Social work grad shares story of survival as advocate for victims of sex trafficking

May 2, 2014

Savannah Sanders was 16 when she began her battle with drug addiction and homelessness. Trafficked into the sex trade from a massage parlor in Mesa, Ariz., Sanders fought back, and nearly two years later, began her mission to provide resources to victims of sex trafficking and childhood abuse.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer recently recognized Sanders, who has dedicated her undergraduate career in social work at Arizona State University to giving sex trafficking victims a voice in the criminal justice process. portrait of Savannah Sanders and Gov. Jan Brewer Download Full Image

The recipient of the 2014 Triumph Over Tragedy award as part of the National Crime Victims' Rights Week in Phoenix, Sanders is about to celebrate another achievement this month when she becomes the first person in her family to graduate with a bachelor's degree.

At 19, Sanders decided to use her tragic past experiences to fuel her life’s work as an outspoken victim’s advocate. She wanted to provide resources to potential victims and raise awareness of sex trafficking in Arizona. To make this happen, she earned her GED in 2010 and applied a full scholarship toward her studies at Mesa Community College. Through the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, she received another full scholarship to continue her education at ASU’s School of Social Work, an academic unit of the College of Public Programs.

Now, Sanders is a regular speaker at national conferences, and her testimony has been featured on documentaries and local and national news. She was one of two national speakers featured during several events to recognize national Child Abuse Prevention Month, and she has signed a 2016 book deal to publish a memoir focusing on intervention and prevention.

After graduation, she says she will continue her work as a program fellow at, a project aiming to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts in Arizona.

"One of the biggest things I’m seeing in the county and nationally is a lack of collaboration,” Sanders says.

Sanders says that finds gaps in the community and helps fill them by building a better community network. Every six months, she implements a new project though In 2013, she worked with Polaris Project to establish a national human trafficking hotline and text program. In its first year, the hotline drew in 298 calls, 66 of which were from potential victims. In the next six months, she says she will create the Arizona Survivors Council to shape organizations within the community with similar interests.

“Throughout my work, lack of communication was a huge issue, and fills that need in the community,” says Sanders.

At the end of the day, Sanders just wants to “do it for her kids.” A wife and mother of four children, she plans to pursue her master's degree in social work at ASU.

“I think if we can adjust things in our society, we can make a huge difference in supporting and empowering people,” Sanders says.

In her 2014 State of the State speech, Gov. Brewer acknowledged Sanders’ work as a passionate social worker and survivor of human trafficking, which traumatizes 27 million victims worldwide, according to Brewer.

Written by Adrianna Ovnicek

Heather Beshears

director marketing and communications, College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Scientist, volunteer, entrepreneur heads to medical school

May 2, 2014

Armed with undergraduate degrees in molecular biosciences and biotechnology, political science and international studies from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, Nisarg Patel is ready to pursue a doctor of dental medicine degree at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Cambridge, Mass.

Patel, who is also an entrepreneur, scientist, debate coach and an avid community volunteer, is the winner of the 2014 Outstanding Graduating Senior Award from Barrett, the Honors College. ASU students standing on stage at CGI U 2014 Download Full Image

A Chandler High School graduate and a National Merit Finalist, Patel chose ASU over the bioenegineering program at the University of California in Berkeley, impressed by the resources that Barrett had to offer students, as well as the success of its alumni.

“I had also received multiple scholarships from ASU and Barrett that covered nearly the full cost of my college education, which factored into my decision,” he said.

Since then, Patel has taken advantage of any and all opportunities that came his way.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned about life from my undergraduate career, it’s that the best experiences and opportunities are the ones you never see coming,” Patel said. “Oftentimes, they happen in the spur of the moment. I never felt afraid or discouraged about creating something here, whether it was an event, a student organization or even a company.”

The School of Life Sciences student founded the ASU chapters of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), a premiere synthetic biology competition for undergraduates to develop novel applications for genetic engineering, as well as Operation Smile, an international non-profit that provides reconstructive surgeries to children with cleft lip, palate or other facial deformities.

One of Patel’s most successful creations is HydroGene Biotechnologies, a biotechnology venture that he co-founded with ASU students Kwanho Yun, Maddie Sands, Ryan Muller and K. Hyder Hussain. The startup has developed a portable pathogen biosensor that changes color on exposure to contaminated water or food. It has raised nearly $30,000 in seed funding from several competitions, including ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and innovation Challenge, for product and business development.

“HydroGene’s goal is to reduce the incidence of preventable diseases in developing countries and provide on-site rapid screening of bacteria and viruses in food processing plants,” he said. “The idea of using a portable biosensor is practical, inexpensive and much needed to improve public health conditions around the world.”

The HydroGene team was also selected to showcase their venture at the 2013 and 2014 meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative University held at Washington University in St. Louis and ASU, respectively. At the latter, Patel shared the stage with President Bill Clinton to speak about the venture’s potential contribution in advancing public health.

“Experiences like speaking with President Clinton, or PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel at another conference, and meeting incredible groups of young entrepreneurs and visionaries from all over the world wouldn’t have been possible without the opportunities that I took advantage of at ASU,” he said. “I’ve found that what matters most in life are the people you meet and the things you do together, and the university gave me the chance to accomplish incredible things with an incredible group of people.”

Driven by the idea of creating something that will survive him, as well as bringing to life ideas that will improve the life of others every day, the young visionary is looking forward to pursuing a degree in dental medicine at Harvard. According to him, the undervalued field is poised for innovation in the near future.

“Technologies like three dimensional bioprinting, digital health and wearables can take advantage of oral physiology and its impact on holistic health to improve patient care,” he said. “I’d like to work at the intersection of those emerging technologies and biomedical advances.”

Patel said winning the Outstanding Senior Award from Barrett is a wonderful surprise. He is excited to meet new people and explore new places in Boston, but will miss the opportunities, flexibility and diversity experienced throughout his undergraduate education at ASU.

“I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and grow alongside such an amazing group of people.”

Media projects manager, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development