The future looks fun for outstanding grad who discovered joys of recreational therapy

May 3, 2019

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

Having fun is a lifelong habit of Kelly Walsh. It’s important to her as a person aspiring to remain healthy and strong in her quest to help improve the lives of others. Kelly (with light complexion, brown hair, and pink and green floral blouse) smiles in Civic Space Park Kelly Walsh. Photo by Alexis Bojorquez Download Full Image

But now having fun for Walsh, the spring 2019 outstanding graduate for the School of Community Resources and Development in Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, is also part of a framework for rigorous thought and scientific practice. Walsh, of New Hartford, Connecticut, intends to use her Bachelor of Science degree in parks and recreation management with a concentration in therapeutic recreation to help advance wellness of individuals and communities.

“At the end of the day,” Walsh said, “if you’re not having fun and you’re too stressed out about the work you’re doing, you’re not going to remember those days as being some of the better days of your life, you know?”

Walsh, who also earned a certificate in cross-sector leadership, has had fun at Arizona State University, while serving as a resident assistant on the Tempe campus, being part of the first cohort of the Next Generation Service Corps of the Public Service Academy, co-founding the Devils Spark Change service organization and being part of a team that qualified for a Woodside Grant that purchased equipment for therapeutic recreation at the Maricopa Reentry Center.

Fun as a recreational therapist is an entirely different category. It’s life-changing.

“How I do recreational therapy is to take a holistic approach to working with individuals to tackle any mental or physical barrier they may be having in their lives,” Walsh said.

Through internships and other programs and projects, Walsh has seen that approach work in multiple settings, including healthcare institutions, such as Barrow Neurological Institute, and correctional facilities, such as the Maricopa Reentry Center. Progress can come in the form of patients playing board games with family members or men in a conference room meeting a challenge to keep an inflated balloon from touching the floor.

Who knew?

Walsh didn’t. Not at first.

Walsh didn’t enroll at ASU to become a recreational therapist. At first, she thought she wanted to be a speech language pathologist but changed her mind after a few classes. An adviser picked up on Walsh’s interest in the Special Olympics and suggested a degree in nonprofit leadership management. That was another wrong path.

How about recreation therapy, the adviser asked. Walsh asked for an explanation of what that was and liked what she heard.

“That sounds like you get to make people have fun for a living, and that’s exactly what we do,” she recalls thinking. “I didn’t know you could do that as a profession. You get paid to teach other people how to play.”

There’s a need for play, said Walsh, whose parents instilled in her at a young age the importance of participating in diverse activities to maintain physical and mental health. Through her ASU experience, she now knows there’s a science behind therapeutic play and methods behind the practice.

She also fervently believes leisure and relaxation should be for everyone. Walsh has a particular interest in recreational therapy in correctional settings. Her immediate plans after graduation aren’t set in stone, but she has a career goal of using leisure to reduce recidivism rates.

“I believe all individuals have the right to leisure and that no citizen should be locked away without some form of outlet to cope with the circumstances they are in,” Walsh said. “When individuals are in correctional facilities, they suffer from prisonization, which essentially strips away their identity. I believe recreation helps bring people together and build individuals back up.”

Through her involvement with the Next Generation Service Corps, Walsh said she has spent a lot of time understanding what it means to be a character-driven leader. At the same time, her hands-on experiences in recreation therapy gave richer, deeper meaning to textbook knowledge. She connected it all to the care she was giving clients battling addiction, experiencing homelessness, adjusting to traumatic injury or learning how to live with a mental health diagnosis.

“I am excited to have developed a new love for learning in the past year that focuses on the worth of the materials being learned, but more importantly, how they are being translated in the communities we are serving,” Walsh said.

Walsh is interested in diving deeper into the research on recreational therapy. Recreational therapists need the education that comes from evidenced-based practice to deliver the treatment people need, she said, adding she’ll forever remember something instructor Kelly Ramella taught her about pursuing passion and earning respect for the profession:

“Recreational therapy is not the most accredited profession in the field,” she said. “We have to push through if we believe in the practice that we preach. And we have to make sure the other professions understand that we are credible and our clients see us as being a source in their recovery.”

Walsh’s best advice to students is not hard to guess: Seek knowledge and experiences beyond the classroom. Connect with people who have interests and perspectives unlike your own. Find places to experience new things and ideas.

And, of course, have fun.

Story by Jennifer Dokes

From senior master sergeant to master's degree, grad sees value of access to education

May 3, 2019

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

Senior Master Sgt. Joshua Loescher takes to heart the universal truth that education is a great equalizer. He has seen it in action during his military career in places like Baghdad. He is also living proof. Joshua (light complexion with close-cropped blonde hair) stands in black uniform in front of Air National Guard fire truck and american flag Joshua Loescher. Download Full Image

“I’ve been able to go to other places in the world and see different things,” Loescher said. “Not all of it is good.”

But it can be better. Loescher firmly believes that.

“I am passionate about equity of opportunity and the role that education plays in that,” said Loescher, a Wisconsin Air National Guard fire chief. “Having witnessed the manifestation of the globalization of education and the equity in opportunity it provided me and others across the globe, I can’t help but be enamored by it.”

Loescher, who is graduating from Arizona State University with a master’s degree in public safety leadership and administration, is the spring 2019 outstanding interdisciplinary graduate for Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Loescher’s appreciation of access to education as a universal phenomenon grew when he saw how Iraqis and others struggled to learn what American military firefighters were assigned to teach. 

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” Loescher said. “The reason they were not very good at the job is because they didn’t have the opportunity to be good. They didn’t have the training. … These people aren’t inherently lazy. They inherently don’t have opportunity.”

Loescher could relate on a personal level. College opportunities were limited for a kid from rural Wisconsin with a high school academic record that was “less than stellar.” Online degree programs opened up a new world of possibilities for Loescher.

“You can find a bajillion statistics out there about how people that have attained bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees are smarter, healthier, they make more money, and they have a general overall better quality of life,” Loescher said.

“I made the choice to enlist in the military. I didn’t think it was right, that because I made a choice to go into the military as opposed to going to college, that I should have less opportunity than somebody else.”

Online degree programs offer opportunities “to do exactly what you want to do and when you want to do it,” Loescher said.

In 2017, Loescher earned his bachelor’s degree in fire science from American Military University, an online learning institution. He took just a few months off and then dived into the Watts College online master’s degree program.

Loescher credits ASU’s proactive approach to making college accessible for helping him become more of who he wants to be as a professional and a person. He said the master’s degree gives him a more complete understanding of how to manage an organization, which he believes will help him be a better fire chief and leader.

His capstone project already has the attention of high command. As part of his program, Loescher analyzed a major challenge of the dual federal and state budget processes that finance National Guard installations. National Guard units belong to states, but each installation’s base, buildings and equipment are owned by the federal government. The federal government pays states to fund National Guard firefighters.

The Air National Guard is interested in knowing the impact of converting firefighters from being federally funded employees to simply federal employees. Loescher provided some answers.

For each Air National Guard fire department, Loescher assessed costs and variables over five years. He then analyzed the leadership impacts from introducing such a major institutional change. His work is making its way up the Air National Guard chain of command, providing insight that could yield greater efficiencies in fire service administration and operations.

Loescher, who has three deployments and has earned 19 decorations during his military career, expects to apply what he has learned at ASU in service to others. Some ideas for the future include teaching at the college level and perhaps one more deployment, where he hopes to repeat making a positive difference training military firefighters.

But the overall goal for Loescher, a proud husband and father to three sons, is to continue to be someone who leads by “positive example of kindness, compassion, inclusion and understanding.”

“If you’re going to use your position to your advantage, you should use it because you know there’s a bunch of people watching you,” he said. “If you just do the things you’re supposed to do and you’re nice to people and you work hard, then that will tell people who are watching you that, ‘It worked out for that guy. Look at him; he’s a fire chief. If it worked for him, it will probably work out for me, too.’”

Story by Jennifer Dokes

Master of Social Work grad draws from history and legacy to help others

May 2, 2019

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

Jennifer Harrison’s master’s degree in social work bears proof she has the training and knowledge to be an effective professional. But the summa cum laude graduate of Arizona State University will put so much more than that into her career of helping people. Jennifer Harrison (medium complexion with long dark hair, wearing native american turquoise jewelry and a dark teal dress) sits before a gray and white woven Native American tapestry Jennifer Harrison. Download Full Image

In service to American Indian communities and in staying true to herself, Harrison, of Gallup, New Mexico, will draw from history and legacy in pressing forward in a career in social work. Restoring a strong foundation of tradition and the ceremonies taught by elders “that guide us in our life journeys,” she said, is important in addressing the historical trauma found at the root of modern-day suffering among some American Indians.

Harrison, a first-generation college graduate, is the spring 2019 outstanding graduate for the School of Social Work in Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Scholarship and leadership are hallmarks of Harrison’s career at ASU, where she also received her bachelor’s degree. She earned her master’s degree through scholarships from the Navajo Nation and the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. She is the president of the American Indian Social Work Student Association and has been active in ASU campus conversations about diversity and inclusion.

Christopher Sharp, a project coordinator in the School of Social Work’s Office of American Indian Projects, said he has enjoyed watching Harrison apply skills that have made an impact at the university and in the community.

“She is self-confident and can advocate, but in a humble way,” Sharp said, adding that she exceeds expectations in leadership. He believes that will continue as she pursues her passion of tribal child welfare and becomes a leader in that field. “She’ll be an asset to the community that she works with."

Last fall, she coordinated a powerful signature event for Native American Heritage Month featuring a pre-release screening of “Blood Memory” and a discussion with Sandy White Hawk, one of the main subjects in the documentary about the U.S. Indian Adoption Era. The “Blood Memory” event was designed to raise awareness about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which is under legal challenge. Harrison is a strong advocate of that act, often referred to as the “gold standard” in child welfare policy.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was a response to an alarmingly high rate of forced removal of American Indian children from their traditional homes. Those child removal and adoption practices, like the U.S. policy of forcibly removing children from their homes and into government-run boarding schools, was considered another in a series of attempts to eradicate American Indian culture and customs.

Harrison, the mother of a young son, knows the value of culture and customs. She believes values handed down by her elders helped her overcome challenges and obstacles to her success, including the oppressive grief of losing a parent and grandparent and the culture shock of moving from a small town to a big city far from family.  

Those same values are helping Harrison raise her son and to be a community leader where needed. When she moved to Phoenix three years ago, she had no idea leadership and volunteer roles with Cub Scouts and youth sports would be such a big part of her life.

Harrison came to be a social worker by way of studying nursing and then nearly becoming a physical therapist.

“My family is like, ‘Stick to one thing.’ But no, 'I want to do this, and this and this,'” Harrison said.

Everything she wanted to do was in what someone called a “helping profession.” A helper is who Harrison is at her core.

“I found out about social work and saw that’s exactly what I want to do, not the medical aspect but the advocacy aspect of it,” Harrison said.

Harrison got a taste of advocacy work by volunteering with the Court Appointed Special Assistant program. While she intends to concentrate on Indian Child Welfare Act advocacy, she does entertain future plans of earning a doctoral degree in social work or perhaps becoming a guardian ad litem — a guardian appointed by a court to protect the interests of a minor or other vulnerable individual — which could put her on a path to attend law school.

There is no shortage of areas to help, Harrison realizes, but there is success with commitment. She encourages those still in school to stay focused and dig deep.

“It’s possible to reach your dream,” Harrison said. “Don’t give up on it. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.”

Story by Jennifer Dokes

Change maker hopes to use public policy to live university charter long after graduation

May 2, 2019

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

Aly Perkins’ academic transcript bears the look of a young scholar in a hurry to get to the next level. Her success in advanced placement classes gave her a large head start in college. The Arizona State University graduate completed her bachelor’s degree in three years. Aly Perkins (light complexion with medium brown hair, wears sleeveless dress, maroon mortar board, maroon and gold cords, and gold stole of gratitude) stands smiling in front of Arizona Capitol building Aly Perkins. Photo by Nicole Hernandez Download Full Image

But Perkins does more with her time than most. While the pace of her academic career is impressive, it’s the passion behind all of her pursuits and the impact of her efforts that set her apart. During her relatively short stint at ASU, Perkins, of San Clemente, California, spent two sessions as an Arizona Senate page, was elected to student senate and then president of the Downtown Phoenix campus and made academic program history at ASU by becoming the first student to create a course certificate that will help advance an early understanding of law.

The brilliant thinker is a change maker. She’s also the spring 2019 outstanding graduate from Barrett, The Honors College, earning her degree from the School of Public Affairs in Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.
“Aly is someone who can change the world in a positive way. I think she already has,” said Joanna Lucio, associate dean of academic affairs for Watts College. “She’s someone who is so passionate about what she does. The effort she puts into her work really just shows how passionate she is.”

Three years ago, Perkins was on a path to advance her water polo career to the collegiate level. But, as is her habit, she examined many possibilities.

“There was something about ASU that made me reconsider my options and attend school without continuing with water polo,” Perkins said. “The Honors college especially was a big draw for me.”

Perkins is always drawn to a challenge. The motivation behind all those AP classes wasn’t to earn college credits, although that was a nice bonus. Perkins said she just wanted the academic challenge.

She got two other bonuses in enrolling in the School of Public affairs. Both were unexpected.

First, she recalls welcoming remarks from Watts College Dean Jonathan Koppell who touted the ASU Charter.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is interesting. I wasn’t really expecting this coming here. My goal was to just get a degree and go to law school. I’m not sure what the public service element has to do with anything. I’m kind of confused by the emphasis on inclusivity.’

“But, really, the work that I’ve been able to do with both student government and just being in the school environment for three years has really taught me the importance of that inclusivity,” Perkins said. “I don’t view society the same any more. My worldview is different.”

Different, she said, in a way that makes her hopeful and concerned.

“I’m going to try to do my part to make sure the philosophy of the charter is carried out past ASU,” Perkins said.

The second unexpected bonus came when she dove into her course of study.

“I chose public policy in particular because I always knew I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “To me, it felt like this degree program would be the best fit for preparing me for law school, but it turns out that I love public policy for what it is so much more than I ever anticipated.”

There’s enough love for public policy and ASU for Perkins to want to spend time more time in the Valley. Upon graduation, she’ll work in the ASU Office of Government and Community Relations. Law school can wait a few years, she said.

Perkins has no strong desire to become a lawyer. Her determination to go to law school comes from a realization early in life about the impact laws have on individuals and society.

“[The law] is applicable to everyone’s life,” Perkins said. “Whether or not you pay attention to it, it doesn’t matter because it’s paying attention to you. The way it touches everyone’s life is really interesting to me.”

Spending time at the Arizona Capitol, getting an up close and personal look at political process and policy development, reinforced that impression.

“I don’t have a particular [law] specialization in mind. I don’t even want, at this point, to even practice law as your typical lawyer. I really want to be a lobbyist or an advocate with a JD.”

Lucio, who was Perkins’ honors thesis chairperson, thinks ahead five or 10 years to whatever challenge Perkins has in her sights. The possibilities seem endless.

“She can do anything,” Lucio said. “But I see her making successful change in government policies. She’s going to law school so she can really learn the tools that she needs … to work in the government in some capacity. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s state or federal government fighting for changes that need to be done.”

Story by Jennifer Dokes

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Criminal justice reforms will require changes in culture, experts say

Criminal justice reform will take courage, broad changes, ASU experts say.
April 30, 2019

More treatment, shorter sentences among recommendations at ASU panel

Crime is down in Arizona but more people are in prison, and confronting that issue will require a broad range of changes plus a lot of courage, according to a group discussion on criminal justice reform held on Tuesday by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

“Some people will say that crime is down because we’re locking up the bad guys, but others will argue just as passionately that we’re wasting money by locking up people at a time when crime is down,” said Dan Hunting, senior policy analyst for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which is part of Arizona State University.

“There’s a lot of discussion about this in academic circles. It’s a very complex issue.”

The discussion, held at the Downtown Phoenix campus, was based on the 2018 initiative of Arizona Town Hall, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates and engages people to solve problems. Last year, the group addressed criminal justice reform, holding a statewide town hall and producing a report that was edited by Hunting. He covered some of the highlights of the report at Tuesday’s talk:

• Since 2006, violent crime has decreased 20% and property crime has decreased 36%.

• The state’s population has doubled since 1987 but the prison population has increased 3.5 times.

• The estimated cost of the criminal justice system is $525 per person per year in Arizona.

• Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country at 585 incarcerated people per 100,000 population.

Recommendations from the statewide town hall included:

• Focus on evidence-based decision making.

• Provide early interventions to keep people out of prison.

• Establish a statewide task force to determine best practices.

• Encourage the Legislature to reinstate laws requiring cost comparisons between private prisons and those run by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

• Create and fund an adequate number of inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities.

At Tuesday’s talk, a panel of experts discussed the recommendations.

Kevin Wright, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, said he was surprised about the recommendation on comparing costs for privately and state-run prisons.

“If we were to go down that road, the research is mixed,” he said. “It takes us further away from the right question to be asked: Why do we have so many people in prison?”

The public doesn’t always grasp the ramifications of long prison sentences, they said.

“On paper you can add up any number of years … think about where you were five years ago in your life. Think about 10 years, 20 years. I think it’s way too much time,” said Wright, who is director of the Center for Correctional Solutions, a year-old unit in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice devoted to research, education and community outreach.

Wright said the research describes an “age crime curve.”

“People peak in criminal behavior in their 20s and then decline rapidly,” he said. “When you’re incarcerating people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, in terms of public safety, what are you doing?” 

Khalil Rushdan, community partnerships coordinator for ACLU Arizona, makes a point during the audience discussion at a panel discussion on criminal justice reform on Tuesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Paul O’Connell, operations director of the Community Corrections Bureau of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said that Arizona is a “truth in sentencing” state, meaning that prisoners must serve 85% of their sentence no matter what. And that leaves much less time for supervision and support for people on parole after they leave prison and try to reenter their communities.

“If their risk level is minimum, we see them only twice, and if they’re really bad, we see them six times,” he said.

“We have this person coming out after 20 years not knowing how to get a job or take the bus. What I would like to see is have them serve more time under community supervision so we get to work with them, build relationships and do a better job.”

O’Connell said that addressing criminal justice reform must be a broad effort.

“There’s more to public safety than locking people up. Public safety is better roads, better education, stronger families.

“It’s not just a criminal justice problem, it’s a societal problem. It takes courage to initiate these recommendations. That’s where the battle lies.”

Wright said he frequently encounters two myths about the criminal justice system.

“Some people want to lock people away and forget about them and not care what happens to them while they’re in prison,” he said.

“The statistic is that 95% of people who go to prison will return to their communities. They will be your future neighbors. Why do you want them to be worse than when they went in?”

And while the criminal justice system costs $1 billion a year in Arizona, Wright said that more resources are needed for people who work with prisoners.

“Whatever you think about why people engage in criminal behavior, we couldn’t figure it out on the outside and then we put them in one place and ask this one department to figure it out with limited resources,” he said.

“It should be one of the most important jobs in America and yet as someone who educates people who will go into these professions, it’s not. It’s low pay. People use it as a springboard to something else. We have to devote more resources and think differently.”

Ron Reinstein, a judicial consultant for the Arizona Supreme Court and a former judge, said that legislators typically know little about the criminal justice system and have been a missing voice in the discussion on reform.

“What’s really important is the business community — they haven’t weighed in enough,” he said.

Wright said that academic voices also need to be heard because they’re the ones who produce the evidence that everyone wants to see used in decision-making.

“We collect the evidence and make sense of the evidence and say, ‘I don’t care what the answer is. I just want to produce the answer.’”

And the public needs to hear from incarcerated people themselves. Wright wrote the chapter on reentry and recidivism in the Arizona Town Hall report. A few years ago, his center trained men who were incarcerated to interview their peers in prison.

“They interviewed over 400 guys in six weeks,” he said. “It’s their own words of what motivated them and led them to fulfilling lives. It’s not just rewarding positive behavior. It’s setting up sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles.”

After the panel discussion, the audience discussed potential solutions, including addressing homelessness and restoring voting rights for ex-offenders, funding more treatment centers and eliminating barriers to family communication with incarcerated people — like expensive fees for phone calls.

Khalil Rushdan, the community partnerships coordinator with the ACLU of Arizona, said that a “punitive culture” in the state leads to overcharging people.

“We need leaders who are willing to change this culture, and that goes to the county attorney’s office,” he said.

“And before we give one more dollar to the (Department of) Corrections, we should have more transparency and an audit to see where these dollars are going.”

Top image: A panel of experts discussed criminal justice reform at a panel discussion at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. From left: Paul O'Connell, operations director for the Arizona Department of Corrections Community Corrections Bureau; Ron Reinstein, a judicial consultant for the Arizona Supreme Court and a former judge; and Kevin Wright, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU and the director of the Center for Correctional Solutions. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


LA high schoolers say HOLA to ASU Downtown Phoenix campus for a glimpse of college life

April 30, 2019

A budding partnership between Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) recently brought a dozen LA sophomores and juniors to the Arizona State University Downtown Phoenix campus for an immersive college experience.

As ASU begins establishing its newest location in downtown Los Angeles at the Herald Examiner building, this growing partnership with HOLA — a vital resource for youth in the area — will serve to strengthen ties with the LA community. HOLA teens throw up their pitchforks for a group photo in front of Wells Fargo Arena HOLA teens pose for a group photo outside Wells Fargo Arena where they watched an ASU basketball game. Photo courtesy of Heart of Los Angeles

HOLA is nonprofit organization currently serving over 2,100 youth ages 6 to 24. It provides underserved youth with free, exceptional programs in academics, arts and athletics within a nurturing environment, empowering them to develop their potential, pursue their education and strengthen their communities.

Watts College hosted HOLA’s Southwest Airlines pre-alumni scholars in downtown Phoenix for an overnight campus stay in February, offering the high school students a taste of college life. The 2019 visit was the first, with the goal of making the visit an annual occurrence.

From Sunday to Monday, HOLA students toured the campus, participated in college classes and college-readiness workshops, watched the ASU Sun Devils beat the California Golden Bears men’s basketball team 69-59 and talked with current Watts College student Xochilt Zelaya.

Zelaya, a senior in the School of Public Affairs, is from the Koreatown neighborhood in Los Angeles close to where HOLA is located, which made it easy for her to connect with the students.

“As an L.A. native who transferred over to ASU, it was exciting to see more people from my community wanting to take the same educational route I did,” Zelaya said.

“HOLA is an incredible organization that is nurturing young people to see themselves as agents of change in their communities, creating pathways to education for their families,” said Jonathan Koppell, dean of Watts College.

“That’s why this partnership is so important to me. Watts College exists to make a difference in communities, and supporting the goals of young people like HOLA’s scholars is core to our mission.”

Along with making the overnight campus visit an annual one, Watts College will sponsor four HOLA students per year (sophomores, juniors or seniors) with scholarships to attend “SummerUP,” an ASU camp held on the West campus, where students are mentored on college readiness and get a taste of university-level, hands-on learning in areas like forensic science, coding, global entrepreneurship and game design.

“Watts College’s consideration shown to our scholars is immensely helpful in our mission to support aspiring college students,” said Anthony Gilmore, scholarship coordinator for HOLA. “Our students have not stopped talking about their adventure in Arizona and have now been exposed to what could be when studying out of state.”

HOLA CEO Tony Brown added, “ASU's track record of sharing its resources with communities striving to reach their full potential is phenomenal, and HOLA is thrilled to be working with them to bring relevant opportunities to our neighborhood.”

The Watts College-HOLA connection exists thanks to Watts College alumnus Alan Adelman, one of HOLA's longest-standing board members and senior equity fund manager and senior equity analyst at Frost Bank.

Lisa Rolland-Keith

Communications Specialist, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


ASU grad wondered what it took to be smart — now she’s headed to Harvard

April 29, 2019

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

When she was growing up in Jinja, Uganda, Arizona State University senior Leah Nakaima wondered why her teachers paid more attention to the American students. ASU spring 2019 graduate Leah Nakaima Leah Nakaima Download Full Image

They’re smarter than you, the teachers said.

Nakaima, who is graduating this spring with a degree in public health, including a minor in public policy and a certificate in public administration, wondered if it was the food that made American kids smart.

She made it all the way to ASU for college and as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, and in her time as a Sun Devil Nakaima took advantage of everything ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus had to offer, serving in Undergraduate Student Government, participating in Next Generation Service Corps, creating the International Inclusion Club, working on wellness initiatives and volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul. She was admitted to the five-week Public Policy and International Affairs Program, becoming one of the first African students to participate. She wondered why she was chosen, so she asked a recruiter.

“Why did you choose me? I’m from Uganda. I just came here for a college degree,” Nakaima asked.

The recruiter told her, “You’re not only a girl from Uganda. You have way more potential than you may think.”

That was a wake-up call, Nakaima said. The recruiter encouraged her to apply to Ivy League schools for her graduate degree, so Nakaima applied to Brown, Syracuse, NYU, Harvard and Princeton even though she didn’t think she’d get in.

But she did.

After being accepted to and receiving funding packages from nearly every school she applied to, Nakaima decided on Harvard, where she will pursue a master’s degree in the fall.

“It feels overwhelming,” she said. “It’s my dream, but I still don’t believe it.”

Nakaima has learned a lot at ASU, including owning her own intelligence and potential. She said her dad told her when she was a child that people who go to Harvard go on to be presidents, which is appropriate, because Nakaima now sees her dream job within reach.

“My ultimate goal is to become the first female president of Uganda,” Nakaima said.

She’s well on her way. She’ll be shadowing a regional minister in Uganda this summer, and she has a platform in mind that would address the social determinants of health, youth education, entrepreneurship and more.

“I want to be the change,” she said.

As she prepares to take the next steps in her journey, Nakaima spoke with ASU Now about what lessons she has learned at ASU and where she’s headed next.

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

A: When I came to ASU my parents wanted me to be a physician. I dreamed of being the doctor that cures my brother of asthma.

My parents didn’t want to know anything about policy. All they know is, the physicians do the work. They save the people. Telling them that I’m majoring in public health and [with a] public policy minor … [and] I’m thinking of concentrating on public policy, they were like, “Leah what are you doing?”

I tried to explain, “Daddy, you can treat someone, but if there is no law that is making you treat that person, you won’t treat them.” It was hard for me, but finally they are beginning to understand that policy is a way to go.

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

A: Treating people the way we want them to treat us.

We may think that is just a saying, but it’s really something big. … You never know what your neighbor is going through.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it’s No. 1 in innovation. When I was in primary school, we had some American children in school. And I remember my teachers treating them really special. As a child, I was like, “Why not me?” And [the teachers] were like, “Oh, they’re smart.” And I was like, “Am I not smart?” And they were like, “But they are smarter than you, and that’s why we give them extra care.”

And I remember reaching out to everyone, my parents, my teachers and the kids, and I’m like, “Hey, what makes you smart? Everyone thinks you’re smart.” And I remember asking questions like, “Is there a food they eat in America that makes them smart? Or is it the upbringing?”

So I chose ASU first because of curiosity. I wanted to come and see what Americans did to be smart. And also because of being No. 1 in innovation.

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

A: The professor who taught me the most important lesson in my life is Professor Jerry Oliver. He’s a professor in the [Watts College of] Public Service and Community Solutions.

He’s really great. I remember struggling with assignments and stuff like that, and he reached out to me and he was like, “Leah, if you don’t read you can’t answer anything. And you can’t pass. So you have to learn how to read and talk with people, communicate, tell them what you think and get responses.”

So he taught me how to read. I used to just skim through a textbook but not actually read. … He’s been very supportive. He has taught me how to be strong and hardworking.  

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

A: I have two pieces of advice for those still in school. First is get out of your room. If you are in your room, trust me, you are going to sleep or watch a movie or watch videos. … Get your assignments done on time, and [set aside] the last three or two days of your week to just go outside and go to all the extracurricular activities.

The best way I learned how to be confident is by constantly associating with people, talking to people and working with people. So get out of there and let people know you. Speak your truth, and they’ll respect you and correct you if they need to.

And the other thing is, you need to read. There is no way you can learn anything without reading. Yes, you can get word of mouth, but is that really what you want to get? No. You need to get firsthand information. So read your books.

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

A: My favorite spot is the Undergraduate Student Government office. That is located in the Post Office [at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus] on the lower level. 

It’s the one place that I go to when I want to just talk or relax or study. It’s just a convenient environment for everything. There is coffee and snacks. It’s just a great place, and Undergraduate Student Government is something that has totally made my life the way it is right now. Without it I wouldn’t know how much of an influence I could be to fellow students. It empowered me to actually represent students better and actually learn from them.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning on leaving Arizona one or two weeks after graduation, and I will go straight to Uganda. First because I miss my family, and second, I want to shadow my regional youth minister. That is like a youth representative in that entire eastern region of Uganda.

I want to learn what he’s doing for the youth in my country because Uganda has the fastest-growing youth population, and that is leaving a lot of youth unemployed and on the streets so I’m curious to learn about what he’s doing and see if that’s a leadership position that I can start with in my country before my ultimate goal [of running for president].

I’ll be returning to the United States in August to report to Harvard. And I’ll be there for two years. But I’m thinking of transitioning from a master of public policy to a law degree.

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

A: I’ll just say access. And access is ambiguous. [I have a previous project] I call it Healthy People 2030. … The main goal for Healthy People 2030 is I want to improve health and well-being and the general lifestyle of people from developing countries. That can start in Uganda because I’m from Uganda and then will test the impact it has had and plan on moving it to the East African countries and then all over the world.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services


Scientists map food supply chains for every US city

What data tool says is bigger than just where your food comes from; it shows how the fates of far-flung communities are closely connected

April 29, 2019

No matter where you are in the United States, the food on your plate probably started its life in Fresno, California. Vegetables follow a complex supply chain that moves bumper crops of delectable lettuce, tomatoes, fruits and nuts from where they’re grown to where they’re used.

How do we know? New data from the FEWSION Project, led by Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University scientists, can now illustrate how every corner of America is connected. A pickup truck whose bed is filled with cauliflower Vegetables follow a complex supply chain that moves crops around the country according to demand. Photo by Pattymooney (Patty Mooney, San Diego, California) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (] Download Full Image

FEWSION is a data fusion project that maps the food, energy and water supply chains for every community in the United States.

Making big data more accessible to policymakers and the community is part of the core mission of ASU’s Decision Theater. They took on the FEWSION project to visualize solutions to complex problems like feeding the nation in a more sustainable way amidst the challenges of severe weather or climate.

“The FEWSION project helps us to understand and visualize the links between the food, energy and water systems, and this knowledge is necessary to develop strategies for more coherent and integrated policies,” said Dave White, who is looking at similar problems as a professor in the ASU School of Community Resources and Development and director of the Decision Center for a Desert City. “With the insights generated by FEWSION, decision-makers can develop an integrated policy approach that considers all three sectors simultaneously to maximize efficiencies, optimize trade-offs and reduce risks.”

Ramesh Gorantla, a software development lead at the Decision Theater and part of the FEWSION team, said the project has the potential to enhance the supply chain and make communities more resilient.

“The [FEW-View] tool performs massive big-data computations and displays the queried results in an intuitive way so an ordinary public user can use the data,” said Gorantla.

Those maps are now available for public use through the FEW-View website, allowing people to see whether their gas prices could be affected by a Gulf Coast hurricane or how much New Englanders should worry about water shortages on the other side of the country. (Answers: Possibly and a lot.)

Ben Ruddell, an associate professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University, led the multi-institution team of engineers and data scientists.

“This is a way to see that big data, to see your supply chains, see your lifelines,” Ruddell said. “We look at exposure. If you have a lot of exposure in your supply chain, there is a strong potential for you to be affected by a drought, storm or decision far away.”

This data was collected by hundreds of researchers at federal agencies and universities throughout the country and for the first time has been put into a searchable and visual form for anyone to use.

With FEWSION, people can map the sources of their community’s animal products, grains, meat and other foodstuffs; crude oil, gasoline, natural gas and electricity; and water sources. This is useful information for people who want to buy more local products or measure the sustainability of the community’s food and energy consumption, but the purpose of this data is far greater.

Ruddell sees FEWSION being especially useful for emergency managers, who can use it to plan ahead if a disaster or situation in some other part of the country is likely to affect their community; and sustainability officers who want to reduce their community’s footprint by changing their commodity sourcing and supply chains. He also encouraged K-12 and higher education teachers to introduce their students to the FEWSION website, which features video, a podcast, news, publications and links to other educational supply chain content and programs.

Richard Rushforth, the lead research scientist on the FEWSION project for NAU, produced all of the data for the first version of FEWSION. It’s a game-changer, he said.

“People want to know: How am I impacted locally? How is something happening on the other side of the country going to affect my life here?” he said. “Being able to have that data on hand visually and to be able to explore it is a really valuable tool.”

For people wondering how to apply the program, here’s an example: FEWSION’s website illustrates the supply chains linking New York City to Otter Tail County, Minnesota; Forsyth County, North Carolina; Bonneville County, Idaho; Monona County, Iowa; Yuma County, Arizona; and about half of California. These connections show more than the routes lettuce, almonds, citrus, fuel and other commodities take to get to the country’s biggest city. FEWSION visualizes the relationships that tie the United States together — relationships that often are invisible to the consumer but are evidence that Americans, for all their differences, are inextricably connected to one another, Ruddell said.

“Rural Americans and urban Americans are different in many ways,” he said. “Their politics are very different, their lifestyles are different, but they depend on each other completely because of their supply chains. In particular, city dwellers need to understand that they get much of their food, clean water and energy from rural Americans and from communities throughout the country. Without this kind of mapping, city dwellers can’t see that connection, and because they don’t see, they don’t understand that they’re exporting their environmental problems and food and energy production to their rural neighbors.

“When you see those connections, you can understand how to vote and spend your dollars in ways that benefit everyone — urban and rural — because we’re all part of the same system.”

In addition to understanding that no city is a resource island, this knowledge also empowers communities to invest in the security, resilience and sustainability of their supply chains.

For example, the current drought emergency of the Colorado River is not just a regional problem, Ruddell said. If farms in Arizona or California run out of water, the supply of produce is reduced and the price of healthy, fresh food goes up nationwide.

“Members of the public should know where their food, energy and water are coming from, to understand how connected they are,” he said. “That can affect the way they see the world, and it can make you realize that problems in other places — other people’s problems — are actually your problems too, and that changes everything about the way we see the world. It can change the way we vote; it can change our priorities.

“Information is power — the power to create positive change.”

To see where your community’s food, water and energy comes from and to discover how FEWSION can benefit educators, emergency managers, community leaders and sustainability officers, visit

FEWSION was funded in 2016 by a grant from the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems program (#INFEWS ACI-1639529), which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S Department of Agriculture.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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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

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

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU pursuing deeper veterans' wellness engagement

April 25, 2019

Symposium brings together community stakeholders, ASU staff and faculty to investigate how to better serve veterans

Arizona State University representatives from across campuses attended a symposium April 17–18 in Phoenix to gain insight into the veteran space, network with local and military veteran community leaders and gather ideas on how the university can help further.

ASU was a key sponsor of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families' 10th annual Statewide Symposium in Support of Service Members, Veterans and Their Families — a highly attended event that included White House representation and a national Department of Veterans Affairs lead.

The coalition serves as the programmatic arm for the Arizona Department of Veteran Services. 

“These are significant times as we look to improve the quality of life of every veteran in Arizona,” said ASU alumna Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services and a retired Air Force colonel.

Due to the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and the collective efforts of many other groups to support veterans, Arizona is unique.

“This kind of work does not happen in most other states,” Wright said. “We are unusual in the way we are able to work together to influence the veteran echo system to manifest goodness for servicemembers, veterans and their families.”

ASU’s interest in the veteran echo system is twofold, supporting student veterans on campus and those out in the communities, plus driving innovative research and curriculum opportunities. The school’s military-affiliated student population grows each year, and currently hovers at well over 8,000 with continued growth expected. The university also owns comprehensive tools and resources to socially embed with public agencies that are on the front lines of veteran/military support.

One of ASU’s colleges with a significant number of student veterans is the College of Health Solutions. The college is aware of the unique challenges veterans face when they transition out of the military and onto campus. Its counselors, some of whom are also veterans, are there to assist.  

“We are trying to understand the veteran experience,” symposium attendee and College of Health Solutions Dean Deborah Helitzer said. “And how their education at the College of Health Solutions can be enhanced by thinking about their situation from a more holistic perspective. We recognize that the veteran students come from a team environment to the university where they are individual learners. We believe our collaborative, experiential approach to education will be effective for veterans who are interested in careers in health.”

The college engaged with the VA to look at different areas where new collaboration may be possible, the dean said. Both ASU’s College of Heath Solutions and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation participated in strategic working sessions with the Phoenix VA Medical Center in January.

One of the key Arizona Coalition for Military Families programs College of Health Solutions faculty and students are engaged in is “Be Connected.” Launched in 2017, Be Connected is a collaboration between public and private stakeholders in Arizona aiming toward “upstream” suicide prevention in the veteran community.

“Right now Be Connected is a responsive model,” said Nicola Winkle, coalition project director. “You call, the team answers. You need help, it is provided. What we’ll be adding to complement this responsive approach is a proactive approach where we actively seek out and connect to segments of our military veteran and family population.”

Transitioning Be Connected to a proactive model requires data for focusing efforts, Winkle said. Data can prove what works, show how training and support increases intervention and reveal risk and protective factors of the military population. It can also help identify vulnerable populations within veteran communities with higher risk and lower protective factors.  

The symposium featured two days of programming and 11 learning tracks “all focused on increasing knowledge, skills and abilities for serving and supporting the military, veteran and family population.” The Pat Tillman Veterans Center hosted a roundtable discussion on building a veteran-supportive college campus, Veterans Upward Bound reps provided on-site resources throughout the event and ASU’s School of Social Work, a unit within the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, conducted a mindfulness and meditation session.

ASU participants also included around 25 faculty and staff from ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services, Enterprise Marketing Hub, Office of Government and Community Engagement, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Office of the President, Flag Officer Council, the Public Service Academy, and affiliate ASU Research Enterprise.

Top photo: Attendees of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families' 10th annual Statewide Symposium in Support of Service Members, Veterans and Their Families mingle at the exhibitor fair in Phoenix on April 16. Photo by Jerry Gonzalez/ASU

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications