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Nearly 2,300 ASU grads flourish thanks to Obama Scholars program

As Obama term ends, his namesake ASU scholarship has nearly 2,300 graduates.
January 17, 2017

Scholarship combines mentorship with financial help, boosting retention and graduation for low-income Arizona students

They’re teachers, accountants, social workers and entrepreneurs. One is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and another will graduate from medical school in May.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Arizona State University in 2009, less than a year after taking office, inspired a new scholarship program for low-income young people, and as his term draws to a close this week, nearly 2,300 ASU students have graduated as Obama Scholars.

To date, more than $200 million has been invested in these young Arizonans who, without the aid, might not have attended college.

“I was able to break that cycle of not having any opportunity,” said Sergio Rojas, whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was 4 years old. Now working for ExxonMobil while pursuing an MBA, Rojas was near the top of his class in high school but had no hope of higher education.

“The scholarship made all the difference,” he said.

More likely to succeed  

ASU launched the President Barack Obama Scholars Program nearly eight years ago for Arizona high school graduates who qualified for acceptance as full-time freshmen, providing not only financial aidThe program pays for eight semesters of tuition, housing, books and supplies through a combination of federal, state, institutional and private money for students whose families earn $42,400 or less. Obama Scholars also earn money toward tuition through work-study. but also mentorship to help smooth the way.

Students who are Obama Scholars have been more likely to persistAbout 92 percent of Obama Scholars who started in fall 2015 returned for their sophomore in fall 2016, compared with 83 percent of the entire freshmen class. In the full-time freshmen cohort who started in fall 2011, 52 percent graduated within four years, compared with 46 percent for the entire class. to their sophomore year and to graduate.

In the current freshmen class of Obama Scholars:

  • Three-quarters are Merit Scholars, and their average high school grade-point average is 3.5.
  • The average household income is about $21,000, and nearly half are first-generation college goers.
  • Nearly three-quarters are students of color.
  • About 45 percent are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering or math fields. 
President Obama

President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at ASU in May 2009. Though his tenure at the White House ends this week, the Obama Scholars program will continue. Photo by ASU

The scholarship program — announced during the commencement ceremony before Obama’s speech — was ASU’s response to the president’s challenge for the U.S. to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.

“That notion of opening doors of opportunity to everybody — that is the core mission of this school. It’s a core mission of my presidency, and I hope this program will serve as a model for universities across this country,” Obama said during his address.

Alex Butler, a freshman history major and Obama Scholar at ASU, said that as an African-American, he finds the program is especially meaningful.

“I’m a big fan of President Obama, and I know that when my mother was growing up, it wasn’t even a thought that there would be an African-American president, and now I have a scholarship with his name on it,” said Butler, who wants to be a teacher.

“I’m going to try to live my day helping people as much as I can.”

Someone to cheer

Navigating a big university can be overwhelming, which is why the program assigns faculty or upperclassmen as mentors for freshmen.

Duane Roen, vice provost of the Polytechnic campus, was a mentor for several students a few years ago and met with them regularly to check in.

“We talked about how they were doing in every way that a student needs to think about — academically, financially and emotionally. We talked about the full range of wellness,” said Roen, who also is dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and of University College.

Butler said that he got a lot of help transitioning to college from his mentor, James Rund, the senior vice president of Educational Outreach and Student Services.

“He helped me to feel that I’m not left behind and that there’s always someone cheering me on,” Butler said.

“He’s given me a lot of advice on things to get involved with, and from that I applied to become a community assistant in the residence halls next year, and I also got involved with the Undergraduate Student Government,” he said.

Roen, a professor of English, said that working with the scholars was fulfilling.

“I frequently talk to student groups and I tell them of all of the things in my academic career, nothing gives me greater happiness, joy and satisfaction than to see a student succeed.”

'There was something wrong'

For Rojas, who graduated from ASU in 2013, the scholarship was the second of two miracles that opened the door to higher education.

Sergio Rojas

Sergio Rojas was able to attend ASU after qualifying at the last minute for an Obama scholarship.

Rojas’ family were undocumented immigrants, working odd jobs. Eventually, his father found work as a plumber and the family settled in the West Valley.

With no insurance, health care usually meant a trip to a clinic paid with cash. So when his mother began having stomach pains, the clinic staff told her to cut out spicy food. But when the pain became worse, they took her to the emergency room, where surgery revealed she had cancer. She died a few months later, just a few weeks after Sergio had finished eighth grade.

Rojas was motivated by his mother’s death to study hard in high school. But while he earned A's, the reality of his situation dawned on him.

“For a long time, I wasn’t sure what my legal status meant. My dad kind of kept it away from me. When I was in high school, I realized what my identity was, and that there was something wrong. You couldn’t tell people about it because you might get in trouble,” he said.

In the meantime, Rojas' father married a woman who is a citizen, and didn’t tell his sons that he had started the complicated process of trying to acquire legal status for them.

Rojas graduated from Buckeye Union High School in May 2009, fourth in his class with a 4.3 grade-point average and little opportunity. He was told that without documentation, he should look for work in the fields. He had spoken with a financial-aid officer at ASU but learned that his status meant he couldn’t qualify for financial aid.

But in June, a letter arrived from the State Department, notifying him that he had been granted legal status. The problem was that it was too late for most universities. Except ASU.

He called the financial-aid counselor, who worked to get him into the brand-new Obama Scholars program.

“She told me she would do whatever she could to help me, and she gave me information in Spanish to give to my family,” Rojas said. “For my father, it meant he didn’t have to stress anymore about paying for college.”

Rojas graduated with a degree in supply chain management in 2013 and now is a site materials associate for ExxonMobil and is pursuing his MBA at Rice University.

“Without that scholarship, it would have been a very different story,” he said.

An amazing four years

For Diana German, the scholarship meant an immersive college experience.

German’s older sister commuted from the family’s Glendale home to ASU’s Tempe campus, an hour each way. When German graduated from Glendale High School in 2010, she had scholarships to help pay tuition, but she was facing that commute as well.

“I remembering touring ASU in high school and going to the dorms and saying, ‘I want to live here’ — but I knew it was impossible. I had to be happy to get my classes paid for,” said German, who graduated with a degree in secondary education in 2014 and is now a Spanish teacher at Tolleson Union High School.

German’s family was hit hard by the recession, and when she got the Obama scholarship, she realized she could fulfill her dream of living in the dorms, which she did for all four years.

“I tell my students it was the most amazing four years of my life, and I wouldn’t have been involved in so many things had I not lived on campus,” said German, who was in intramural tennis, Devil DanceSport and Adelante, a group for Latino students.

German has an ASU poster on her classroom wall and tells her students they can reach for college.

“I tell them that there are so many opportunities out there for them.”

Top photo: Diana German, an ASU alumna and Obama scholarship recipient, teaches the Advanced Placement Native-Speaker Spanish class at Tolleson Union High School. German was an Obama Scholar while at ASU. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU-developed app seeks to improve medical diagnosis process

ASU researchers' diagnostic app aims to improve doctor-patient relations.
Robert Yao used personal experience with misdiagnoses to inform breakthrough app
January 17, 2017

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

It can be tough getting an accurate diagnosis.

A recent report from the Institute of Medicine found that “most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences.”

With this in mind, a team of researchers at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, has been working on an app that they hope will make things better. Founded by ASU alums Robert Yao and Neel Mehta, EpiFinder uses machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to help ensure more accurate diagnoses and treatments.

“One thing that’s so awesome about the application is that it’s very adaptive,” Mehta, who studied biomedical informatics at ASU, said. Mehta said doctors can search symptoms or use a checklist, making it comprehensive, fast and easy to use.

The app is geared toward doctors and not available to the general public. It’s being beta tested by a handful of doctors, including a Phoenix-based neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and an Austin, Texas-based epilepsy center, said Yao, who also studied biomedical informatics at ASU.

“Doctors are telling us, with all the technology that's coming out, it adds time to their day,” Yao said. “We made sure we built the app for them, to improve their workflow, so they’re not spending so much time entering data.”

He said he hopes that streamlined workflow allows doctors to spend more time “actually interacting with and listening to their patients.”

Their app, which has been under development for several years, is nearing the end of its first phase of live testing. They say it gets more accurate and comprehensive with each new diagnosis and that they hope to make updates and have a version that’s ready “to go to market” this quarter. The EpiFinder website is getting an overhaul as well, and will debut later this week.

The app has been used to help identify diseases including epilepsy. It didn’t get its name from the brain disorder that causes seizures, however. For conditions that are tough to identify, Yao said, the developers hope to help doctors and patients “find their epiphany.”

Yao came up with the idea for the app more 10 years ago when he was bedridden with a rare rheumatologic condition. At first, no doctor could figure out what was wrong.

“At that time, not only did I have the expertise,” Yao said, “but I had the motivation to figure it out myself.” Recognizing that not all patients would be in such a situation, he built what he calls a sort of “medical map” to help people with hard-to-diagnose symptoms.

“I very much had that similar experience that people who have gone through misdiagnoses have had,” he said.

After creating the model, Yao connected with Mehta at ASU. Mehta, who has an entrepreneurial background from trying to launch several tech startups, helped turn the map into an app that can diagnose thousands of diseases.

The app was selected by Seed Spot, a Phoenix-based social incubator that provided office space and mentoring. Soon after, EpiFinder was chosen to receive $20,000 in funding and support from ASU’s Edson program.

“As a part of ASU’s Edson program, we’ve been provided with a lot of opportunities, such as office space, mentorship, connections and grant funding,” Mehta said.

Lasat year, EpiFinder was awarded a $30,000 Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship grant from the Flinn foundation, a Phoenix-based grant making organization.

Today, EpiFinder is an app for iPads and iPhones that doctors can use to help with accurate diagnoses.

Doctors simply pull out the app, go through a checklist that allows them to account for each patient’s symptoms, and a list of possible diagnoses pops up, with a percentage of likelihood for each. Then, the ultimate diagnostic decision lies in the hands of the doctor.

“We’ve taken all this research,” said EpiFinder operations manager Harsh Patel, “and put it in the back end” — this way, “doctors don’t have to go through all that research themselves to come up with a diagnosis. We did the hard work for them.”

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

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