Designing for social justice at ASU: Twin brothers are 'first generation' college grads

May 8, 2014

Clemente Rico Rodriguez and Maurilio Rico Rodriguez were born five minutes apart on March 5, 1991, in a small town in central Mexico, into what they describe as a tight-knit, “extremely traditional” Mexican family.

Eleven years later, they arrived in the United States, with their parents and siblings, and embarked on a new and very different path. Clemente, left, and Maurilio Rico Rodriguez will graduate from The Design School Download Full Image

The move was prompted in part by the boys’ older sister, Yolanda, who’d settled in Arizona and was adamant that they needed to come to the States and go to school.

“In Mexico, school is not an option,” Clemente explains. “The norm is to turn 16 and then go to work.”

The boys' two older brothers both work construction. Working alongside them for a couple of years as teenagers, Maurilio says, he and Clemente gained a sense of architecture and the construction of buildings. They also learned to really appreciate education, Maurilio says with a slight smile.

On May 15, the twins will both receive degrees in landscape architecture from The Design School at Arizona State University. They are “first generation,” as Clemente puts it – the first in their family to graduate from college.

“The highest level of education in our family (before us) is elementary school,” he adds.

Clemente is graduating with multiple honors, including being named the Jose Ronstadt Outstanding Undergraduate Student. He’ll receive that award at Hispanic Convocation, one of three graduation ceremonies he and his brother will attend next week (first ASU, then Herberger Institute and finally Hispanic Convocation, all on consecutive days).

He’s also been selected as a 2014 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist, one of six finalists (three grad, three undergrad) chosen from a pool of the top 35 landscape architecture students in the U.S. and Canada.

The Olmsted Scholars Program recognizes and supports students with “exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.” Each accredited university program in North America nominates one student for the program.

Rebecca Fish Ewan, associate professor in The Design School, says that when the landscape architecture faculty at ASU got together to nominate a student, the decision to pick Clemente was unanimous.

“Clemente personifies the spirit of the New American University,” says Craig Barton, the director of The Design School. “He was distinguished throughout his career at The Design School by his imagination and skill as a designer and by his commitment to projects and practices intended to transform society.” 

After graduation, the brothers will go their separate ways, at least for now. Maurilio will continue working at the landscape architecture firm in north Scottsdale that recently offered him a job as a project manager. He plans to apply to graduate school for architecture in a couple of years; he’s looking at Harvard, among other places. He's particularly interested in product design.

Clemente plans to take the year off and backpack around Europe for three months with his girlfriend, then apply to law school, where he wants to study environmental law. He also plans on getting a master's degree in urban planning.

“I went to D.C. with the Doran Community Scholars Program,” Clemente says. “I had an amazing experience. Just the power that city has, it really affects every single citizen in the U.S.”

Now, Clemente says, he wants to work in Washington, D.C.

“One of the biggest problems I have with design,” he says, “is the people who have design are the rich people. Why can’t every person have good design? If you work in policy, you enact policy that requires cities to create good design for everyone.

“Policy is what makes a society.”

Clemente participates in a volunteer group called “Freedom by Design,” which focuses on design interventions for underprivileged communities. And he recently developed a program for high school students called “Future Designers,” which he implemented in the same academically challenged high school in the Phoenix Union School District that he and Maurilio attended.

Maurilio says he’s proud of his brother, and Clemente says the same about Maurilio. They haven’t always been close, they admit – in middle school and then high school, in west Phoenix, they’d pass each other in the hallways with barely a hello.

Although they look almost identical, they're temperamentally different. Clemente is the outgoing twin. Maurilio describes him as very determined and very active, whereas both brothers agree that Maurilio is more inward and solitary. Their differences are evident in their hobbies: Clemente plays soccer, and Maurilio is a self-taught guitarist.

Once they got to college, they say, the brothers grew closer. Today they work as a team, united by a shared passion for design and for social justice.

As their senior project, they set out to mitigate air and noise pollution around the portion of the I-17 highway that runs through south Phoenix, adversely affecting the inhabitants there, including students at several schools. "The place is so bad now that plants wouldn't survive," Clemente says. He and Maurilio used bio mimicry – looking to nature for a solution – to design a canopy patterned after the biology of a leaf. Lined with titanium dioxide, which cleans the air, the canopy arches over the freeway and produces nutrients for plants as a byproduct of the cleaning process. The project is called “Urban Air.”

"Landscape architecture focuses on the outdoor environment, and sometimes you need structures that will enhance plant growth," Clemente says.

They are both very aware that they are setting an example for their nieces and nephews; they would like to see their young relatives not only follow in their footsteps by going to college, but surpass them in their achievements. They're pleased that their younger sister, Maria, is pursuing a degree in criminal justice at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

And they sound identical when they talk about how fortunate they are to have received the practical and financial support that has allowed them to reach this point in their lives. Both emphasize the responsibility they feel to give back. They credit ASU with helping them to see the world through a more philosophical lens.

“Coming from an immigrant family, you always try to make some money to have a good life,” Maurilio says. “Throughout the years at ASU, you learn that a good life isn’t just about a good salary.”

Clemente sums it up this way: Don’t choose a major based on how much money you can make, choose a major based on how much impact you can make.

“I believe that with privilege we have responsibility,” Clemente says. “ASU and Herberger Institute definitely set that tone where we want to give back to the community.”

“The faculty in The Design School saw the potential, so they encouraged us. The faculty personally – they’ve influenced the way I see things.”

According to Rebecca Fish Ewan, the influencing goes both ways.

“A good student makes you think” she explains. “But a great student changes the way that you think. Clemente has absolutely changed the way that I think – about design education, about landscape architecture, and about how profoundly they can help at-risk young people.”

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


Experts predict at least 2 more years until full economic recovery for Arizona

May 8, 2014

Even though Arizona’s economy hit bottom four years ago, we’re still at least two years away from a full recovery. That’s according to experts from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, who delivered their midyear forecasts May 8 at the school’s annual Economic Outlook Luncheon.

Research professor Lee McPheters, director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at the W. P. Carey School, says Arizona was hit earlier and harder by the economic crisis than other states. It’s taking longer to come back. Research Professor Lee McPheters Download Full Image

“While the United States overall has already regained 99 percent of the jobs it lost in the recession, Arizona has only regained 56 percent of its 312,600 jobs lost in the downturn,” explains McPheters. “We’ve seen a good comeback, so far, in finance, food service and administrative support, with health care also appearing almost recession-resistant. However, our construction, manufacturing, government and retail jobs still have a long way to go.”

Arizona employment did go up 2.1 percent over the course of 2013, which gave it a No. 10 ranking among states for job growth. Among major metropolitan areas/cities, Phoenix placed No. 7.

McPheters does think the long-term outlook for Arizona is positive, announcing these numbers in major categories:

• Employment – went up 2.1 percent in 2013; expected to go up 2.4 percent in 2014; expected to go up 2.5 percent in 2015

• Personal Income – went up 2.7 percent in 2013; expected to go up 4 percent in 2014; expected to go up 4.5 percent in 2015

• Population – was up 1.2 percent in 2013; expected to go up 1.4 percent in 2014; expected to go up 1.5 percent in 2015

The state ranked No. 18 for personal-income growth and No. 8 for population growth in 2013. Arizona came in No. 6 for domestic migration – people moving here from other states. That’s actually a drop from No. 3 in 2012. McPheters adds the predicted 1.4 percent population growth this year will not be enough for a robust recovery.

“Arizona is recovering better than most states, but this is our eighth year of subpar growth, and we’re not out of the woods yet,” says McPheters. “I expect it to take two to three more years for full economic recovery in the state. Ineffective growth policies at the national level represent some of the risk.”

Professor Dennis Hoffman, director of the L. William Seidman Research Institute at the W. P. Carey School of Business, covered the national economy. He showed the United States is recovering from this downturn much more slowly than from past big economic drops. We’re seeing slow rebounds in employment, real gross domestic product (GDP), and personal consumption spending. Americans are managing to keep both their household debt and the government’s national debt down better, but the reduced spending also limits the pace of the national recovery.

Hoffman predicts these national numbers:

• Real GDP – up 2.4 percent in 2014; up 3 percent in 2015; up 3.4 percent in 2016

• Inflation – up 1.8 percent in 2014; up 1.6 percent in 2015; up 1.5 percent in 2016

• Unemployment – 6.5 percent in 2014; 6.1 percent in 2015; 5.6 percent in 2016

“There’s a 30-percent chance the nation could see a good bounce up to 3-percent GDP growth soon, if inflation remains low, corporate profits and home prices keep rising, and trade keeps improving, including the Eurozone recovery,” explains Hoffman. “However, there’s also a 20-percent chance the nation’s economy could slow down even more, if we see more taxes and regulation, a housing-market stall, a Wall Street correction, more trouble stemming from Putin’s actions, or some type of natural disaster. This all strongly affects Arizona because we’re also depending on $65 billion of federal spending here.”

Mike Orr, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at the W. P. Carey School, talked about the housing market. While we’ve seen a good housing recovery in the Phoenix area since mid-2011, Orr says demand has really slowed down lately. Home-sales activity recently hit its second lowest level since1999, and prices have mostly flattened out, after rising 84 percent from the bottom median single-family-home sales price in May 2011.

“Institutional investors have largely moved on to other housing markets in the country with more foreclosures and bigger bargains,” says Orr. “Other buyers aren’t rushing in to fill the void. U.S. household formation is low due to many factors, including unemployment, falling birth rates, lower net migration and greater home-sharing, especially among millennials.”

Orr adds many lenders -- hurting for business, with mortgage applications at their lowest level since 2000 – may soon become more forgiving, accepting lower credit scores for loans. We may also see the first major waves of consumers who lost their homes through foreclosure during the recession come back into the market, starting next year. Those who lost their homes at the beginning of the downturn will have spent their required seven years in the “penalty box” and will reemerge from 2015 to 2018.

Meantime, renting remains extremely popular in the Phoenix area. Demand for single-family rental homes is so strong that there’s less than a one-month supply available right now. The first quarter of 2014 was also the second-highest quarter for multi-family construction permits here in 12 years.

The Economic Outlook Luncheon was held at the Arizona Biltmore. The Economic Club of Phoenix hosts this event every spring, as one of its opportunities for Valley business leaders and others to network and engage. The club was founded by a group of prominent business executives called the Dean’s Council, in conjunction with the W. P. Carey School of Business. More information about the club can be found at

The presentations will be posted at knowWPCarey, the business school’s online resource, at