Public Interest Technology University Network Projects
Arizona State University
Jeremy Liu, M.S., Arizona State University, College of Global Futures, School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Senior Intelligence Analyst, Office of the President at Arizona State University
4 Key Lessons for Pursuing an Interdisciplinary Path at Your Institution
When I started attending Arizona State University in 2016, I was unaware of the field of public interest technology (PIT). I was on an academic and professional trajectory in the cryptocurrency space that got me tangled up in a web of people and organizations at the intersection of technology, people, and values. Over the years as I became more familiar with other emerging fields, academic communities, and problem areas, this underlying intersection never went away.
An Unknown Future
Near the end of my first year at ASU I went through the seemingly obligatory quarter-life college student crisis. After some much-needed soul-searching, I came to the realization that to be successful in the interdisciplinary role that I saw myself pursuing, I needed to be entrepreneurial in nature, such as the ways in which I applied myself as a student to aim for a career that was enjoyable, fulfilling, and just felt like the right fit for me.
A Path Forward
I realized that most of my peers and I were leveraging our university’s resources to propel our activities, whether those were academic, professional, or entrepreneurial pursuits. However, none of us seemed to intensely focus on innovating at and improving upon our own university.
My friends and I assumed that we were deeply embedded in the resources, network, and events offered at the university, without realizing that we had only scratched the surface and had yet to consider how we could help improve upon our university experience in real-time. Over my remaining years as an undergraduate, most of my productive time, outside of schoolwork and other obligations, was spent on learning how a university operates and introducing, advancing, and implementing student-originated ideas and projects at ASU. Learn more about projects I’ve worked on below.
Going through the process of innovating from within ASU was a learning experience that humbled my early and naive ambitions of progressing at my own speed in my own way. Who would’ve guessed that stakeholder-driven processes and co-developing new ideas and projects is a much more robust approach to responsible innovation?
Key Lessons to Innovate at Your Own Institution
Now that I have the chance to pass along some of what I have learned over the years of writing proposals, sending follow-up emails, and supporting new pilots as they launch, I’d like to share four key lessons with those who would like to innovate at their own university in their own unique, interdisciplinary, and entrepreneurial ways:
1. Leverage the university staff’s knowledge and network to advance the project, but assume most of the initial legwork will be done by you and your collaborator
Most proposals and projects that my collaborators and I have furthered at ASU were not ideas that university staff had never thought of. Often, the concept had already been brought up or considered, but it simply was not a priority amid the day-to-day tasks of delivering the university’s current offerings effectively.
Universities generally hire based on specific tasks that need to be done, so most student-driven ideas will not be assigned to staff members who can dedicate a sizable amount of their working time to the ideas. Although it may seem discouraging at first, it is important to not mistake this as university staff being uninterested in the project. This dynamic is just the reality of trying to catalyze change in environments that are deeply engaged in their responsibilities and daily momentum.
2. Go broad when identifying university stakeholders that you want to collaborate with.
For a number of reasons unrelated to the initiative you’re interested in pursuing, the first school, department, lab, or staff member you approach may not share your interest in the initiative or may be generally incapable of providing the support necessary to see the project through successfully. Don’t let this discourage you!
Most universities are fairly distributed and hierarchical in the way they operate. That means there may be many different people you will have the opportunity to present your initiative to. I’ve been able to pursue projects both through a collective bottom-up approach, building up supporters and champions of the project before bringing it to the attention of those higher up in the university hierarchy, and a top-down one, where leadership support has been able to help motivate others to work on the project. The scope of the project will largely determine which approach is best, but in either case, you generally need only a select few of the right supporters to get the project to a maturity that allows for some version of a minimum viable product to be tested.
3. Collaborating with fellow students is not only important for the quality of the project but also the quality of your time spent while doing so.
Enacting change within a well-established institution is painstakingly difficult work at times. There have been many times where a de-stressor was necessary while juggling spending nights researching, ideating, and designing the project, on top of already being a student and a worker, not to mention aspiring to live a balanced life. These are the times when it is important to have people you can trust to take the load off your shoulders for a bit, whether that means they are doing more work or simply relating to your experience.
On top of that, you will all be able to keep each other accountable and honest with the project’s progress. If you end up working solo on a project you want to implement at your university, there will be times when you second-guess yourself and the necessity of what you are doing. After all, your university was operating long before you implemented the project, and it will continue to do so even if your project is not implemented. These thoughts will begin to negatively affect your momentum if you’re working on the project without any friends or peer collaborators to remind you of the end goal: leaving your community better off than when you arrived, and hopefully having fun while doing so.
4. Stay the course toward personal and professional enrichment.
Even though implementing a new project at a university is difficult work, it can truly be one of the most enriching experiences for your personal and professional development while attending a university. The skills gained from navigating a university environment with an objective to make change will give you the wherewithal to ambitiously tackle future social impact endeavors. Combining these newfound skills with the quality professional network you will gain places you on a great path to continue to have an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial, and impactful career catalyzing social impact in a variety of organizations and communities.