ASU social work student refuses to yield to adversity

May 6, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

In 1981, when Arturo “Art” Virgen-Sandoval was 19, he and a friend were cruising along University Drive when his friend pointed in the direction of the Old Main building and said, “That’s Arizona State University.” Arturo “Art” Virgen-Sandoval tours Old Main in Tempe Download Full Image

Having grown up in Tucson, Virgen-Sandoval had never seen the campus before, though he had always harbored a desire to one day be among the students on its grounds. However, on that day, at that point in his life, he simply thought to himself, “I’m too stupid to go to ASU.”

Now, 34 years later, he is proud to say he will be among the nearly 8,500 undergraduate students who will have their degrees conferred May 11 at Sun Devil Stadium.

His path to that final walk across the stage was not always easy. Just four weeks ago he ran into an obstacle that, for most people, might have delayed indefinitely a dream of graduating from ASU.

But Arturo Virgen-Sandoval is not most people.

Facing down adversity

Virgen-Sandoval had been experiencing severe stomach pains for a few days when he decided to make a visit to the doctor.

After performing some tests and an X-ray, the doctor sent him directly to the hospital, where more tests were performed.

Finally, after many hours of nervous waiting, doctors brought him into a small exam room.

“They looked at me and said, ‘There is a malignant tumor in your intestines, and it’s cancer, and it’s spreading,’ ” Virgen-Sandoval said. “So I looked at them and I said, ‘OK.’ I guess they were expecting another reaction.”

His doctors advised him to put everything on hold – including his studies at ASU.

But Virgen-Sandoval had already decided nothing was going to keep him from walking across the stage at ASU’s commencement.

“I told them, ‘I’m taking off all these things, all these tubes, off me right now. You are not going to keep me from graduating from ASU.’ ”

Always moving forward

Virgen-Sandoval always knew he wanted to work with people. After decades of odd jobs, he decided it was time for a new direction in his life. So in 2012, he enrolled in ASU’s School of Social Work in Tucson as an undergraduate.

“One of the most important things in social work: first you have to listen. If you’re not listening, then you don’t know [how to help],” he said.

When he speaks of his experiences interning at various hospitals and care centers while working toward his degree, Virgen-Sandoval’s enthusiasm is evident. In particular, he remembers working at a crisis center in Tucson with special-needs children.

“That was an incredible experience,” he said. “It really fired me up.”

Though it took Virgen-Sandoval three decades to return to school, he says it’s the best decision he ever made, and he’s not letting his cancer diagnosis stop him from achieving his goal.

“I accept what people tell me but I ignore it enough to keep it from being a barrier from moving forward. It’s like, ‘Okay, I see the walls, but there is an opening, I am moving forward.’”

Indeed, Virgen-Sandoval has already been accepted to the master’s program at the School of Social Work, which begins only a week after he graduates. He’ll know his full prognosis a few days after he walks across the stage.

He says he’s just concentrating on looking ahead.

“I plan ahead, and if [the next day doesn’t come], it doesn’t matter. It’s better to always keep moving forward,” he said.

Virgen-Sandova hopes his experiences dealing with cancer can help others, especially those he encounters in his social work, to get motivated and take advantage of their lives.

“I want them to … take that experience and be able to use that for themselves, and to share it with other people,” he said.

Realizing the dream

Virgen-Sandoval recently made a trip to ASU’s Tempe campus to explore some landmarks he’d never seen before. He’d only ever driven by Old Main since that day back in 1981, but on this visit, he had the chance to get a glimpse inside the historic campus landmark and witness some of the history.

Spreading his arms wide as he took it all in, he said, “This is my dream. To graduate a Sun Devil.”

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

ASU grads hired to help create global change

May 6, 2015

During his four years at ASU, Ryan Maloney mastered the old adage to do what you love and the rest will follow.

Now he and fellow ASU graduate Mentor Dida are seeing the result of that. Both have been hired to join Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, and help build a vibrant network of social innovators, partners and change makers.  portrait of ASU graduate Ryan Maloney Download Full Image

The two rose to the top of the highly competitive interview process and will work at Ashoka in Arlington, Virginia, after graduation in late May. Ashoka was established in 1980 and puts innovative ideas into practice to create change around the globe. 

During his time at ASU, Maloney, a digital culture undergraduate in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, followed his passion to help others. He dedicated himself as a change agent for Changemaker Central and helped to empower hundreds of fellow Sun Devils to get involved in community service, high-impact careers and entrepreneurship.

Maloney said that a question posed by an instructor his freshman year helped him re-examine his goals and realize he would have a greater reach if he focused on his passions rather than the security of a paycheck. 

“My freshman year, I was an engineering major and I took an ethics course. The instructor asked us to think of an engineer who was leading politically or in business,” he said. “When no one could think of one, he challenged us to reach beyond being just an engineer, to make an impact and do good. In that moment, I started to change my mind-set.”

Fueled with inspiration, Maloney started Table, a fundraising platform for local charities. It allows users to dine at their favorite restaurants while giving back to the community. The start of his new venture later introduced him to Changemaker Central, the Clinton Global Initiative and, eventually, Ashoka. 

In 2014, Maloney was accepted to attend his first Ashoka U exchange conference and experienced what he calls “one of the proudest moments of being a Sun Devil.”

The conference gathers more than 700 participants from 160 universities spread across nearly 30 countries. With limited student openings, Maloney was selected for creatively embedding social entrepreneurship in higher education.

“People may not realize it, but ASU is seen as one of the most socially innovative and entrepreneurially minded schools in the world,” he said.

After 13 interviews, Maloney accepted a position with the talent-growth initiative team at Ashoka, which will address economic development in alternative directions. Maloney will work with innovative job-training centers on the East Coast, helping to create a skilled workforce by training and placing 3,500 people into jobs in the first year, with a goal of getting 50,000 people into jobs in five years. 

Dida, a global technology and entrepreneurship graduate student, is known in the ASU community for his efforts to eliminate poverty in his homeland, Kosovo, by co-founding the non-profit organization Prosperity Initiative in Kosovo.

His innovative efforts caught the eye of Ashoka, and Dida was offered two positions within the organization. He accepted one within the Youth Venture department, cultivating trusting relationships with peer organizations and increasing connectivity and collaboration among North American social innovators. 

"Having the opportunity to work for Ashoka will enable me to expand my horizon and do anything in my power to introduce compassion, kindness and empathy into classroom curricula," Dida said. "I'm looking forward to learning from my colleagues and being inspired at Ashoka." 

ASU became the first university in the Southwest to join the Ashoka Changemaker Campus Consortium in 2010. This spearheaded the creation of Changemaker Central on campus and made ASU one of the now 30 higher-education institutions committed to transforming the educational experience into a world-changing experience. In addition, Changemaker Central at ASU received an Ashoka U – Cordes Innovation Award for its high-impact approach to positive change and innovation in social entrepreneurship in 2013.

For Jacqueline Smith, executive director of university initiatives, sending two students to full-time staff roles at Ashoka demonstrates the university’s commitment to harness the energy, idealism and intellect of college students while providing resources and tools to make ideas and dreams a reality. 

"When I established ASU’s partnership with Ashoka in 2010, I hoped that by working together we would inspire more ASU students to choose high-impact careers," she said. "Now we are seeing the results of that work."