ASU math lecturer named Volunteer of the Year for prison education

December 15, 2017

Every Thursday morning, Arizona State University mathematics lecturer Naala Brewer makes the one-hour plus drive to Florence prison.

“Sometimes I think — oh, I don’t know if I want to drive all the way out to Florence,” Brewer admitted. “But then I get there and by the end of the day I feel more energized. I feel like they really got something out of it.” Naala Brewer Photo by Rhonda Olson Download Full Image

Brewer volunteers as a mathematics instructor for the inmates in Florence prison. She started with a pre-calculus class of 15 men ranging in age from 20 to 70 — all different ethnicities, some with college degrees, some with GEDs, some with neither.

“Teaching the class is really enjoyable,” Brewer said. ”The students volunteer to be in that class, and they have to be on good behavior to qualify, so they are really motivated and so appreciative. They always thank me for coming.”

The ASU Prison Education Initiative has nearly 40 volunteer instructors who teach a variety of subjects including math, English, biology and theater.

Brewer was recently recognized as the Education Services Volunteer of the Year at the Florence Prison Complex.

“Naala Brewer was chosen for this distinguished award because she has shown dedication and diligence to the Education Unit at Florence Complex, the Department of Corrections, our instructional staff, and our students who have shown struggle and enthusiasm (yes, all in the same statements!) for math,” said Laura Metcalfe, correctional education program supervisor (CEPS) at the Arizona State Prison Complex — Florence.

“Most importantly, she has opened a door for a previously unknown desire for learning math that our students have not communicated before. It was not until we opened a pre-calculus class, with student suggestion, that the desire to learn and apply this level of math existed. The class is full and more students want to enroll. This is unheard of in our present environment,” Metcalfe added.

“Nearly three years ago, the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences joined this volunteer program, started by English, since it promotes educational access to a sector of our society which needs it the most,” said school director Al Boggess.

“Naala has eagerly jumped into this program with a zeal that has impressed me. She is highly deserving of this award and I am very proud of her accomplishments.”

Before she started volunteering at the prison, Brewer wasn’t sure how the students would do.

“I hoped that I could introduce them to math, and I didn’t realize they would actually move forward and have dreams of their own, for when they get out and what they’re going to do,” she said.

Brewer describes her inmate students as hardworking and appreciative: “I’ll give them a lot of homework to do sometimes and they get it all done. It’s almost like they don’t want a chance of not being in the class, so they make sure and do every single problem.”

ASU emeritus professor Floyd Downs recently donated hundreds of books to his alma mater. Brewer helped to funnel many of those books to the Florence prison, where the students have put them to good use.

“Some students will come up to me after class and say, when I get out I want to go and get my engineering degree. Or one of the older men said he wants to go back for his master's degree.”

One of her students has a college degree from ASU, and used to be an adviser for 401K accounts.

“He was curious how much he would need to earn to make a living, pay his rent, buy his food and pay utilities, and then also how much he would need to save so it would go all the way through retirement,” Brewer explained. “So he used some of the donated books and came up with a formula and is writing a book for an 8-week financial management course.”

Another student was building three-sided equilateral dice. He noticed that there was always a constant relationship between the perimeter of the triangle and the distance from one of the vertices to the base.

Brewer at first thought it was any triangle. She said to her student, “Let’s try to prove this.”

The student insisted, “It’s an equilateral triangle.”

They worked it through and did the proof. The student, whose last name was Hollenback, completed the proof in front of the class. They were all excited and said, “You should call it the Hollenback constant!”

She encouraged Hollenback to write up his theorem so she could help him submit it to the Southwest Undergraduate Math Conference this spring.

The students are looking forward to the future, and Brewer tries to give them a lot of encouragement.

“I give them little anecdotes … 'Here’s something that I may have struggled with, but I came out on top because I didn’t give up. I kept working and kept practicing.'”

One thing she learned in training — be careful what you promise or say you are going to do, because you really need to follow through. You may be the only person in that student’s life that they have ever known that is dependable and follows their word.

“I try to make sure that if I promise them that I’m going to do something next week, that come hell or high water, I make sure I do that,” Brewer said. “It has made me a better person even in my everyday life. I try to watch what I say. And if I say something, that’s my word and I follow through with it.”

Brewer feels that teaching at the prison has been extremely rewarding, and would encourage others to consider volunteering.

“I actually get more out of it then I put into it. I feel like I give, and then I always get more back after I’ve done it."

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


ASU public service graduates asked to wield power with a 'sense of purpose'

December 15, 2017

The 350 graduates who participated in Arizona State University's College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation received more than recognition for their degrees Tuesday night at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix. They got a reminder from their dean, Jonathan Koppell, of the power they will hold as public servants. 

Citing recent revelations regarding sexual harrassment in multiple industries, Koppell told graduates they can't ignore matters of this importance hoping they will go away.  College of Public Service and Community Solutions Fall 2017 Convocation Dean Jonathan Koppell addresses graduations at the fall 2017 College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation. Download Full Image

"We all wield power in some respects," Koppell said. "And with the preparation for public service, you are likely to hold that sacred public trust and you are likely to wield the power that goes with it."

Koppell described the kind of power graduates from each of the college’s four schools will have. School of Social Work graduates who work in the child welfare system must weigh the safety of children with the rights of parents.

“You will wield the power in many instances to remove a child from his or her home or the power not to remove a child from a home that might be dangerous,” Koppell said. “How will you use that power?”

For students from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who will go into law enforcement, Koppell talked about their power behind carrying a badge and gun.

“You will wield the power to deprive — deprive people of their liberty — in some instances, deprive them of their life,” Koppell noted. ”How will you use that power? How will you think about the proper use of force?”

Koppell observed that the choices made by graduates of the School of Public Affairs, many of whom will go on to run government agencies, will affect large numbers of people.

“Some of you will be government officials that will make difficult decisions about the allocation of resources to one community or another or make difficult choices about public policy to which there are no obvious clear‑cut answers,” Koppell said. “How will you make decisions?”

And for graduates of the School of Community Resources and Development, which offers a degree in nonprofit leadership and management, the dean described the situations they may encounter.

“Some of you may work for a nonprofit agency and be faced with difficult choices,” Koppell said.  “Who will sleep in a bed tonight and who will not? Who will eat a meal and who will not? This is real power.”

The dean told students he hoped graduates resolved those challenges with confidence and a “sense of purpose.” And he hoped that faculty helped prepared them to handle difficult challenges.

“But what I ask more than anything else is not to be so arrogant or so confident in the rightness of your cause that you forget just how significant it is that you have that power and the influence you have over others' lives,” he said. “At its core, that is what makes public service a sacred calling, and that is what makes you, who signed up to be part of it, so special.”

The fall 2017 convocation featured remarks from Bill Ridenour, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body that oversees Arizona’s three public universities. A lawyer by profession, Ridenour is no stranger to public service, having served on the Senate staffs of Barry Goldwater and Paul Fannin. Ridenour also has a distinguished history of volunteer work with the March of Dimes, Arizona Nurses Foundation, University of Arizona Foundation and a Governor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. He currently serves on the advisory board of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Arizona Board of Regents chair Bill Ridenour

Arizona Board of Regents chair Bill Ridenour addresses graduates at fall 2017 College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation at Comerica Theatre Dec. 12. Photo by Carmen Garza.

Ridenour acknowledged the importance of community, government and civic engagement and asked students to look at who they really are and what they are capable of doing.

“I would ask you to examine the values that are essential to your very being,” Ridenour said. “I would ask you to examine how you can best make a difference for those who are less fortunate, those that have been ignored or marginalized and those whose lives are lived in quiet desperation.”

He also had another request.

Ridenour pointed out the decline in state funding for higher education. He cited a new report that shows state funding as a percentage of resident tuition paid by the state fell from 75 percent 10 years ago to 34 percent today.

“We now have some legislators questioning the value of a degree and stating that the workforce of tomorrow does not need higher education,” Ridenour said. “They feel that much of what is taught in college courses is wasted and is not necessary.”

He pointed out how that stance ignores research showing that a college education greatly enhances a person’s earning potential in life or that by the year 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require more than a high school degree.

“They do not care that critical thinking, decision‑making, discipline and ambition are all enhanced by a college degree,” Ridenour said. "I would ask you to get involved, stay involved, be vocal, make your presence known in the communities, in government and in society so that those who will follow you will have the same opportunities that you have had.”

Senior Associate Dean Cynthia Lietz introduced the outstanding graduates of each school and the college: Quin Patterson, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Tierra McDonald, School of Public Affairs, Chelsea Raulsome, School of Social Work; Grace Alvarez, School of Community Resources and Development; and Robert Rowley, College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Lietz thanked over 100 online students who traveled to Phoenix to attend graduation ceremonies. More than one out of every four students in the college is earning a degree online. She also acknowledged graduates in the audience that reflect the uniqueness of the college. It features the highest percentage of veterans of any ASU college or school; the highest percentage of first-generation college students (60 percent) and the contribution of more than 500,000 hours of community service by students.  

“It is my honor to acknowledge our five outstanding graduates along with groups of students who exemplify a collection of values and qualities that have contributed to your academic success,” Lietz said. “Diligence, commitment, passion for social justice, courage, and leadership will remain essential as you move forward in public service.”

Three doctoral students from the School of Public Affairs received their doctoral hoods in a time-honored ceremony that honors students achieving the highest academic degree. Professor Eric Welch hooded San Eun Lee and Gabel Christopher, who both earned doctoral degrees in public administration and policy. Xuefan Zhang, who earned a doctoral degree in public administration with a concentration in urban management, was hooded by Joanna Lucio, an associate professor, also in the School of Public Affairs.

Paul Atkinson

assistant director, College of Public Service and Community Solutions