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Public Service Academy graduate beat overwhelming obstacles

Public Service Academy's 1st graduating cohort a highlight of May commencement.
April 26, 2019

Imani Stephens is among 86 students in first-ever graduating class of ASU's civilian leadership program

The fire that burned down her apartment could have been the coup de grâce for Imani Stephens, but it didn't stop her from pursuing a college degree.

Raised by a single mother, Stephens beat other obstacles: financial hardships, a cross-country move and sleeping on floors. Now, the Arizona State University senior will close the door on her past and embrace a bright future when she graduates in May.

Stephens, a student with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, credits her family, her faith and the university’s Public Service Academy for getting her through.

“I persevered by looking at the end goal and knowing that my situation was temporary,” said Stephens, who is also a student in Barrett, The Honors College with a 4.0 GPA. “Leadership teaches you to try (to) improve gradually. I always try to be better than yesterday, last semester and last year. My goal is to improve from that last step.”

Stephens’ next step will be to join thousands of other ASU studentsAccording to Public Service Director Brett Hunt, four PSA students graduated in the fall and spring of 2018. in collecting their diplomas on May 6. Some 15,797 immersion and online students have applied to graduate, nearly 11,000 of those undergraduates. Of the total number of students receiving degrees, 54% are Arizona residents. New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks will deliver the address at the undergraduate commencement.

PLAN: Full schedule of ceremonies at graduation.asu.edu

In addition to her Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication, Stephens minored in justice studies and will receive a Cross-Sector Leadership Certificate from ASU’s Public Service Academy in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

The academy, now in its fourth year, will see its first graduating class of 86 students at its individual convocation ceremony May 4. The 400-member academy answers the nation’s call for a new type of leader: a character-driven leader armed with the courage to cross sectors, connect networks and ignite action for the greater good. 

It launched in 2015 to develop leaders of tomorrow who are prepared to find solutions for society’s biggest challenges and create a culture of service. It does so by leveraging and combining military and civilian experiences. It has two tracks: Reserve Officer Training Corps, the existing university-based program to commission officers into the U.S. Armed Forces, and Next Generation Service Corps, a program for service-oriented students from all majors to become civilian service leaders.

It aims to foster collaboration between those two groups — military and civil service — that work together in the field. They learn how to communicate and work together, and how to navigate the different structures of each group.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Public Service Academy Director Brett Hunt said Stephens demonstrated leadership qualities from day one.

“Imani looks at everything as an opportunity to better herself and grow,” Hunt said. “She walks into a situation and determines where she fits and then takes full advantage of that opportunity. Over the past four years, I’ve seen her do that with rocket fuel.”

Stephens finds that depiction somewhat ironic. She said she initially sputtered at ASU because of her tumultuous upbringing in Compton, California. Her father left them for another family when she was in second grade, leaving her mother to raise Stephens and her sister alone and without financial help, Stephens said.

Their situation grew worse with a sudden move to Florida.

“My mom wanted to get away from the situation and start a new life,” Stephens said. “But in doing so we hit a deep dive financially. We didn’t have any family or support system there, and no furniture our first year there. We slept on the floor.”

A move back to the Los Angeles area three years later was a slight improvement — the family had a few furnishings and now slept on air mattresses. But then the apartment where they lived was destroyed by an electrical fire during Stephens’ senior year of high school, dispersing the family to different relatives’ homes.

“We didn’t have much in the first place and now we had to rebuild,” Stephens said. “That was the hardest moment — trying to come back from that. Even now looking back, I’m amazed how I just kept going and moving forward.”

Stephens continued hitting roadblocks after she graduated from Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California. She didn’t qualify for the Cronkite School her freshman year because of low SAT scores and an average GPA. She also didn’t know how she was going to pay for college, much less acquire a laptop needed for her studies. Even with a Pell Grant, Stephens had already racked up almost $9,000 in debt in her first semester.

But when she found out about a scholarship offered through the Public Service Academy that covered gap tuition, it was “an answered prayer.”

“A particular scripture that resonates with me is ‘I walk by faith, not by sight,’” Stephens said. “If I look at my circumstances through my eyes, that’s when I see all of my problems, challenges, adversity and barriers against me. But when I look through a faith lens, that’s when I say, ‘I can achieve this.’”

Stephens’ four years at ASU is a study in achievement. Each successive semester her grades improved, and she eventually received eight separate scholarships to pay for her tuition. She also did internships every semester, which included stints at KAET 8 – Arizona PBS, KCBS 2/KCAL in Los Angeles, CBS News in New York, CBS Evening News with Jeff Glor in Washington, D.C., and News/Arizona PBS in Washington, D.C. Stephens even managed to find time to give back to the ASU community. She is a regular volunteer at the downtown Pitchfork Pantry for students in need.

She is also a go-getter when it comes to her craft, said Heather Dunn, content director for Cronkite News/Arizona PBS.

“One of the things that impresses me about Imani is her passion for journalism and storytelling,” Dunn said. “She works hard every day to not only find good stories to present to our viewers but works hard to find great people to illustrate the problem, which helps the viewer to connect to the story.”

As she sharpened her journalistic skills, Stephens was also getting another type of education from the Public Service Academy.

“What I really learned from them was how to communicate with different people and understanding how we can all work together regardless of backgrounds, political views, race and socioeconomic levels,” Stephens said. “I never thought of myself as a leader before but I knew I had something to bring to the table.”

MORE: Ultimate commencement guide

Stephens’ peers and supervisors say she brings a lot to the table.

“Imani is kind and she’s highly motivated and ready at the drop of a dime to do anything that is asked of her and then figures out how to do it,” said Veronica Gutierrez, curriculum and course manager for the Public Service Academy. “She’s been motivated to get out of that cycle of poverty and that space she was in before, but it’s not something that defines her.”

What does define her is connecting to other people, said Chris Frias, a Public Service Academy member who has known Stephens since she was a freshman.

“Imani is very sociable and cares a lot about people and her community,” Frias said. “Her time with the Public Service Academy has increased her scope with the issues that people face. I think it’s also helped her journalism to become more social impact oriented.”

Stephens said ASU’s impact on her life will never be forgotten, and she'll pay it forward whenever possible.

“Coming to ASU was part of my destiny and it had to happen,” Stephens said. “I’m astonished by the willingness of others to help me achieve my goals. I hope to pass that trait along to others as I move forward with my life.”

RELATED: More fantastic spring 2019 grads

Top photo: Journalism students Eliav Gabay (left) and Imani Stephens host an installment of Cronkite News from the downtown Phoenix studio. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

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MasterCard Foundation Scholar, School of Molecular Sciences grad inspired to dream bigger


April 26, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Ntombizodwa Makuyana will be graduating in May from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences with a degree in medicinal biochemistry, but this is just the first degree she plans to receive as she has her sights set on pursuing her MD-PhD next. Makuyana wants to understand how the immune response fights against diseases and drug development to find new drug therapies, so she can contribute to making health care systems in Zimbabwe better when she returns. Ntombizodwa Makuyana Ntombizodwa Makuyana. Download Full Image

ASU is a long way from where Makuyana comes from in Zimbabwe, where women are not encouraged to get an education, but that isn’t stopping her from breaking the cycle. She is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and through this support she has been able to realize her dreams and goals to get an education while discovering her passion for science.

She has worked with Karen Anderson, professor at the Biodesign Institute's Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics and the School of Life Sciences lab doing research to understand how the immune response can be used to detect and alter cancer development. 

“Ntombi’s project focused on making HPV viral proteins for a novel assay for cervical cancer detection. Protein production is sometimes an art form; it can be very difficult to make proteins in high yields that work,” said Anderson. “But, as a good scientist, she was persistent, and managed to get it to work.”

Makuyana has made the most of her time here at ASU and taken advantage of all it has to offer.

She managed to co-found a project in Zimbabwe — Female Dreamers — with her friend, Shantel Marekera, that aims to empower girls and women to be economically independent by providing them quality education and teaching them poultry-rearing skills. The initiative won several awards including the Changemaker Award at ASU in 2018, Venture Devils 2018, the Millennium Fellowship with United Nations award 2018, the Pitchfork Award 2019 for Global Change and Global Impact Project and was presented at the Clinton Global Initiative 2018.  

After graduation Makuyana is looking to the next chapter and continuing on to MD-PhD school. She answered some questions about her time here at ASU.

Q: How did your scholarship impact your education at ASU?

A: I am part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars program; this has supported me financially and taught me the importance of giving back to the community. Because of MasterCard Foundation Scholars, I developed into a global leader with a vision to better the world.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

A: My “aha” moment was when l started research in Biodesign Institute in Dr. Anderson’s lab. Ever since childhood, I have always been interested in research, but at that time I did not know what research entails. I finally understood the connection between my major, medicinal chemistry, and research, especially when I was doing experiments in the lab: I could understand the concepts I was learning in class and apply them. I discovered my passion for science.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned to talk or share ideas whether or not they make sense. I used this concept and it has worked wonders in my life. I remember sharing my ideas with my friends (Shantel Marekera, Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammed Habbash, etc.) about ways we can bring an impact into the world. From being a “not making sense” idea, Female Dreamers became a reality with our friends' encouragement and support.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU’s diversity and impeccable record of success in creating global leaders inspired me to be part of it. Being an international student can be difficult sometimes, especially coming to a place where people have different values, cultures and beliefs than yours. But, here at ASU, I never faced any of those difficulties. I felt welcomed and was made to be part of the family. Because of the diversity here at ASU, I interacted and engaged with people from diverse backgrounds on tackling the world's challenges. This also made me join ASU Global Guide program — a peer mentor program that helps international students develop strong interpersonal and intercultural communication skills by fostering new relationships with peers from different cultures so l could help other international students adjust to ASU. All these experiences helped to finally understand why ASU prides itself for its diversity and inclusion and “measures its success by whom it includes." I felt included and appreciated, and that’s a huge reason why l love ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Karen S. Anderson and Dr. Mary Dawes were instrumental in my personal development. Growing up in a male-dominated community in Zimbabwe, it was a norm that women were supposed to be trained to be better wives; it, unfortunately, would not exceed that point. The idea never resonated within me; and when I met these two amazing women doing amazing projects, l was inspired to dream bigger and exceed expectations. Their unparalleled one-on-one mentoring helped me to shatter the glass ceilings and aim for the horizon. These women’s unwavering support challenged me to extend the same act of kindness to girls in my community to break free from the labels that confine them to nowhere beyond the kitchen door and instead define their own lives.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Advice: “Be yourself.” I used to compare myself with others, but l have learned that everyone is different. We have different personalities, dreams and ambitions. Strive to be a better version of yourself and utilize every moment you have — talk to professors, make connections and expand your network.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite place is by the Memorial Union — the fireplace. I just love to sit and reflect or de-stress on life. As l watch other students walking by, it reminds me that I am not alone in this life. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am most likely to go to school for my MD-PhD. This is because there are few physician scientists in developing countries like Zimbabwe. The MD-PhD program will help me connect research discoveries into clinical settings which will be instrumental for my vision of finding new drug therapies. My overall goal is to gain an understanding on how immune systems fight against diseases and drug development.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Since my personal interests are rooted in my desire to improve others’ health, l will be more likely to channel the money to improving the health care system in developing countries. This is because l have seen many people forego treatments because they cannot afford them and also the fact that medical care is offered based on the person’s income level. My hope is for everyone to have access to health care despite their financial background because “medical care is a right.”

 

Communication specialist, School of Molecular Sciences