Rhea Abbott speaks to an audience at Armstrong Hall Nov. 8.

The College's Salute to Service event honors the many forms of giving back

By

Alisa Reznick

Whether it’s in the military or the community, public service comes in many forms. During an event on Nov. 8, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University celebrated two families whose legacies demonstrate the breadth of what it means to give back.

Arizona House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez spoke alongside her daughter, Lisa Fernandez, who serves as chief of staff for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. Fourth Class Midshipmen Rhea Abbott, First Class Midshipman Ryan Abbott and their father, Senior Chief E8 Michael Abbott, were the other family honored at the event. Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Steve Borden, who serves as director of ASU's Pat Tillman Veterans Center, was also recognized.

Created in 2011, Salute to Service is a university-wide initiative honoring the lives and achievements of active-duty military members, veterans and their families. This year’s events centered on a “Salute to Service through service” theme, showcasing the myriad efforts made by military service members and veterans, along with those made by members of the community.

“I never saw myself being in the position I’m in now,” said Rep. Fernandez. “This is the result of being drawn to service and finding a passion for it — and today I am proud to serve, proud to give back to my community and very proud to stand here with my daughter.” 

Lisa Fernandez graduated with a degree in political science from The College in 2009. She said putting her degree toward a career in local politics was a chance to impact her community firsthand.  

“Service to me extends to those who pick up trash on the sidewalk, and to the city managers who are working every day to make the city a better place to live," she said. "One thing that is really special to me about local politics is getting to see that impact every day. Everything my mom and I do today is about serving constituents, either on the state or city level, and I feel so honored to be in that role.”

Speaking to audience members, Patrick Kenney, dean of The College, highlighted the diversity of service the two families reflected.

“We are here to celebrate military service, but also public service more broadly — here at The College we wanted to do it through these two families,” Kenney said. “The university has been working very hard to make sure this is a veteran-friendly institution. And when we ask our veterans to stand during graduation, I am always blown away by how many are among our thousands of graduates, and from every academic unit.”

The connection between academic drive, military service and tradition was a message Michael Abbott drove home, speaking about his family’s roles both at ASU and in the U.S. Navy. 

“There’s this stereotype that since I was in the Navy, my kids will be too, but that’s not the way it went for our family,” said Abbott, who retired from the U.S. Navy and returned to Arizona in 2012 after 21 years of service. “My wife and I relied on the traditions of education and determination to encourage our children to take advantage of every possible opportunity. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from ASU when I was 43 years old, and I could not have predicted that three out of our four children would go on to go to ASU and into ROTC. But sometimes traditions aren’t made on purpose, they are born out of love.”

For Ryan Abbott, currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, following in his father’s military footsteps was a way to recognize a family tradition and begin to build his own. 

“When my dad retired and we moved back to Arizona, I was searching for the Navy in the desert, and I found ROTC at ASU,” he said. “Joining the military was a personal choice for both me and my sister — we joined to carry on our dad’s legacy and to continue building the life we grew up with.” 

An appreciation for family and service is also what drove Rhea Abbott to pursue a military career. But growing up on military bases, she said the support she received from those around her taught her an important lesson about another kind of service. 

“When my dad was away and I missed him, the support of student groups helped me. When military families whose kids I made friends with moved away, the support of teachers helped me feel a sense of belonging,” said Rhea, who is also studying engineering at ASU. “Neighbors opened their arms and welcomed us, and through that community support I learned to follow their example. They taught me that service is about giving back to our communities and to our country.”

A 2018-19 survey named ASU as a Military Friendly School for the ninth consecutive year. Paul LePore, associate dean for student and academic programs at The College, said The College plays an integral role in that designation by ensuring the needs of military service people and their families are met. 

“Not only does The College include students who have completed their military service and are looking to pursue the next part of their lives, we also have faculty and staff who served,” LePore said. “We have degree programs, courses and faculty research focusing on veterans, their families and the overall role the military plays in society today and historically — those are a lot of different dimensions in which The College is helping the university earn that military friendly status.”

LePore said recognizing the Fernandez and Abbott families was a timely reminder of how the spirit of service can span generations, and the event itself was an important reminder that often, true understanding begins by simply listening. 

“Listening to the stories of what people have learned in the military and the impact they made through that service helps us better understand the students coming to us as veterans,” he said. “This event also coincides with Family Weekend at ASU, so for us, choosing the speakers we did served to celebrate the connection between family and service even more.”