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Public Service Academy participants asked to explore opposing political views.
ASU’s Public Service Academy seeks to build connections.
November 23, 2016

Public Service Academy encourages emerging leaders to seek out differing perspectives to build togetherness

Following a contentious presidential election that has left many wondering how to heal a divided nation, an Arizona State University leader has hit upon a potential solution: service.

“Service inherently binds us to our citizenship as Americans, not to a political party or ideology,” said Brett Hunt, founding executive director for ASU’s Public Service AcademyThe Public Service Academy is a unit inside the College of Public Service and Community Solutions..

The academy was launched last year in part on the idea that “we’ve grown apart as a nation” and that we need to find ways to “get us back together,” Hunt said.

Through the program, he aims to develop leaders by leveraging and combining civilian and military experiences, and he recently assigned program students to learn about opposing political viewpoints and foster connections.

“My call to action is: Go this weekend and read articles from places you’ve never read before. Go this weekend and talk to someone whose ideology and agenda is different from yours. And then come not to debate, but to have a thoughtful discourse with that person.”

He wants it to become an ongoing process that will help reduce isolation and improve collaboration.

“We live in a society now where we can choose to consume whatever media we want,” Hunt said, adding later, “I can also unfriend people who I don’t agree with. That kind of thinking further divides us.”

Program participants got a jump-start on the process this month at an end-of-year networking event, “On Leadership,” when Hunt tasked them with locating 25 community leaders in the crowd of about 300 so they could interview them about their experiences and seek to establish professional connections.

Business major Rylee Dunkel saw the potential in the exercise. Networking builds relationships, and “it’s always easier to help out a friend than it is a stranger.”

It’s part of the academy’s strategy of training participants to bring others together.

“No matter who you voted for in this election, it was pretty clear that there was a lack of listening by leadership on both sides,” said Askshai J. Patel, an academy instructor. “Now is an opportunity to say, ‘A new group of leaders needs to do things differently.’ And we can and do teach them this at the academy.”

For opportunities to apply their leadership skills, academy participants volunteer and are encouraged to join organizations such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America, Vista, Peace Corps and 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

Dunkel spent a semester helping Fresh Express, a mobile market that brings produce to food deserts in Phoenix. After that experience, he wants to create jobs for low-income people and veterans transitioning from military to civilian life.

“It’s certainly our obligation to help those less fortunate than us,” Dunkel said. “When people succeed, everybody succeeds.” 


Top photo: Students of the Public Service Academy partake in a networking event at their Nov. 18 "On Leadership" seminar at ASU's Memorial Union at the Tempe campus. Photo by Imani Stephens

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Ancient history professor says past holds lessons on mental health care today.
ASU public lecture to highlight importance of learning from the past.
November 29, 2016

History professor Carol Neel visits ASU to discuss notions of mental health in the Middle Ages, what we can learn from it now

An ancient history professor with an upcoming lecture at ASU says it’s important to remember the past as we deal with mental health care in the present.

Carol Neel, of Colorado College, said such awareness “expands our own imagination in responding to mentally ill people among us.”

Her talk, “Demons, Sorrow, Charity: Medieval Religious Communities, Lay Brothers and Sisters, and Mental Illness,” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, is well-timed. About 10 million Americans face symptoms of depression triggered by the winter blues, which psychologists say can be linked to the holidays.

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Carol Neel, professor and chair of history at Colorado College, will speak at ASU about how mental illness was dealth with in the Middle Ages.


“A lot of people, during the holidays look at what is displayed in popular media, with happy families getting together and celebrating,” ASU psychology professor Suniya Luthar said. “And if you’re not with loved ones yourself during these times, it can engender enormous feelings of aloneness and grief.”

Luthar also said that even people with family around can feel stress from high expectations or peer pressure. 

During the Middle Ages, Neel said, mental illnesses were treated more like a community issue rather than one specific to an individual. The way society has dealt with mental illness has changed drastically. It was only half a century ago that lobotomies — now universally condemned by mental health experts — were considered a legitimate treatment for a variety of psychiatric conditions, from depression to schizophrenia.

“One of the things they didn’t have in the Middle Ages, obviously, was Facebook and social media. People tend to post their happiest photos and moments on social media,” she said, adding that it can lead to constant comparisons and anxiety.

“Medieval monks surrounded sufferers with a circle of support from human hands and angelic voices,” she said. “This entire approach showed basic differences between moderns and medievals in their views of both illness and society.”

Such contrasts shed light on historical notions of community and perhaps show a link between the ancient and modern worlds.

“Most recent empirical work in the psychology of religion does indeed show that some aspect of religion … correlates positively with some index of well-being,” wrote ASU associate professor of psychology Adam Cohen in the article “The Relation between Religion and Well-Being.” “Religious people report being happier and more satisfied with their lives.”

These findings support Neel’s suggestion that even in modern times, there are more ways to think about mental illness than the strictly medical.

“That historical depth of perception is important for understanding our contemporary situation,” said Robert Bjork, ASU Foundation Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which is sponsoring Neel’s lecture.

James O’Donnell, professor of ancient history and religion and ASU university librarian, who helped organize the event, added, “We like to assume — as all human beings of all periods have assumed about various things — that we’ve got [mental illness] nailed, that we are superior beings.

“We don’t; we’re not. This is an area in which there’s still more for us to understand about the human mind, its frailties, strengths and experiences.”

Those interested in attending Neel’s lecture — free and open to the public at Hayden Library on ASU’s Tempe campus — can RSVP here