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August 12, 2016

ASU program gives Native American students the tools to make the transition from reservation to university

Native American students who go from a reservation or rural community to a large university such as Arizona State University often face issues that others on campus can’t fathom. 

Feelings of culture shock, isolation and difficulties adjusting to big-city life can be enough to derail college dreams. Just ask ASU sophomore Catalina Flores, a first-generation college student from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe near Tucson.

“It’s a completely different environment and like stepping into a whole new world,” Flores said.

Recognizing the unique challenges, ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services organizes an early start program geared specifically toward Native students making the rural to urban transition. The program, Student Preparedness Initiative: Readiness Inspired by Tradition, gives students two weeks to acclimate to the university, connect with friends and mentors, and learn about resources and student organizations before the start of the fall semester.

Students in the 2016 SPIRIT cohort will also hear from peer ambassadors such as Flores, who will be able to share how she navigated the emotional struggles of her first year at ASU: “Always remember where you came from and stay focused on your mission for coming to college in the first place.”

Laura Gonzales-Macias, associate director of American Indian Student Support Services, said the purpose of SPIRIT is to “create a successful environment for Native American students and to strengthen their confidence as well as give them a sense of belonging.” That includes giving equal attention to students’ intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

The program started July 31 and ends Aug. 12. It includes 79 participants, representing 24 Indian nations and tribes across 31 states.

Native American and indigenous students who grow up on reservations often find themselves suffering from more than run-of-the-mill homesickness. Beyond being separated from friends, family and familiar routines, many are also an ethnic minority for the first time in their day-to-day lives. The number of adjustments can be staggering, but Gonzales-Macias said SPIRIT can help. The first cohort of students in 2014 had a 7 percent higher retention rate than their first-time freshman peers who didn’t attend the program, she said, adding that the 2015 cohort had a 100 percent retention rate into the next school year.

Making connections to other American Indian and Alaska Natives was important to bioscience major Andrea Smolsey, who was born on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona but attended high school in Louisiana. “Growing up in the military, I felt disconnected to my heritage. Coming here and being around other natives who know my family feels good.”

The program featured several group activities and more than 30 presentations and workshops by alumni, Native graduate students and administrators from many ASU student-support units and student organizations.

students doing lunge excercises


Art studies freshman Celeste Hubbard (right),
of the Navajo Nation, practices lunges along with 
fellow SPIRIT cohorts, at the Sun Devil Fitness 
Complex on Aug. 10.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

An appearance by ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne resonated with Makayla Roman, a 17-year-old from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

“She had a great way of connecting with us and didn’t sugarcoat anything,” Roman said. 

SPIRIT participants also completed ASU 19, a one-week course designed to set them up for academic success by introducing electronic tools and processes such as Blackboard, Digication e-portfolio and Writing Pal. They also completed an argumentative writing assignment and practiced attending office hours.

Pomo Tribe member Mica Sanchez traveled from Alameda, California, to attend ASU. He found ASU 19 especially helpful. “It teaches you etiquette with instructors and staff members, how to find homework and that almost everything is done online.”

Fitness instructor and ASU alumnus Dion Begay (pictured below) visited the Tempe campus on Wednesday to remind students not to spend all of their time on the computer and to incorporate exercise into their daily routines. 

man leading fitness class
Dion Begay instructs students in the seven primal moves that will support their bodies with strength and flexibility in the Staying Active program during the SPIRIT workshop at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on Aug. 10. Begay, an ASU alumnus who is an exercise physiologist and personal trainer, taught half the 70 students about taking care of and strengthening their bodies while they transition to their first year at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


“Everybody knows about the freshman 15, and I fell into that trap, too,” said Begay, a Navajo Tribe member who studied kinesiology at ASU. “In that first year of college, students get away from regimented eating and exercises. Sometimes they overindulge, lead sedentary lives and work out a lot less. Over time that will lead to health problems.”

Flores, a member of last year’s SPIRIT cohort, said joining clubs, organizations and participating in social experiences is also important for students’ overall well-being, and helped her get through her freshman year. She said she no longer feels homesick. 

“I now have two families,” she said. “One here at ASU and one at home.”


Top photo: Criminology and criminal justice freshman Kealoha Kuamoo (left), of Hawaiian and Navajo descent, practices pushing and pulling with exercise and wellness freshman Megan Silversmith, of the Navajo Nation, as part of the Staying Active program during the SPIRIT workshop at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on Aug. 10.

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Why should you care about biodiversity? ASU scientist makes her case.
No matter where you live, what you eat and buy affects the ocean's health.
August 16, 2016

As biodiversity depletes, ASU oceanographer part of UN panel that will help policy makers navigate the world's scientific literature

There is a lot of scientific knowledge in the world, but very little of that knowledge is readily available to people who make decisions about things like water use, farming practices or waste disposal. Such decisions affect plant and animal life and can have far-reaching consequences for human well-being.

That’s why the United Nations has formed an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), naming as coordinating lead author Arizona State University professor Leah Gerber, founding director of ASU’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, a partnership between the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Life Sciences.

IPBES is a panel of scientists who will review the massive body of scientific literature around biodiversity and ecosystem services and organize the combined knowledge into a report that is relevant and accessible to decision makers. The first authors’ meeting takes place in Bonn, Germany, Aug. 15-19.

Before she left, Gerber answered some questions on why biodiversity is important in our lives.

Leah Gerber and student Yaiyr Astudillo-Scalia process a whale biopsy sample.
Leah Gerber (right and at top of story) and one of her doctoral students, Yaiyr Astudillo-Scalia, process a biopsy sample from a humpback whale, collected last March off the west coast of Maui, Hawaii. Photos courtesy Leah Gerber


Question: What is your role in this United Nations initiative?

Answer: My role will be to ensure that the best available scientific data is pulled together in a way that can be used in global policy on managing biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Q: Why is this work important?

A: Biodiversity is being depleted at unprecedented rates, reducing our stocks of natural capital and the ecosystem services provided by nature. Every day, governments and other actors around the world are making decisions which affect the biosphere with profound implications for human well-being. All UN Sustainable Development Goals depend on biodiversity.

Q: What is biodiversity?

A: Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, from microbes to plants to animals, scaling from genes to species to ecosystems to communities. And humans rely on the services provided by biodiversity.

Q: You’re a marine conservation biologist. Why is the ocean important to humans?

A: The ocean is not just a beautiful place that we like to visit. It's central to humans and our well-being. For example, the ocean makes up about 70 percent of the total space on Earth, providing the primary source of protein to about 3 billion people.

The ocean also absorbs about 30 percent of the emitted carbon dioxide. But the current rate of absorption is causing chemical reactions, called ocean acidification, that lead to coral bleaching and a loss of marine habitat.

There's also a huge diversity of life in the ocean. The best estimate is about 200,000 species. That's an underestimate because we think that there might be closer to a million species. We are discovering new ones every day. And that, obviously, is important to humans because of the potential for new pharmaceuticals and medicines in this life that we have yet to fully explore.

Q: We live in Arizona. What can we do to protect the oceans?

A: Regardless of where we live, we can contribute to ocean conservation in choices about what we eat. Many fish stocks — some estimates put it at about 50 percent of the world stocks — are depleted, so we want to be careful about making choices so that we can allow these stocks to recover. And it turns out that large, long-living fish are also laden with toxins such as mercury. There are a number of apps available out there that provide up-to-date information on both health and sustainability.

Another major issue that I think we, as consumers, can do to help the ocean is to minimize our use of plastics. A recent study estimated that there are more plastics in the ocean than fish. Because there is so much plastic and it takes so long to break down, most seafood that we're consuming has trace levels of microplastics. I think that problem must be tackled from the consumer end — in saying no to plastics, we can demonstrate that there is no demand for plastics.

Q: What is a change you’ve seen that gives you hope?

A: Despite the tremendous impacts humans have had on ocean health — in depletion of fisheries, ocean acidification, plastic pollution — there are rays of hope. For example, there's now demonstrated evidence that establishment of marine protected areas leads to recovery of fish stocks. Reserves increase diversity, average organism size and population growth, which improves fishery productivity outside of the protected area. That's one example of a management strategy that is effective. I think we need to look for those bright spots in planning for the future.


Gerber is attending the first IPBES authors’ meeting this week in Bonn, Germany — follow #GlobalAssessment all week on Twitter. The IPBES advises the United Nations and 100-plus participating nation states, analogous to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in terms of global policy reach. In September, Gerber will travel to Hawaii for the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest conservation event. Held every four years, the IUCN World Conservation Congress helps shape the direction of conservation and sustainable development.