place and third place winners and down the line.

Some quite attractive prizes were awarded over the years. Over the years, several ASU units supported the effort by donating Sun Devil Athletics and ASU Gammage tickets. Winners also received prizes such as airline tickets for four to anywhere in the country Southwest Airlines flew. The Walt Disney Company and Sea World gave tickets to their parks. Rounds of golf on some of the nicer courses in the Valley were donated, too.

“We have had people who never knew us before but came to this tournament and became friends, supported us and spread the word,” Carolyn Rearley said. “This encouraged others to attend, helping make our tournament the success it was. With their help we raised greater funds to support the scholarship in Chris’ memory.”

The first event was a financial success, but also brought together so many people who had a connection to Chris or to those who knew him. Combined, through the last one held in March 2020, again in the Rearley home, the Christopher Allen Rearley Endowment Scholarship (CARES) Poker Tournament raised more than $130,000 for scholarships for School of Criminology and Criminal Justice students with disabilities. The tournament proceeds comprise the school’s largest scholarship endowment ever, according to the school.

This past year, Bob and Carolyn Rearley made the difficult decision that the 2020 tournament would be the last. Chris’ friends, old and new, were disappointed. “They were very sorry to see us end it.This has been a labor of love,” Carolyn Rearley said. “It came full circle.”

For the Rearleys, all the hard work was worth it for so many reasons, but most of all, it was because the tournament did its most important job: preserving their son’s memory.  “Many of the early players and volunteers stayed with us over the years,” Bob Rearley said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“He had his struggles but he never ever complained, I might think of a time or two, but he really never did.” Carolyn Rearley said of Chris. “He always thought about the other guy.”

Chris wanted to go to law school because of his commitment to human and civil rights.  But by that time his disability had advanced to a point where he was unable to continue his education.

“He fought for the underdog,” she said. “He was funny. He was the master of one-line zingers. He liked to tease. Chris has an older sister, one nephew and two nieces he really loved. He’d be proud to know the first two graduated from ASU and one more is in college.”

His parents said he believed strongly in the importance of education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged.  “Although he was physically challenged, he had a strong brain, and we always encouraged him to use it,” Carolyn Rearley said.

The tournament that bore his name may be retired now, but it’s not tough to imagine Chris’ friends are still gathering somewhere and tossing a few chips his way.

And where they are, he is, too — still beating the odds.

Mark J. Scarp

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


Diversifying genomic medicine beyond genes

November 9, 2020

The work to improve health and health care is ongoing and ever-evolving. It takes many shapes, from streamlining delivery to improving care and pursuing inclusive medical research to help develop precision medicine for all populations.

This was a key element of the Arizona RAVE study, a collaboration between researchers from Arizona State University, Mayo Clinic and Mountain Park Health Center. The study brought genomic medicine to a Federally Qualified Community Health Center that serves low-income patients in the Phoenix area, a population that is rarely included in this type of research. A team of researchers from ASU, Mayo Clinic and Mountain Park Health Center are collaborating to expand the application of genomic medicine An elite team of researchers from ASU, Mayo Clinic and Mountain Park Health Centers is working together to increase access to personalized prevention in the communities most impacted by health disparities by using genetic information to guide prevention and early intervention efforts. Download Full Image

Specifically, 500 Latino adults were recruited and consented to have their DNA sequenced for a panel of “medically actionable genes.” The panel included genes that predispose individuals to certain diseases such as heart disease and breast and colon cancer. Findings in these genes are related to health conditions with established medical recommendations or interventions. The results were then shared with the participants and their providers for follow-up.

The study, published in Genetics in Medicine highlights the intersection of medical advances with social determinants of health — which includes factors such as the unequal distribution of resources, poverty, access to health care, transportation, housing instability and health literacy. 

“We are exploring how to balance state-of-the-art medicine with state of the community," said Gabriel Shaibi, RAVE co-investigator and director of ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. "In other words, how can we bring the latest in medical technologies stemming from research advances to diverse populations and settings? Our hope is to establish an approach that allows scientific advances to be impactful and effective for individuals and communities regardless of their socioeconomic status."

The goal is to increase access to personalized prevention in the communities most impacted by health disparities by using genetic information to guide prevention and early intervention efforts. This requires continued partnerships with providers who know their communities and an appreciation for nonbiological factors, i.e., social determinants of health that contribute to health inequities.

The team of ASU, Mayo Clinic and Mountain Park Health Center researchers will get the opportunity to extend their efforts further with funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH. They will be working on a five-year project with a handful of other institutions across the United States through the eMERGE network.

We spoke with the project’s co-principal investigators: Dr. Iftikhar Kullo and Richard Sharp from Mayo Clinic, as well co-investigator Shaibi and their collaborators Dr. Davinder Singh, medical director of Mountain Park Health Center, and Valentina Hernandez, director of Integrated Nutrition Services, about the importance of this work and its potential impact.

Question: What was your key takeaway from this first study?

Hernandez: The importance of including diverse populations in research is crucial, but along with including diverse populations, we must take into account how the social determinants of health influence individuals and address those in research planning. The AZ RAVE Study was eye-opening in the sense that it highlighted the lack of resources, support and understanding in the local population. These challenges became barriers for patients to take meaningful action that was recommended as part of the AZ RAVE Study. In the future with studies like these, I would like to see a greater investment by researchers and funders to support health education and to ensure that basic follow-up treatment can be provided for research participants regardless of their socioeconomic or insurance status.

Another key takeaway was the success the AZ RAVE study team had in communicating results to participants in the study, both positive and negative, and connecting with every participant that warranted additional follow-up. The study team worked very well and considered the possible challenges and obstacles while planning, even bringing the Sangre por Salud Community Advisory Board into the conversation, as well as the medical provider team at Mountain Park Health Center to ensure the messaging was clear and concise. The team also worked around the needs of the participants by seeing them in the evenings, around work and child care schedules in order to meet the participants in the most convenient way possible.  

Q: Why is this type of genomic research necessary or important? What are the possibilities?

Kullo: Genomic sequencing has potential applications in detection and treatment, in both rare and common diseases, and several health systems have begun to integrate genomic sequencing data into patient care. However, challenges to implementing genomic medicine in low-resource settings such as Federally Qualified Health Centers are not known. We need to expand such research of genomic medicine implementation in low-resource settings to reduce health disparities.

Shaibi: We know that there are certain genetic and genomic factors that increase an individual’s risk for many chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Identifying and sharing this information with doctors and patients can help guide individualized treatment efforts. This type of work has the potential to reduce the burden of disease at the individual as well as societal levels.  

Q: Discuss the need for diversity in genomic research.

Sharp: One of the central aims of our study was to assess the feasibility of offering genomic screening in a nontraditional setting. In the past, access to genomic medicine has been limited to large academic medical centers like Mayo Clinic and, unfortunately, not all patients have convenient access to those types of facilities. As advances in individualized medicine continue, it's essential that we consider how to make genomic testing more easily available to all patients who might benefit from the information those tests can provide.

Q: Why is it important for health centers like MPHC to participate in research? 

Singh: Federally Qualified Community Health Centers (FQHCs) like Mountain Park Health Center have an important role to play in research because the lack of diversity in research indirectly impacts the populations we serve, by limiting new knowledge and discovery to those who have more privilege in the form of health, education and resources. Many of our patients represent communities that carry a disproportionate burden of disease like obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These communities’ participation in research could help find new ways to alleviate or prevent some of this burden for future generations while contributing to science that can be more meaningful to all communities. 

Mountain Park Health Center and other FQHCs are also important to research because research in minority communities must be done in a well-thought-out and ethical manner. Many people in vulnerable communities might be leery of researchers and research in general. Mountain Park believes trust is at the foundation of our role in the community, and therefore any research in our clinic must be done in a way that is culturally appropriate, in the language of the patient, with the best interest of the patient in mind, as well as provide some benefit to the patient, which can include diagnostic tests, education or an intervention. 

Q: Do you have a sense of how this research may be received by the broader community?

Singh and Hernandez: At Mountain Park Health Center we formed a Community Advisory Board (CAB) that consists of community members, some patients, and some nonpatients. The group is diverse in education, language, occupation and gender. We engaged the CAB early on to help us with the research and presented the results to them once we were finished. The CAB’s overall consensus was that bringing this type of research and education to the community is very important, in order to further science and improve awareness of research and genomics. The CAB also acknowledged the potential for concern that genomics research may have on vulnerable individuals within marginalized communities and advised us on how we can address these concerns going forward. 

The implementation of the AZ RAVE study was in great part a success because of how much the CAB helped to advise the team on various components of the study. From the planning process to the implementation, the CAB was involved in each step and provided valuable insight, such as how to best consent on a complex topic, how to best communicate results, both negative and positive results in a way that would not alarm patients (negative) and communicate some urgency (positive) in patients receiving results.

Q: Anything else you'd like us to know?

Kullo: In the next phase of this project, we plan to focus on the genomic risk of common diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, etc. Our goal is to incorporate genomic risk variants in conventional risk stratification algorithms to increase their accuracy and assess outcomes after returning results to participants and providers.

Shaibi: This type of project can only be accomplished through collaboration. The individuals and institutions involved worked as a team focused on a collective goal. Being able to continue the collaboration with an additional round of funding from NIH is a testament to the team’s energy, effort, and commitment to advancing science and improving health equity. 

Amanda Goodman

Media relations officer, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation


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Cultural connections key to success of ASU's first-generation students

Conference shows strengths, obstacles for first-generation students at ASU.
November 6, 2020

First-Gen Zone Conference examines path for first-time college-goers

First-generation students start college as trailblazers in their families, and while that can present challenges, it’s also a source of strength.

Nancy Gonzales, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, found her parents’ lack of expectations to be freeing.

“In grad school, in some ways I was protected,” she said.

“Others felt pressure to live up to high expectations from their families, but I felt like I was there because I wanted to be.

“It allowed me to chart my own direction as a scholar.”

Gonzales was a keynote speaker at the 2020 First-Gen Zone virtual conference, held Nov. 5. This was the second conference for faculty and staff to learn ways to support first-generation college-goers, which represent about 35% of ASU’s undergraduate population, according to Kevin Correa, director of the First-Year Success Center.

The total number of undergraduate and graduate first-generation students at ASU is nearly 30,000, Correa said. ASU considers first-generation students to be those who are the first in their family to attend college.

Nancy Gonzales, dean of natural sciences at ASU, was a keynote speaker at the First-Gen Zone virtual conference on Thursday. She described her experiences as a first-generation undergraduate at ASU. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Gonzales, Foundation Professor of psychology, has devoted her career to researching family resilience and has found that sustaining family and cultural connections is vital for students’ perseverance and mental and physical health.

“We need to make sure that when they come to campus, they are able to connect with others like them in culturally meaningful ways, and we need to give them space to do that and give them groups to do that,” she said.

Gonzales said that faculty must be mindful of the burdens on students who are expected to work to help support their families.

“In science, students sign up for labs and it’s often really long hours of work. That’s part of the expectation,” she said.

“We need to make it possible for them to do it on their terms and be flexible about expectations.”

The conference addressed the importance of intersectionality, or the different identities that a first-generation student holds, such as LGBTQ, Native American or DACA. Those different identities are also avenues to finding connection.

Shundene Key, a first-year doctoral student in biochemistry, spoke on a panel of first-generation graduate students and described why she chose ASU.

“I know ASU has resources for me, like American Indian Student Support Services and places to connect like the American Indian Graduate Student Association,” she said.

“I felt like with those two combined, I would have a more positive experience here at ASU.”

Kiana Maria Sears, assistant director of faith-based outreach and community partnerships, talked about the Black and African American first-generation experience. She is an ASU alumna and parent of an ASU student.

“Safe spaces is one of the things that matters most and is one of the most difficult and challenging things to tackle,” she said.

Kiana Maria Sears, assistant director of faith-based outreach at ASU, discussed the Black and African American first-generation student experience at the First-Gen Zone virtual conference on Thursday. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.

Sears said she is excited for ASU President Michael Crow’s recently released “25 actions to support Black students, faculty and staff,” particularly the plan for service time for Black faculty and staff to mentor students.

“I know what it’s like to be on campus, and, in my generation, go a whole week without seeing someone who looks like you,” she said. “It’s good to not only see that person but also to connect and feel that all these spaces are our spaces.”

In her outreach, Sears has found that financial literacy is a critical issue. Many Black families are middle class, above the poverty line, and don’t have access to the same financial aid information as low-income families.

Nationwide, about 85% of Black bachelor’s degree holders have student debt averaging more than $36,000 – the highest of any race or ethnicity, she said.

Black families are less likely to reach out for help in untangling financial aid because typically there is no one in the institution who looks like them.

“This is basically the student putting on a backpack loaded with bricks,” she said.

The conference covered several programs that target specific populations of first-generation students at ASU, including:

Game Changers: This initiative within the First-Year Success Center has a wide range of digital offerings, including peer coaching, networking on Slack, events and student videos.

TRIO Student Support Services: This is for first-generation students who are either low-income or have a disability, and offers tutoring, community service opportunities, workshops, cultural experiences such as shows at Gammage Auditorium, and a program that loans laptops and cameras.

Engineering Futures: The National Science Foundation and private donations fund this program that provides workshops and seminars to build student confidence. In 2019, students attended a weeklong boot camp to hone their skills and develop an entrepreneurship mentality.

Several of the speakers discussed “imposter syndrome” — when people feel that they don’t belong in a space.

Sears said that for Black and African American students, imposter syndrome can be a “double bind.”

“It’s not just the inside voice but what’s actually being said by people outside,” she said.

Keynote speaker Jaime Casap was until recently the “chief education evangelist for Google” and now works on projects involving equity in higher education. He was a first-generation student.

“Everyone needs to focus on human skills – critical thinking, problem solving, creativity,” he said.

“As a 52-year-old professional ex-Googler, I still feel imposter syndrome. It’s one of those things that exists.

“But these skills will give you a competitive advantage.”

The graduate students on the panel said that meeting the right people made all the difference.

“I didn’t just force myself into these places,” said Esteban Medrano, who is in the last semester of his master’s degree in health care delivery.

“It was because I knew somebody who not only wanted me to succeed but brought the opportunity to connect with others who wanted me to succeed.”

Medrano is in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and had to overcome many obstacles, including being blocked from any federal financial aid.

“Thanks to ASU, you can connect to people who can find resources and opportunities. They all want you to continue pursuing your education.”

Top image: Jaime Casap, until recently the “chief education evangelist for Google," was a keynote speaker at the 2020 First-Gen Zone virtual conference on Nov. 5. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU offers unique African and African American studies BA online program

November 5, 2020

The events of this year have started a national conversation about systemic racism, social justice and the overall treatment of Black and other nonwhite bodies in the United States. As more Americans seek to educate themselves on the history of racism and injustice, the need for education in African American studies has increased. 

Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation now offers its African and African American studies BA program online. The program's faculty head and Clinical Assistant Professor Mako Ward said today’s social and political climate brought a need for more accessible education in African and African American studies.  Graduates make their way through shaking hands of faculty during the Black and African Convocation at ASU Gammage on Thursday, May 12, 2016. Graduates make their way through shaking the hands of faculty during the Black and African Convocation at ASU Gammage on Thursday, May 12, 2016. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now Download Full Image

“For over 20 years, the African and African American Studies major has educated generations of students on the global forces that impact African and African-descended people across the diaspora. In the midst of the health pandemic, it was essential for us to invest in quality online course offerings to meet the needs of our students,” Ward said. 

The African and African American studies program was founded in the mid-1990’s after a student protest. Though most African and African American studies programs began to emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s, the program has since made significant strides and is now one of two online African and African American studies BA programs in the country. 

In September, ASU President Michael Crow introduced his list of 25 actions to support Black students, faculty and staff. School of Social Transformation deputy director and Associate Professor Lisa Anderson said this program aligns with those initiatives and helps push the university in a more inclusive direction. 

“This program can enhance student learning outcomes; it affirms race and advances multicultural solidarity; and more generally, it demonstrates ASU’s commitment to Black students and faculty, although everyone can benefit from taking a course in AAAS,” Anderson said. 

AAAS Associate professor Dr. Lisa Aubrey and Maya Tatum

African and African American studies Professor Lisa Aubrey (right) and Maya Tatum

The curriculum is designed to introduce students to intersectional and transnational perspectives on the experience of African-descended people across time. Ward said courses in this degree explore the culture, art, histories and politics of communities across the African diaspora in the Americas, Caribbean, Europe and continental Africa.

Though the program has been available in person for a while, Ward said offering it online makes it available to an even more diverse demographic of students, and reflects the ongoing commitment of the School of Social Transformation to go beyond the president’s actions and offer everyday learning opportunities to students that motivate social change. 

“We are excited to offer our dynamic major to ASU Online undergraduate students, whose demographic diversity and life experience mirror that of many in the AAAS immersion program," Ward said. "Our curriculum provides the sociohistorical, political and cultural framework for understanding legacies of structural racism and intersectional anti-Black violence, and we offer the tools for students to activate social justice in their communities.”

Ersula J. Ore, Lincoln Professor of Ethics and School of Social Transformation associate professor of African and African American studies, notes that the degree amplifies studies across fields, especially with heightened support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

“Whether it’s STEM, education, law or humanities, global citizens can neither move in the world nor be a force of impact upon it without a fundamental understanding of how Black culture, Black life, Black death and the Black body informs civil society,” Ore said. 

African and African American studies and women and gender studies Associate Professor Marlon Bailey said prospective students should explore the course list and see how each class uniquely explores the vast complexities of Black people and cultures outside of the U.S. The program has a diverse faculty whose studies include African diaspora history, gender and sexuality in Black cultures, critical race theories, Black feminisms and African American art.

There are many different routes to take with a degree like African and African American studies, but Bailey said the core of the curriculum is inspiring students to create positive change for the Black community. Bailey said the curriculum educates students on important aspects of Black history that can help support and inspire future activism. 

“To participate in social change, one must gain the necessary knowledge to be able to effect social change. Through AAAS, we want to train the next generation of leaders and movement-makers,” Bailey said. 

Megan Barbera

Marketing and graphic design student worker, School of Social Transformation