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What is Kwanzaa? ASU professor explains tenets of annual celebration

December 18, 2020

The annual festival was developed in the 1960s and is designed to bring people of African descent together for the holiday

Kwanzaa has been celebrated in the United States for more than a half-century, but it still remains a mystery to many Americans.

The holiday is a weeklong celebration observed each year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and culminates in gift giving and a big feast.

Its origins are both ancient and modern, and it's dedicated to cultivating, harvesting and sharing the good in the world. It was conceived and developed during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it asks all participants to strive for and maintain unity in the family, the Black community and the nation.

So why isn’t Kwanzaa better known to more Americans? For those answers, ASU Now turned to Arizona State University’s Lisa Aubrey, a former Fulbright Scholar.

Aubrey, an associate professor of African and African American studies and political science in the School of Social Transformation, has been doing community-embedded work related to reconnecting peoples of the African diaspora to their heritage lands of Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. She is well versed in the origins, traditions and principles of Kwanzaa.

Woman in braids smiling

Lisa Aubrey

Question: Who started or invented Kwanzaa, and what is its origin story?

Aubrey: Kwanzaa was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Karenga is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach. The impetus for starting Kwanzaa was to acknowledge and celebrate “family, community, and culture” of people of African descent in Africa and in the Africa diaspora.

Karenga is the quintessential scholar-activist whose life’s work has been dedicated to 1.) building and teaching scholarship on Africa and the African diaspora, and 2.) practicing Pan-Africanism in the everyday life of people of African descent worldwide.

Karenga’s establishment of Kwanzaa was an outgrowth of his deep immersion in Africa-centered scholarship from antiquity to the present and his identified need to establish an annual cultural event to reaffirm the African diaspora’s inextricable link to Africa from the grassroots community level.

As an annual event, Kwanzaa provides an opportunity to celebrate the survival and accomplishments of Global AfricaIn Africana scholarship, Global Africa is commonly defined as “the continent of Africa plus, firstly, the diaspora of enslavement (descendants of survivors of the Middle Passage) and secondly, the diaspora of colonialism (the dispersal of Africans that continues to occur as a result of disruptions of colonization and its aftermath). as well as plan for a future of prosperity. Kwanzaa draws on the past in the spirit of sankofa — “go back and fetch it” — from the Akan cosmology, acknowledges and appreciates the progress and blessings of the present, and provides an opportunity to imagine a fruitful future for Global Africa while empowering the youth.

Q: Do any other groups celebrate or practice Kwanzaa?

A: Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday that highlights African-centeredness. It begins on Dec. 26 and ends on Jan. 1. It is practiced not only in the United States, but also in many other countries where people of African descent live. I have been part of Kwanzaa celebrations in Africa, most recently in Cameroon.

Kwanzaa is celebrated by some people of African descent as an alternative to Christmas, although it is not mandatory to make a choice between the two holidays. Some people of African descent celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa.  

Some people of African descent who celebrate Christmas if they are Christian, or Hanukkah if they are Jewish, or Eid al-Fitr if they are Muslim, also celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday and persons from any religious practice or spiritual belief system can partake in Kwanzaa celebrations.

Some whites also attend Kwanzaa celebrations. Kwanzaa reaffirms the African-centeredness of Global Africa, while it does not exclude others. Kwanzaa has been recognized by the U.S. Postal Service. In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service issued its 14th Kwanzaa stamp.

The Black African Coalition student organization here at ASU has also made a tradition of celebrating Kwanzaa following the principles as developed by Dr. Maulana Karenga.

Q: And what are those principles?

A: Kwanzaa draws in ancient traditions from many parts of Africa. Those traditions are expressed in the language of Kiswahili, the mostly widely spoken language in Africa across several countries. Kiswahili is also a language that is widely taught in some places in the African diaspora, and by Dr. Karenga himself. I also speak and have taught Kiswahili at Ohio State University.

Following are the Nguzo Saba — Seven Principles of Kwanzaa — along with the founder’s operational definition of each:

  • Principle 1 – Dec. 26: Umoja, which means unity. “To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.”
  • Principle 2 – Dec. 27: Kujichagulia, which means self-determination. "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.”
  • Principle 3 – Dec. 28: Ujima, which means collective work and responsibility. “To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.”
  • Principle 4 – Dec. 29: Ujaama which means cooperative economics. “To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.”
  • Principle 5 – Dec. 30: Nia, which means purpose. “To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”
  • Principle 6 – Dec. 31: Kuumba which means creativity. “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”
  • Principle 7 – Jan. 1: Imani, which means faith. “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”

Q: Juneteenth seemed to get a big boost this year in terms of awareness and popularity. Are you seeing the same signs for Kwanzaa?

A: Kwanzaa is growing in its recognition and practice. Dr. Karenga, in 2013, estimated that approximately 18 million people worldwide were celebrating Kwanzaa. I believe that that number has grown since 2013 with increasing knowledge and understanding about Kwanzaa and how it is practiced. It has a global embrace and has been embraced globally. Last Saturday, we held an annual Kwanzaa celebration, the first virtual on Zoom, at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in collaboration with the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute.

Top photo: Photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU News


New ASU course illuminates how racism exercises its power geographically

December 18, 2020

The summer of 2020 was one of racial reckoning for America. Millions of people took to the streets in protest following the killings of unarmed Black individuals Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, forcing the United States to confront the racism of its past and present.

But as a country, how did we get to this point? And how has geography contributed to our understanding of race, systemic racism and historical racist policies that have led to this unique moment in the United States’ history?  Black Lives Matter protest rally, June 2020. Photo courtesy of Download Full Image

Rashad Shabazz, a human geography associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, has created a course that examines race in the United States from a spatial perspective. 

Shabazz, whose research focuses on the spatial function of racism through slavery, segregation and mass incarceration, is teaching Race Geographies in the United States, a new elective class that will be offered for the first time to ASU students in the spring 2021 semester

“In the wake of racial justice protests this past summer, Race Geographies in the U.S. will help students understand how racism works, and how race and geography are linked to the protests from this summer,” Shabazz said. “Racism is real. It shortens lives, it shapes our economy, it says whose life has value, and it impacts our geographies. Where you live, go to school, where you can and cannot walk in safety are examples of how racism works.”

One of the most pervasive examples of understanding race through a geographic lens in America, Shabazz says, is through the creation of racially restrictive suburbs.

“The creation of white suburbs in the aftermath of the Second World War was groundbreaking on many levels, but what stands out is how the suburbs were vital for producing white people and our cultural understanding of what 'white' is,” Shabazz said.  

He explains that because suburbs were racially restricted to people of European descent —Jews, Irish, English, Germans, Italians — in the years after World War II, ethnic whites that moved into the suburbs began to date and produce offspring that were made from the mix of European ethnics, giving rise to our modern notion of “white.” 

“White Americans today are multiethnic, Irish/German or French/English, for example. That’s not an accident. This was made possible by the racial restrictions of the suburbs,” Shabazz said. 

In the class, students will learn a mix of geography, history and theory, through the exploration and analysis of books, articles, films and documentaries. The class will also explore race and geography, in terms of their impacts on city organization and cultural production, and how race and geography work together to create urban, suburban and rural landscapes.

“Courses like Race Geographies illuminate what racism is, how it works and how we can create solutions to end institutionalized racist practices,” Shabazz said. “Racism is part of the meta-language of our lives, whether you are negatively affected by it or not. We all swim in a sea of institutional racism and learning about how it happened and how it affects us is not only fascinating, but it's our responsibility.”

“This will be one of the most important classes students take this (coming) year.”

Race Geographies in the United States is one of a series of courses offered by ASU that examine geography in unique ways. Visit the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning YouTube page to watch class preview videos from faculty and learn more about spring 2021 offerings. 

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


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Indigenous writers featured at Queer Poetry Salon

December 17, 2020

The quarterly celebration of queer writers devoted their December meeting to those of Indigenous origins

It was the viral image of activist Allie Young leading a group of Navajo voters to an Arizona polling station on horseback that really drove it home for Diné poet Jake Skeets.

“That to me is empowerment of the people for sure, and it really is the power of community-based organizing,” he said.

Without question, the swell of Indigenous voters who turned out to cast their ballots in the 2020 U.S. presidential election were instrumental in swinging the state to a victory for Joe Biden. But as Skeets alluded to, doing so took work; it meant coming together to overcome a host of barriers, including poor access to voter registration offices and polling stations, limited transportation and excessive mail delays, all of which amount to voter suppression.

Given what they were up against, the sense of empowerment Skeets described that resulted from their success is well-earned.

That same belief in the potential of community-based organizing was apparent at the December meeting of the Queer Poetry Salon, a partnership between ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and Equality Arizona that aims to strengthen and grow queer culture in Arizona by hosting quarterly readings of works by world-renowned LGBTQ poets and writers.

December’s salon featured all Indigenous writers, including Skeets, who in addition to being a nationally recognized poet also holds a position as an associate professor at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, and was recently named one of this year’s Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellows by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and ASU Gammage.

Also featured were poets Tommy “Teebs” Pico, a citizen of the Kumeyaay Nation from the Viejas Indian Reservation in San Diego, California; Smokii Sumac, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation located in the Canadian province of British Columbia; and Taté Walker, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe located in South Dakota.

The significance of December’s salon, which in essence served as a space for members of two marginalized communities – Indigenous and queer – to safely gather and express themselves, was not lost on the attendees. Though Skeets reported that queerness in his own Navajo Nation is “thriving in the larger scope of things,” he also acknowledged that “many still feel unsafe in their own families and communities.”

“It’s mostly due to the colonial and brutal language that our own government emulates from the U.S. government,” Skeets said.

Skeets sees his work, much of which he shared during the salon, as a means of “undo(ing) and reimagin(ing) a colonial and brutal language like English.”

“I like to think of queerness as an undoing and reimagining of heteropatriachy that drives much of the U.S. way of thinking and doing things,” he said. “This often leads to violence, which is what we are seeing today. Queerness is a resistance to that.”

tanner menardtanner menard uses they/them pronouns and doesn't capitalize their name., civic programming organizer for Equality Arizona and a poet themself, created the Queer Poetry Salon about a year ago with a similar spirit.

“I think that people finally being in a position where they feel safe enough to (share deeply personal work) in a place like Arizona, that is dangerously conservative and where some people are still violently oppressed, it can be a very powerful tool for queer people, and also people who are not queer to express their allyship,” menard said in an interview for a September ASU Now story announcing the partnership between the Piper Center and Equality Arizona.

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Diné poet Jake Skeets (center) was featured at the December meeting of the Queer Poetry Salon.

Skeets and menard met several years ago, and when the former learned of the latter’s endeavor, he was all in; Skeets has participated in several Queer Poetry Salons over the past year and was especially thrilled to be a part of December’s Indigenous-centered salon.

“I do think these kinds of spaces create community and empower those to feel at home,” Skeets said.

During the hour-and-a-half-long event, he read a number of poems, both new and old. One, from his first collection of poetry, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers,” is titled “Drift(er).” It’s about his uncle, Benson James, whose image graces the cover of the collection. The black-and-white photo was taken in the summer of 1979 by fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, who came upon James in the streets of Gallup, New Mexico, while working on a project focusing on people in the American West. A year later, James was murdered.

“Gallup is a very strange place,” Skeets told the salon attendees while introducing “Drift(er).” “It’s a border space, so of course violence against Native people is very high in those parts of the country. But it’s where I grew up.”

Skeets’ apparent reckoning with that conflict — the love one feels for their home, even when it does not always embrace them — was echoed in works of other poets throughout the evening.

In Walker’s poem, “I Like Your Accent,” theyTaté Walker uses they/them pronouns. call out to “all the folks with names too thick and too sticky for colonized tongues to dominate,” reminding them that “your sticky thickness tastes like honey to the ones who named you.”

Still others celebrated their gender and sexual identities. Sumac read from a poem in which he compared embracing his sexuality as “like sitting in a cart waiting for a rollercoaster to begin.” In another, he advocated “for the love of all that is queer and brown for the beautiful disabled bodies … for all of our love, which can never be wrong.”

Clearly moved by their words, Skeets took a moment before he began his own reading to proclaim that he was “incredibly honored” to share space with them that evening. He also hinted that there may be a sophomore collection of poetry in the works, though he told ASU Now via email after the event that he doesn’t expect it to be a huge departure from his debut.

“My new poems are still very much informed by the landscape of the Navajo Nation but in a different context,” Skeets said. “My first book relies on the fields around Gallup and the field of the page to ground readers and myself in a narrative of trauma and beauty. My new poems are using landscape as a mapping tool and I’m able to hone in on certain parts of the reservation and conjure narrative and language. I am also thinking that it may serve as somewhat of a sequel to my first book. I’m not sure if poetry collections can have sequels but I am very much envisioning a picking up where the first book left off.”

He's also in the process of working with Phoenix-based WarBird Press and ASU’s Herberger Institute on a new text/image project as part of his work with the Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellows Fellowship, which he expects to be able to share with the public in spring 2021.

As for the Piper Center, its commitment to uplifting a diversity of voices continues to manifest in its hosting of such events as the NEA Big Read, a 30-day celebration of Indigenous culture and literary arts featuring over 25 performances and panels throughout March of 2021.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

ASU humanities institute hosts 'Hope and Empowerment' series

December 15, 2020

In the wake of 2020’s challenges, Arizona State University's Institute for Humanities Research wanted to infuse hope and empowerment into ASU humanities conversations. 

The institute's “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment,” which took place in the fall 2020 semester, featured three scholars whose lectures revealed how personal challenges, triumphs and backgrounds can become an integral part of change-making scholarship. The “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment” featured Kevin Winstead, who spoke on the role of hope in the Black Lives Matter movement; Leanne Simpson, who shared several readings of Indigenous stories; and C Pam Zhang, who spoke on her debut novel "How Much of These Hills is Gold." Photos courtesy Unsplash and Lauren Whitby. Download Full Image

First, Kevin Winstead presented his lecture on the role and function of hope in the age of Black Lives Matter. Though Winstead admitted that he struggled to find hope amidst the racial injustices that have been highlighted throughout the year, his lecture became a source of hope for attendees. 

For example, he shared the following quote from an activist in Washington, D.C.: “Being a Black activist, hope is in spite of everything that we’ve seen and everything that we endure. Hope is bravery.” 

At the second lecture in the series, Leanne Simpson, a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, shared readings of several stories that highlighted Indigenous experiences and voices of her community. 

“Leanne is unyieldingly committed to the flourishing of Indigenous life,” said Jerome Clark, Diné (Navajo), English literature PhD candidate and moderator of the lecture.

“Her talk was a reminder that we must tell our people’s stories to defend Indigenous life and world-build. She reminds us that the stories we tell about ourselves and others matter to life and how we live life. In my world, now and in the future, Indigenous life is worth living and defending.”

At the final lecture, C Pam Zhang discussed her debut novel “How Much of These Hills is Gold.”

Zhang shared that growing up she felt disempowered by the literature she experienced, which seemed to be predominantly “middle-class white suburban stories.”

She explained that she wrote “How Much of These Hills is Gold” as a “love letter to the Western canon” and an “act of defiance” to make Asian American families and stories a part of that canon. 

The three lectures are available to watch on the institute's YouTube channel on the “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment” playlist. The Institute for Humanities Research is currently seeking out new ways to provide a source of light in the lingering darkness and hopes to continue the series in the future.

“This series was a great way for the ASU community to engage with speakers whose work is dynamic and important, especially in these times of uncertainty,” said Celina Osuna, institute coordinator and Desert Humanities assistant director. 

“By centering hope and empowerment, each event explored creative, generative ways that cultural identities and humanistic practices build a stronger sense of community.”

Lauren Whitby

Communications Specialist, ASU Institute for Humanities Research


ASU Law announces Advance Scholars Program for fall 2021

New program builds on ASU Law’s community of inclusion, fosters next generation of leaders

December 15, 2020

Broadening efforts to bring together students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is launching a new program to foster the next generation of leaders in law.

ASU Law’s Advance Scholars Program, in furtherance of ASU’s Charter, hopes to attract and connect first-generation students, students of color and students who have overcome adversity in sharing their unique perspectives on societal issues. Photo of ASU Law students work worth doing ASU Law students participate in the “Work Worth Doing” initiative by representing the next generation of leaders in law. The Advance Scholars Program will continue to build upon and foster an inclusive community. Download Full Image

Launching in fall 2021, this yearlong program will bring together a select group of 20 first-year law students for leadership skills training and networking opportunities. Students accepted to the program will have a dedicated attorney mentor and an upper-class student mentor, plus access to exclusive programming that offers them coaching and guidance to help them grow into future leaders in law.

Admitted students selected for the program will participate in a three-day, pre-orientation workshop focused on law school success strategies, networking and leadership skills. The workshop also will provide Advance Scholars early opportunities to interact with ASU Law faculty and staff, current students, ASU Law alumni and members of the Arizona legal community, all of whom will work with the scholars to grow as lawyers and future leaders. The program continues throughout the students’ first year of law school, offering events and programming open only to the Advance Scholars cohort. In their second or third year of law school, the Advance Scholars will be offered a trip to ASU’s Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., campus.

“The lack of diversity in the legal profession is a problem for many reasons,” ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester said. “And while ASU Law welcomed its most diverse class for fall 2020 with one-third of the class identifying as students of color, we know we can do much more. The Advance Scholars Program strives to ensure ASU Law students, particularly those students from historically underrepresented communities, are provided with the support necessary to be successful in their law school journey and are equipped with the competencies that will be needed as they enter the legal profession and become leaders in the law.”

To be considered for the Advance Scholars Program, an applicant must be admitted to ASU Law’s fall 2021 JD program.

The mentors and networking opportunities within and beyond the law school community will be firmly committed to helping the Advance Scholars realize their professional goals. In addition, the program will provide participants with the following:

  • Travel reimbursement (up to $500) and meals for the pre-orientation workshop.
  • Books for first-year courses (valued at up to $1,500).
  • Regular events that provide leadership skills training and additional networking opportunities.
  • An immersive experience at either ASU’s Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., campus after the first year of law school.

Visit the Advance Scholars Program website to find more information or to apply. If you would like to donate to the program, contact Kelli Rael at 480-965-7794 or

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

2020 Barrett Honors College grad Sisko J. Stargazer’s name and honors thesis inspired by 'Star Trek'

December 14, 2020

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

Sisko J. Stargazer may be the ultimate “Star Trek” fan. Sisko Stargazer Sisko J. Stargazer graduated ASU this month with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies, as well as two certificates – one in LGBT studies and another in international cinema – with honors from Barrett, The Honors College. Download Full Image

Stargazer is named after his favorite character, Capt. Benjamin Sisko from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," and “Star Trek” also was the inspiration for his honors thesis.

Stargazer is graduating Arizona State University this month with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies, as well as two certificates – one in LGBT studies and another in international cinema – with honors from Barrett, The Honors College. He also is a Dean’s Medalist in The College at ASU, a designation that recognizes the highest achieving students from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. 

Stargazer, who grew up in Yuma, Arizona, came to ASU in 2018 as a transfer student from Arizona Western College and an All-Arizona Academic Team member with a full-tuition scholarship. 

Stargazer’s thesis is titled "Ex Queer Scientia — From the Queer, Knowledge: Gender & Sexuality in the Star Trek Universe."

“'Ex astris, scientia' (From the stars, knowledge) is a motto from Trek's Starfleet Academy, so it felt fitting to adapt it to my title. My thesis explores the evolution of Trek's portrayal of queer identities, focusing primarily on 'Deep Space Nine,' 'Voyager,' and 'Star Trek Discovery,'” Stargazer explained.

Stargazer, whose dad was a Trekkie, came across DVDs of the original “Star Trek” series in high school and started watching them for fun.

“I loved it instantly. I learned to question and think about so many things I'm not sure I would have thought about before,” he said.

“Many people are inspired by the vision of a future where humanity has progressed beyond its prejudices to just learn and explore for the sake of it. And even though Trek has its flaws, I really adored that vision of the future. I've seen every episode from every series to date and I'm still very in love with it. There's so much to immerse yourself in when it comes to Star Trek,” he added.

In addition to immersing himself in the adventures of “Star Trek” and his academic studies, Stargazer volunteered with the Barrett Honors College Recruiting Department, helping promote the honors college to prospective students. 

He participated in panel discussions with students at Western Arizona College about his experience as an honors student and the process for completing an honors thesis.

We asked Stargazer to reflect on his time at ASU. Here’s what he had to say.

Question: What is an interesting moment or accomplishment in your ASU career?

Answer: Truthfully, getting the chance to become a grader in my own department was a big moment of validation for me. ...The pandemic was difficult and at times I felt like maybe what I was doing didn't matter much, but then I began to hear back from students about how my feedback and reaching out to them helped so much. I value inclusivity and accessibility above all else, so I do everything I can to be helpful and let students know that they can trust their professors and graders. Maybe it may seem minor, but I really treasure those moments where I helped a student because I know what it's like to struggle too, and I want to pay it forward by helping. 

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

A: I was first interested in journalism, but I had the chance to work with my (community college) mentor for a capstone project. I had been growing in confidence so much at my community college and I decided that, for once, I was going to do something I really wanted to do. I decided to write an expansive paper on the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in cinema. I was an amateur and was mostly left to my own devices. I had to be careful with what I brought home, too, because I lived with homophobic parents. One professor would even have stuff shipped to her home to bring to me for my project. And I eventually wrote 50 pages and received a special award for my work. It meant so much to finally do something I loved and one day, I realized I wanted to specialize in this — film analysis — instead of just news writing. I quickly switched my journalism major at ASU to film and media studies and I've stayed the course since. 

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

A: It was actually in ASU Counseling where a conversation led to a new realization: progress doesn't always have to be completely positive. You can struggle and still succeed. You can be terribly sad and happily hopeful. These dichotomies can exist and I don't need to invalidate all of the good because of the bad. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was first interested in journalism and knew that the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications had a great reputation. I was easily accepted but once I decided I wanted to shift my focus to film, I had to reassess my choices. Even then, it was an easy choice as the FMS program had everything I really wanted. 

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

A: Definitely Dr. Daniel Gilfillan, a Film and Media Studies faculty member. I've taken multiple classes with him now, but there's one moment that really stands out to me the most. I was having a really tough day because the most supportive ally in my life had expressed frustration and I had lost nearly all hope. I was hurt because if even the most supportive person in my life was like this, what did that say about the rest of the world? 

I talked to Dr. Gilfillan about what was going on. I got to talk about being trans and how difficult it can be to have people use the right pronouns and not resent you for it. That it's hard to not lose hope sometimes. 

Not only did he validate my feelings, but he said that it's OK to be weary sometimes. It's normal to have periods where you can't be as strong as you're often told you need to be. I felt silly, but he recognized that I was dealing with deeper stuff.

I learned that there's still hope out there. I learned that I can find support if I'm open. And I learned to better recognize when staying away for mental health is a good idea and when it isn't. 

Dr. Gilfillan restored my hope at a time when I felt so low. 

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

A: Don't be afraid to reach out for help. There are so many people who do want to help you and see you succeed. As a grader, I've been allowed to be more lenient with students who reach out or respond because, a lot of the time, students have really valid reasons for missing assignments or being late. 

We're all human and we all struggle, but we should also help each other when we can. At ASU specifically, there are many ways to find help. From your professors to ASU Counseling to the Council of Coalitions to SAILS (formerly the Disability Resource Center). 

It's OK to struggle, but you don't have to struggle alone. 

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

A: I love The Design School building. It has a library and so many random spots for you to relax or quietly work. It's also just across the street from a cozy Starbucks. I've alternated studying at these two spots so many times. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'll likely wait a year or two, but I do hope to engage in graduate studies soon and see where the future takes me. 

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

A: I feel unqualified to answer this as there are so many issues that call for reform and justice. But I think one area I'd love to invest in is creating safe spaces for trans people across the globe and enabling better access to health care for them, especially in regards to HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and gender-affirming surgeries as well as legal things like name changes.

Nicole Greason

Public relations and publicity manager , Barrett, The Honors College


Women in Computing program to encourage greater representation

December 10, 2020

In the early days of computer technology, during the 1940s through the 1960s, women were a critical part of the computing workforce. In the 1970s, women earned fewer than a quarter of computer science degrees, with that number rising to 37% in the mid-1980s during the rise of the personal computer. However, despite the astronomical growth in computing applications, according to, women are now earning fewer than 20% of all computing degrees.

Tarek El Dokor, founder and CEO at EDGE3 Technologies, has decided to do his part to help increase that number by making it easier for women to succeed in this field. EDGE3 is a company that specializes in artificial intelligence-based, in-cabin monitoring solutions, with deep learning expertise spanning over a decade. The EDGE3 Women in Computing scholars program is a multi-university program dedicated to the financial and educational empowerment of women in computing majors at different universities in Arizona and across the world. Graphic courtesy of EDGE3 Technologies Download Full Image

El Dokor and EDGE3 Technologies have awarded six $2,000 Women in Computing scholarships to students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. They have committed to funding annual scholarships for female undergraduates from Arizona working to earn degrees in computing.

El Dokor finds it especially important to launch the scholarships during a time when women are disproportionately leaving the workforce.

“More than at any other time, the COVID-19 pandemic puts populations that are more vulnerable at greater disservice and at greater risk,” El Dokor said. “If you want to talk about an endangered species in the workforce in this country, that’s women in computing. It’s interesting that in the 1980s we had more women going into computer science per capita than we do today.”

El Dokor, a former ASU electrical engineering doctoral student, recognizes the inequalities that exist in STEM education and that women face an uphill battle in finding computing jobs. He has worked hard to ensure that EDGE3 Technologies, headquartered in Tempe, is an exception to that reality. The company’s staff is equally male and female.

EDGE3 Technologies is a global leader in in-cabin, AI-based analytics for monitoring driver and occupant well-being. EDGE3’s products and solutions are distributed across the world and have made a positive and lasting impact on overall driver and passenger safety via EDGE3’s Vision AI product offerings.

“Our goal is to leave the world a better place than when we started,” El Dokor said. “As a tech company, we need to be able to hold ourselves to a high standard and espouse goals that save lives versus invading privacy and other things that tech is doing today, in some cases. I think we’re capable of so much good in this world and that’s our focus; that’s our drive.”

Investing in the future

The current EDGE3 scholars were honored in a virtual ceremony in late November. Students had an opportunity to meet and talk with El Dokor and other members of the EDGE3 Technologies leadership team, including Jordan Cluster, a senior member of the technical staff and one of the first employees at EDGE3 Technologies.

“I encourage all the students to work toward bettering humanity with technology,” Cluster said. “That is our vision for the EDGE3 scholars. Believe in yourselves, because the work you pursue can and will make a difference and have a big impact.”

Cluster offered a real-world example of the need for diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence.

“We often work with data sets that are biased,” Cluster said. “If you aren’t careful then that bias gets introduced into your AI.”

In an example of data bias, Cluster recounts an instance of a company developing AI to automate resume screenings during the hiring process. The company unfortunately trained the AI on historical data with whom the company had hired and considered in the past. Being a male-dominated field, the model ended up penalizing resumes belonging to women.

“Fortunately, they discovered that and were able to shut it down, but it illustrates just how important it is to bring in different viewpoints to detect bias and make sure we aren’t accidentally building it into our systems as we create them,” Cluster said. “We need to make sure we don’t propagate that. We know that your viewpoint really matters and you can make a difference.”

Computing and other STEM fields benefit from having more female representation in the field by including the rich talent pool that is often overlooked, and the scholarship recipients are grateful for the opportunities provided by EDGE3.

“Inclusion is critical for us to be successful in any endeavor that humankind takes on,” said Tina Sindwani, one of the six students receiving the EDGE3 scholarships and a first-year computer systems engineering major. “I have always loved science, and engineering especially. I could apply my programming and engineering skills to any field in the entire world. In the future, I see myself designing automated systems that explore our solar system and deep space.”

“Having diversity in any discipline is vital to an industry’s success,” said EDGE3 scholar Gloriana Pavey, a first-year computer science major. “Women need to have a voice when it comes to the advancement of society. There is so much to accomplish when it comes to technology. No matter who wants to be a part of that should have an equal opportunity to do so.”

EDGE3 Technologies is determined to leave a positive impact on the world. El Dokor wants to champion these young women and others, see them succeed and let them know that there are organizations that genuinely believe the world would be better by having more women in computing.

“The women who have received the first round of EDGE3 scholarships are all incredibly gifted,” El Dokor said. “We are giving these young women financial and reputational means and we are saying that we see them as industry scholars. We would like to see them get internships somewhere challenging and interesting, and then one day be giants in any organization that is fortunate enough to have them. We’d like them to know they are supported. We will also be supporting other female scholars at ASU and other Arizona universities.”

All six students chosen for the EDGE3 Women in Computing scholarships are from Arizona.

“It’s about being strategic about what we give,” El Dokor said. “The state of Arizona has given us everything we have as a company. So, we are giving back to the community around us and to a society that personally has embraced me and EDGE3 and that has championed us.”

By establishing the scholarships, El Dokor hopes other companies will step forward and do what they can to empower the next champions of computing.

“These women are going to step into careers that are going to change the world,” said El Dokor. “I would encourage other companies to realize how much opportunity is being lost, especially by women in computing, and try to enable more female engineering graduates in computing who are going to really transform the workplace.”

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU alumna excels as a champion for diversity, inclusion

December 10, 2020

Even as a child, Malissia Clinton knew that she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I’ve never not wanted to be a lawyer,” said Clinton. “From my first memory it was something that I wanted to do.” ASU alumna Malissia Clinton. Download Full Image

The Arizona State University political science alumna was inspired by the work of her grandparents, Roy and Malissia Cooksey, who founded the Arizona chapter of the NAACP.  Her grandfather would serve as its president for years and would also lead the civil rights division at the U.S. attorney’s office in Tucson, Arizona.

Upon graduating from Sunnyside High School in Tucson, Clinton applied to universities all over the country. Even though she was the valedictorian of her class, the cost of those schools proved to be too much. Through Arizona State University, Clinton was able to fully fund her education with academic scholarships.

“I knew, even at that age of 17, it was really important to me that I had economic independence and that I was self-sufficient,” Clinton said.

When she visited Tempe, she fell for the beauty of the campus.

“On the spot I decided that was where I was meant to go to school.”

Thinking that it was the best path to becoming a lawyer, Clinton decided to major in political science and would go on to get her JD from Stanford University.

Clinton has remained involved with ASU over the years through serving on boards such as the ASU Foundation Board, where she helps shepherd the process of raising funds for the university.

“Everything I am is because of the start that ASU gave me,” Clinton said. “I get choked up just thinking about it.”

In her high school senior year book, Clinton wrote that she wanted to be a corporate attorney. Now as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary for the Aerospace Corporation, Clinton knows this was the job she was meant to do.

“I love what happens with business — how they make a product and how they sell it. I enjoy being an enabler for that.”

With the company since 2009, Clinton’s work with the Aerospace Corporation has not gone unnoticed. She was recently named the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2020 Leaders in Law – Nonprofit Leader in Law of the Year winner.

“I was honored and humbled,” said Clinton, who gave thanks to the Aerospace corporate communications department. “But I am also pleased that the story they were able to tell about the work we do and the law the department’s influence merited such a high recognition.”

Beyond her position with the Aerospace Corporation, Clinton is on a number of boards, including most recently being appointed to the board of directors at Progyny, Inc. — a fertility benefits management company. She was drawn to Progyny because, according to Clinton, they have a business model where everybody wins. She added that she is looking forward to helping Progyny with their environmental, social and corporate governance initiatives.

“That is a sweet spot for me. I’m very much into diversity and inclusion,” Clinton said. “I feel like I have a duty on these boards to bring those issues forward and to help the company be a better corporate citizen.”

Four years ago, Clinton gave a Tedx talk telling the story of when someone lit a tire on fire and threw it through the front door of her home in Manhattan Beach. Initially deeming the firebombing as neither arson or a hate crime, the authorities followed up by calling in Clinton’s husband for a polygraph test. Concerned, frustrated and humiliated, Clinton and her family decided they would move.

“Sure we knew that we were giving in to hate,” said Clinton in her talk, “but keeping our kids safe came first so if we were being asked to go – we’d go.”

When she notified her book club that she was planning to move, the community swiftly rallied around Clinton and her family. Within 48 hours of the fire, the community had reached out via phone and email, organized a crowdfunding site, and the police chief and fire captain arrived at their house asking for a do-over. Seventy-two hours after the incident, a vigil was held in the town square, where the community pleaded the family to stay.

“I thought the firebombing was bad, but it’s easy for us to convince ourselves it was isolated … and then you have a year like this,” said Clinton, reflecting on 2020. “It exposes the racial wound that still beset our country but I think that exposure is important to meaningful progress.”

Clinton shared that the past year has taught her that having hope and staying positive is key during difficult times. The exposure to challenges like race relations is only the first step. Clinton says we continue to struggle with these issues because we have not put in the work.

“I think that what one does for the blended ‘underrepresented minorities’ will not solve the issues that African Americans deal with,” Clinton said. “That’s why they exist still. I think they are unique and entrenched.”

Being on ASU’s Foundation Board has given Clinton the opportunity to hear what the university is doing on their diversity measures. She shared that she is interested in seeing what ASU does for their African American students, faculty and employees.

“I’ve had these discussions with President Crow and I am anticipating that he will take his amazing gift at being a change agent and revolutionize what is being done at the university level to deal with these issues.”

Matt Oxford

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Politics and Global Studies


Computer science grad finds success and a new academic family in cybersecurity

December 10, 2020

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

Once Zion Leonahenahe Basque applied his computer science knowledge from the classroom to applied cybersecurity research, he knew he was on the right path. Zion Leonahenahe  Basque Zion Leonahenahe Basque. Download Full Image

“Working on novel and impactful research made me realize that I wanted to stay in this field for the rest of my life,” Basque said.

Basque has spent most of his time at Arizona State University working in the Laboratory of Security Engineering for Future Computing, also known as SEFCOM. His first project there was to apply machine learning to the automated hacking process.

“It was really motivating to see how impressed my professors were when I completely explored a new domain in my field,” Basque said.

Since then he has worked on large government-funded grants and contributed to two papers submitted to top cybersecurity conferences.

He considers the SEFCOM lab team — assistant professors Yan Shoshitaishvili, Ruoyu “Fish” Wang and Youzhi “Tiffany” Bao, Associate Professor Adam Doupé and computer science doctoral student Erik Trickle — his “academic family.” Through their mentorship, Basque learned he could be a hacker who uses his skills for good, and even took a graduate course as a first-year student.

“They have changed who I am as a person. I am on a different path than before I met them, and I think it is one for the better,” Basque said. “Now, as a Native Hawaiian, I have prospects to get my doctorate in computer science. I can only thank them as my source of both inspiration and power.”

Basque is even co-captain of the “oldest hacking team in the United States” known as Shellphish — the same team Shoshitaisvhili and Wang competed on as graduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Just like the SEFCOM team helped him succeed, Basque hasn’t kept his skills and passion for cybersecurity all to himself. 

He led the ASU hacking team called pwndevils as the club’s president. In that role, Basque led the team in international competitions and improved their rank from 50th to 10th in the world.

Basque also taught numerous undergraduate students through pwndevils lectures that covered topics usually only available to students in 400-level courses. He also created homework and other challenges for, a cybersecurity education platform.

Long term, Basque wants to continue to improve cybersecurity as a researcher or continue teaching as a professor of computer science, and maybe even win a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award one day, like Doupé.

“Using the skills I’ve learned from my engineering experience,” he said, “I will help make the world a safer-cyber place.”

Read about other exceptional graduates of the Fulton Schools’ fall 2020 class.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU American Indian Convocation hits major milestone

December 8, 2020

The ceremony will celebrate its 30th anniversary with virtual ceremony

When hundreds of Indigenous students collect their diplomas next week, they’ll be participating in a historic event — a first-time virtual ceremony to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Arizona State University’s American Indian Convocation.

The milestone ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. Arizona time on Dec. 14. Hosted by ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services, this year’s event is recognized as the Pearl Anniversary celebration. This fall, approximately 270 ASU students who identify as America Indian/Alaska Native applied for graduation; the graduates represent 70 tribes across the country, including Arizona’s 22 tribal nations.

WATCH: View the ceremony

“In one of the most challenging years in recent memory, it fills me with pride that we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the American Indian Convocation,” said 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. "It has always been a moment for students, their families, and ASU to reflect on our students’ accomplishments and where they will be going next. Although virtual, this year will allow us to reflect, to appreciate the moment, and to imagine the future that our students will make. Every year is special; this one — as the 30th — is special for so many reasons.”

COVID-19 has forced this year's convocation to go to a virtual format. It will be prerecorded and include messages from Brayboy and ASU President Michael Crow. ASU senior Daangoiina Haven, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in exercise and wellness and pursue her master’s degree at another university, has been selected to deliver the graduate address.

The first American Indian Convocation took place in 1990 at L.S. Neeb Hall, a 438-seat lecture hall on the ASU Tempe campus. It was an intimate affair, according to one ASU staffer.

“The first graduation ceremony was just a handful of students and their families,” said Laura Gonzales-Macias, executive director of American Indian Student Support Services. “It has grown exponentially over the years and in 2010 we had to move to ASU Gammage to accommodate the crowds. We’ve held it there ever since.”

It also has held a special place in the hearts of those who serve American Indian students on all four of ASU's campuses.

“The American Indian Convocation is not only a highlight event for our students, but it is significant in validating the work all our ASU Indigenous faculty, staff, and administration, as well as tribal communities and collaborating partners do to see students through this milestone in life,” said Vickie Baldwin, American Indian Student Support Services student success and retention coordinator.

The ceremony will start by recognizing Indigenous land and people through music from flutist Randy Kemp (Class of 1986) and speeches from Nazhoona Betsuie, facilitator of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, and Brayboy. Graduate stories will then be shared by brothers Jayvion and Teverrik Chee (Navajo Nation), Rocio Marquez (Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Community) and Reba Manuel (Gila River Indian Community). Haven (Navajo Nation) will provide the graduate address to ceremony participants who in turn share their photos, tribal affiliation(s) and personal messages on the virtual page.

The Heard Museum CEO David Roche will also present the Eagle Spirit Award to two exceptional Native graduate students: Alexis Ustariz of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Charlene Poola of the Navajo Nation and Hopi-Tewa. The $500 award recognizes these students’ dedication to American Indian communities through service and volunteering as well as their academic achievement in their fields of study. Award recipients will share what being an Eagle Spirit scholar means to them.

The ceremony will end with traditional drum music featuring singer Chris Dinehdeal (Class of 2013) and ASU alma mater songs to honor fellow graduates. 

In recognition of their individual academic achievements, graduates participating in the virtual ceremony received their Pendleton-made stoles prior to the recording of the event. The stoles signify courage, strength, determination and bravery, according to Baldwin. Navajo Nation member Evelyn Begay has created hundreds of stoles over the years for the ASU American Indian spring and fall convocations. Making stoles for the graduates has special meaning to Begay, whose four children are ASU graduates.

The ceremony also has special meaning to Baldwin, who has participated in several American Indian Convocations over the years.

“When Native American students graduate, they aren’t just doing it for themselves but for their families and their communities,” said Baldwin, who is Diné. “The American Indian Convocation is a celebration in acknowledgment and recognition of who they are, where they come from and how they’re going to give back to their communities.”

Top photo: Scholars applauding at the American Indian Convocation inside ASU Gammage on May 11, 2016. COVID-19 has forced the 30-year-old convocation to go to an all-virtual format this year. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now