How to get involved with social embeddedness at ASU

There were some silver linings to the panic and scramble of redirecting an in-person event with hundreds of registrants to an online conference held in March 2020. Thanks to the virtual format for Arizona State University's Social Embeddedness Conference for the last two years, the recorded sessions are now available on-demand for staff, faculty, students and community members to access.

Being responsible for the communities ASU serves is part of its university charter, and since 2014 the ASU Social Embeddedness Conference has brought together community partners with their ASU collaborators to share ideas and build bridges to further goals in education, civic engagement, research and much more. 

The event is planned every year by ASU staff; this year the leaders included Christina Ngo, director of social embededess, Erin Chastain, Access ASU director of school partnerships, and Allison Gray, coordinator senior for the College of Global Futures. The 2021 event expanded to a third day and had 539 registrants.

Access ASU, which is dedicated to increasing access to higher education for Arizona students, has been involved in the conference since its inception. Because of both the passion and experience of staff, they’ve become more involved as thought partners, behind the scenes in operations and as conference presenters. 

The vast majority of the group's work is in the community, Chastain said. “As staff members, we’ve been excited to invite our community school districts and other partners to the table to talk about our work and the lessons learned, and it’s been great professional development for us as a team.”

Ngo’s job is to set aside space and time to elevate and amplify the social embeddedness work that ASU does in partnership with community members. She said she’s been thrilled and grateful to have the buy-in and resources of Access ASU and to see the effort grow. Ngo said the connections made are crucial to breaking down silos in university-community work. 

“We share the same goals — building access to postsecondary learning opportunities, creating impact and exporting excellence. With community partners, however, navigating the university can be challenging in many ways for community partners, whether it's a school, a nonprofit or another organization."

So every year, the event offers opportunities for ASU faculty, staff and students to coordinate with each other and with their partners; they can share best practices, find out who is working with whom and get inspired by the unique ways community partners can work with universities.

Jonathan Koppell, dean and professor of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, set the stage for the conversations at this year's event, including by moderating the opening panel. 

“The university is strongest when we bring together knowledge and expertise from across the ASU enterprise. The annual ASU Social Embeddedness Network Conference showcases that ability, where departments break down silos and come together with the connected purpose of collaborating with the communities we serve,” Koppell said.

The 2021 conference kicked off with an opening session to share strategies for advancing ASU as a socially embedded institution and featured Maria Anguiano, executive vice president, Learning Enterprise; Nancy Gonzales, provost pro tempore and executive vice president, Academic Enterprise; and Sally C. Morton, executive vice president, Knowledge Enterprise.

Day two was kicked off by a fireside chat that focused on the history of voting rights in Native American communities and an overview of the Arizona Native Vote Election Protection Project. The day included workshops and breakout sessions that covered the MetaNetwork, which allows schools around the country to share methods that increase the number of Black, Latino and low-income students who apply for financial aid and postsecondary pathways. 

MetaNetwork partners on day three shared how they’ve been continuing college readiness work, which had been done primarily in person before COVID-19, in a session that shared about their experience hosting FAFSA drive-in events to assist families in a safe way fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which opens the door to grants and scholarships. 

Solio Felix, chief program officer for Be a Leader Foundation, was a presenter at that session and said that the MetaNetwork partners were excited to share about their project, which was a dynamic example of collaboration in pursuit of student success.

“What we presented at the conference was about all the dynamic pieces that come into play when you collaborate. You're dealing with operational issues … we may do the same task, but we all kind of do it a little bit differently. So our focus of the conference presentation was how did we make all of this work together?” he said. 

Leveraging partnerships, different skill sets and resources among Access ASU, Be a Leader Foundation and College Success Arizona, the group reached nearly 1,000 families with FAFSA drive-in events since January 2021. Felix said the group, which they’ve affectionately dubbed the Wolf Pack, learned a lot from the first few events, and operations got smoother along the way because they were all unified to work toward FAFSA completion goal of 52% of Arizona high school seniors completing FAFSA. Felix said the conference was a great chance to share success and best practices with others about this university-community initiative. 

“I think a conference like this really allows for other organizations to see how the collaborative space can really drive impact and really create that systemic change,” he said.

Day three also featured a panel highlighting ASU’s work with the Tolleson Unified School District in Phoenix, which serves about 12,000 students. The session was moderated by Rogelio Ruiz, Access ASU executive coordinator, and featured Michele Wilson, Tolleson’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction; Joely Sanders, Sierra Linda High School counselor; Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president for Educational Outreach and Student Services; and Tirupalavanam Ganesh, Tooker Professor and assistant dean, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Ruiz knows firsthand what can happen when ASU is connected with community partners such as school districts — he credits his experience with the Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute summer program with making a four-year university education seem attainable when he was a high school student in Wickenburg, Arizona. It was a counselor at his school who connected him to CCLI. 

“I am the first one in my family to go to college. So essentially, I had no idea that I was even admissible to a university,” he said. “But after I did this summer program, it helped me to understand the admissions requirements, information about financial aid, scholarships and the personal statement. So they really helped me a lot.”

Now in his role with Access ASU, he helps prepare and empower students with college readiness tools in Tolleson, Peoria and Glendale schools to pursue higher education. Last year, Ruiz was one of several Access ASU staff members who stepped in as Zoom hosts when the conference had to pivot quickly to an online platform. This year, he was more involved reviewing programming and proposal submissions, even being in front of the Zoom camera as a panel moderator.  

Though it was a little nerve-wracking to be moderating, Ruiz thought it was a great opportunity to professionally develop and to help share the story one of the partner school districts he works closely with. 

“If you think about it, many of our districts are being pulled left and right by different initiatives or different programs. So just hearing what they value when it comes to a partnership, I think it was great to just hear that perspective ... and it made me feel very honored to be part of that partnership,” he said.

Ruiz said the conversation brought up several important questions for any field to consider. 

“Some things I wasn’t expecting to hear about our partnership was that our partners know that ASU sees the bigger picture,” Ruiz said. “We’re thinking about things like, do we reflect the population that we're serving? Are we fully helping these students? Or is this more looking at, we just need numbers.”

Ruiz said that because of his experience with the conference, he has learned skills that he was able to take back to his everyday work. Next year, he plans to submit his own workshop proposal to inspire others interested in community engagement and social embeddedness.

“Oftentimes I see that we do the work, but to us some of the work that we do just seems to be an everyday thing,” he said. “But I think it's also important to highlight (our partnerships and work) so that people can potentially get inspired or maybe want to duplicate some of the work within their departments or within their initiatives or the things that they're doing to support students.”

Get involved with the 2022 conference and learn more about social embeddedness by reaching out to Christina Ngo. Find out how you can get involved and volunteer with Access ASU outreach, including upcoming FAFSA drive-in events, by reaching out to Erin Chastain.

Hannah Moulton Belec
Hmoulton@asu.edu