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A first for their families

December 14, 2017

ASU graduating more first-generation students than ever — here's a look at their journeys and how the university helped

After 10 years, three changes of major and two children, Ashley Pitman graduated from college this week — the first in her family to earn a degree.

Like many first-generation students, her journey took a bit longer, but she knows that she’s secured a future for herself and her family with her bachelor’s of nursing degree from Arizona State University.

“One of the main reasons I did it is because I think each generation of family should improve themselves and strive for higher achievements,” the Navy veteran said. “Even having two kids in the middle of it, I still did it.

“I don’t think my kids will have an excuse to not go to college now.”

Pitman is part of a growing number of first-generation students accepted to and graduating from ASU, part of the university’s mission to expand access.

In the fall 2017 semester, 22,070 students — including first-time freshmen and transfers — were the first in their families to go to college. That's 26 percent of the total enrolled student population, compared with 18 percent a decade ago. And their graduation rate is on the rise.

First-generation students can face unique challenges in navigating the complex world of higher education, but graduation is critically important as Arizona tries to increase the number of degree-holding residents as a way to draw business and boost the state’s economy.

A degree makes an enormous difference. College graduates not only have lower rates of unemployment than non-degree-holders, they also earn an average $17,500 more per yearA recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. Another recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. than high school graduates. Graduates are also more likely to vote and to live a healthier lifestyle.

ASU has committed to removing barriers to higher education and to supporting first-generation students with specialized coaching, which improves the odds that they’ll persist in their studies and graduate.

“We’ve proven that ASU’s vision is possible,” said Kevin Correa, associate director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.

“We can be committed to both access and excellence at the same time. Those things are not mutually exclusive.” 

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Sustainability doctoral graduate Michael Sieng (left) and Navy veteran and nursing graduate Ashley Pitman (right) stand with their families, of whom they are the first university graduates.

A blessing and a burden

ASU has supported students through its First-Year Success Center coaching program for several years, but two years ago, the university launched Game Changers, an initiative specifically focused on first-generation freshmen. These students get one-on-one counseling from older peer coaches, many of whom also are first-generation students, along with group events and advice on building practical skills, like time management and how to email a professor.

Game Changers validates the students’ experiences, according to Marisel Herrera, director of ASU’s First-Year Success Center.

“It’s the identity of ‘first.’ What happens when you’re the first in anything? There’s a huge learning curve because you have experiences that those around you have not had,” she said.

Students learn not only practical information specific to ASU, like how to work the meal plan, but they meet a community of people like them.

“We have faculty who were first-generation students come and give talks,” Correa said. “They become role models for the students to relate to and aspire to.”

Beyond practical advice, Game Changers recognizes the unique pressures that first-generation students face, Herrera said.

“You can be this awesome student, academically qualified, living the dream that you and your family have worked so hard for, but you still feel somehow like you don’t belong or you have to prove yourself in ways different from others,” she said.

Even with family support, there can be stresses.

“You have a great deal of expectation from those around you, including your family and your community, to succeed — which is a blessing and a burden,” Herrera said.

“So many times we see students who are doing great but they’re dealing with a level of stress that’s pretty high because this is not just about them and their 18-year-old world. This is: ‘I need to make my family proud.’ ”

Herrera said the Game Changer coaches approach the first-generation students’ experiences as positives, not negatives.

“We talk about them being trailblazers. We congratulate them for being courageous pioneers for their family. We celebrate the experience and ask them to reflect on it,” she said.

Game Changers coaches also push the freshmen to maximize their college careers with leadership positions, undergraduate research, study abroad or entrepreneurship.

“We want them to elevate their vision of themselves,” Herrera said.

The intense one-on-one help is unusual, and colleges from around the country call Herrera to ask about the model.

“For ASU to be the largest university in the nation and to offer such personalized support is unheard of,” she said. “We’ve demonstrated that you can care deeply at scale.”

Time for a culture change

When a family launches someone into college, that student often supports those who follow.

Tomy Gates graduated with a degree in community sports management this week, and his twin brother, Tommy Gates, will earn his degree in tourism development and management in May.

“We were pushed to graduate from high school, but college was never spoken of in our house,” Tomy Gates said.

The two eventually enrolled in community college in their home state of California, and then Tomy Gates transferred to ASU.

“He helped me with everything,” Tommy Gates said of his brother. “He transferred first. He said, ‘This is what you need to do. This is how it will work. It’s a load you can carry, and I know you can do it.’ I’ve been looking up to him since I got here.”

The two, who live together while attending classes on the Downtown Phoenix campus, said that even though they were never encouraged, they knew they wanted degrees.

“It’s time for a culture change, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Tommy Gates said.

“We knew we could do it. We weren’t pushed to be doctors, but we knew we had the skills to graduate and change everything around us and make a better environment.”

Laura Samora was the first in her family to get a degree when she graduated from ASU in 2009, and this week, she watched her husband, Frank Samora, also a first-generation student, earn his degree in kinesiology.

“With us it’s really been a team effort with his working full time and going to school full time,” she said. “It’s been incredible to see all the personal growth in him, and the finish is almost bittersweet.”

Frank Samora, who’s a Marine Corps veteran, said his wife “got him over the finish line” and that he bonded with other first-generation students.

“We helped each other to reduce the anxiety. ‘First time you, first time me,’ ” he said.

Young people whose parents did not finish college are less likely to enroll in higher education right after high school. So for many, the journey to a degree is a long one.

Stacey Lynch earned her psychology degree from ASU Online this week, 20 years after graduating from high school. Along the way, she married and had seven children.

“My parents never encouraged me to go to college,” she said. “They said, ‘Find a good man to support you and have his babies.’ ”

Lynch worked for several years before enrolling in a community college in her home state of California.

“It was really hard because I did it all by myself. A lot of people have financial support and the backing of their parents, and I didn’t have that,” she said.

She had to work up the courage to apply to ASU Online two years ago and didn’t even tell her husband until a week after she was accepted.

“I told him, ‘I really want to finish this,’ ” said Lynch, whose children range in age from 18 years old to 4 months.

Her husband, Joe Lynch, is starting a master’s program in ASU Online this spring.

“She inspired me. It was so hard, and she did so much homework and she had a baby in her senior year,” he said, adding that their son and six daughters all will attend college.

Stacey Lynch, who will begin the master’s of social work program through ASU Online next fall, said that her degree means she’ll always have the ability to provide for her family.

“It’s changed my life.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

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Take a sneak peek inside ASU's new Biodesign C building

Expansion of ASU's Biodesign Institute is under construction along Rural Road


December 15, 2017

Biodesign C, the $120 million building expansion of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, continues to rise along Rural Road at ASU’s Tempe campus.

Much of the building is now in place ahead of an April 2018 completion date. Biodesign staff recently toured the construction site for a sneak peek at the progress, and the project architects explained the building’s layout, infrastructure and appearance at a seminar in November. Biodesign C tour Though dust and construction equipment still fill the new Biodesign C building, it will be ready for research in just a few months. Photo by Ben Petersen Download Full Image

It is the third building at ASU’s 14-acre master-planned Biodesign complex. The 189,000-square-foot structure includes 60,000 square feet of flexible laboratory space and office space, which will house nearly 400 researchers and staff, bringing the total size of Biodesign to 535,000 square feet and nearly 700 researchers. ASU's investment in the building and the lab equipment inside will total about $200 million.

Biodesign C is five stories tall, plus a basement. Its crown jewel lies in an underground vault: the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser. This innovative device will let scientists peer deep into molecular structure at a fraction of the cost of a typical free-electron laser. The new laser holds promise for drug discovery and bioenergy research.

The expansion is expected to draw top international scientific talent and grow ASU’s annual research expenditures by an estimated $60 million, supporting ASU’s goal of increasing research revenue to $850 million by 2025 and contributing an estimated $750 million to the Phoenix metro area in the coming decade.

Design thinking

“First and foremost, ASU wanted a workhorse research building that maximizes its investment,” said Erik Halle, ASU’s director of research facilities and infrastructure. It had to be 100-percent reliable, highly efficient and easy to operate and maintain. The successful design proposal took it a step further, thinking deeply about how the design could stimulate the Biodesign Institute’s unique, nature-inspired approach to research.

More than 20 design firms submitted proposals, and the university selected ZGF Architects and BWS Architects for the project. “These are two very highly skilled architects for what we believe to be an extraordinary and successful project for ASU,” Halle said.

Inspired by ASU’s institutional design aspirations and the Biodesign mission, the architects designed the building around a concept of research neighborhoods. “The form of the building grew from the idea of how we wanted it to function. It’s an embodiment of the type of collaboration we expect to see in the Institute,” said Gary Cabo, principal at ZGF Architects.

Biodesign scientists specialize in an entrepreneurial mindset to translate their discoveries into societal impact. The building’s open neighborhood model encourages collaboration between scientists of different disciplines. It also accommodates different forms of research with specific infrastructure and equipment needs, including chemistry, biological sciences and engineering.

Biodesign C will house a number of new and expanded programs, including the new ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center. Led by Eric Reiman, it is expected to be one of the world’s largest basic science centers for the study of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The C building will also house an expanded Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution led by Michael Lynch.

Sense of place

Located at a major eastern entry point for ASU’s Tempe campus and visible from miles away, Biodesign C is a striking addition to the neighborhood. It sits steps away from a major transportation hub connected by Valley Metro light rail, ASU’s intercampus shuttle and city buses, along Tempe’s busy Rural Road and between two parking garages.

The C building’s distinctive, wraparound copper skin emphasizes Biodesign’s Arizona roots (copper being one of Arizona’s historic “Five C’s” that drove the state’s early economy) and shields the building from sun exposure. Beneath this outer skin lies another metal skin that Cabo compared to a refrigerator door to further insulate the building. The space between the two skins acts like a chimney, allowing hot air to escape.

“This is the highest-performing building from an energy and technology standpoint on a campus that is known for excellent stewardship of the environment,” Cabo said. Biodesign C is targeting the rigorous LEED Platinum certification, building on a Biodesign tradition — Biodesign B was the first LEED Platinum building in Arizona.

“As an institution, Arizona State University is at the forefront of innovation in energy and performance in buildings,” said Robin Shambach, managing principal at BWS Architects. “Our goal was to be 50 percent better than similar research facilities, and Biodesign C will exceed that goal.”

Despite the extensive shielding to withstand Arizona summers, natural light fills the interior. The building boasts impressive views of Tempe in all directions and the neighborhood layout offers clear lines of sight through lab and office spaces. Biodesign C is adjacent to one of the largest areas of green space on the urban Tempe campus, which includes a desert garden and the James Turrell “Skyspace: Air Apparent” public art installation.

Biodesign C connects to the existing Biodesign B building underground; above ground, they connect visually via a shaded patio and glass lobby outside the Biodesign cafe. The design also leaves room for a possible fourth research building in the future.

Innovative construction

Advanced building techniques made the Biodesign C building possible.

“Successful architecture is not unlike research,” Halle said. “It can be incredibly complex. It is dealing with the minutiae of everything, and at the same time it embodies bold visions.” The basement, housing the world’s first compact X-ray free-electron laser (CXFEL), exemplifies this idea.

Free-electron lasers help scientists to better understand the cellular mechanics of diseases such as cancer and processes including photosynthesis, accelerating research for new treatments and energy sources. Biodesign scientists William Graves and Mark Holl have collaborated with the architects, structural engineers and general contractor McCarthy Construction to shield the custom-built laser from outside interference.

This meant a lot of problem-solving: minimizing vibration from passing light rail trains, reducing magnetic fields in building materials and containing the energy from the laser beam. The lead-lined laser vaults feature an isolated four to six foot concrete mat slab that required a special overnight pour from more than 100 cement trucks, four foot thick concrete walls, a Faraday cage structure, demagnetized steel rebar, electronic safety features and a state-of-the-art control room.

ASU’s compact laser has the potential to relieve a scientific traffic jam and dramatically shrink the cost of this technology. Currently, there are only four XFEL facilities worldwide, including the $700 million, two-mile-long Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Capacity simply cannot keep up with demand from researchers, and 80 percent of requests to use the technology are denied.

ASU’s CXFEL will also be about 100 times smaller and cheaper than a typical XFEL. ASU expects the Biodesign C laser will attract scientists from around the world and further grow the university’s reputation as a leading hub for research, innovation and discovery.

McCarthy Construction built and tested mock-ups of building components before they went up, including concrete slabs, columns and exterior panels. Biodesign C also features an innovative high-performance HVAC system that conserves energy while keeping labs properly ventilated and temperature controlled. Construction will be completed in April 2018.

Ben N. Petersen

Assistant Science Writer, The Biodesign Institute