When Jorge Juarez got the initial call about the executive director position at Arizona State University (ASU), his first answer to the job offer was no.
However, after spending a week in Phoenix, Arizona, visiting ASU, Juarez and his wife Veronica realized that while it’s not Texas, they could see themselves living in Phoenix. “Wherever my family is, it’s where home is,” said Juarez.
So, he accepted the executive director position at ASU. He left Southern Methodist University (SMU) and moved to Arizona by June 2020.
“I didn’t think I was ever going to leave Texas because I had done 27 years of campus recreation in that state,” said Juarez. “I spent nine years at SMU, and I count my days at my institution. So, I worked 3,232 days. I’m on Day 403 worked here at ASU [at the time of this interview].”
Four Distinct Campuses
Over time, Juarez has been learning the ropes of ASU Sun Devil Fitness and Wellness (SDFW). And a lot of ropes it has. With four distinct campuses in the Phoenix Metropolitan area — Downtown Phoenix, West, Polytechnic and Tempe — plus a new Media and Immersive eXperience Center in Mesa, there is nearly 500,000 square feet of indoor programmable fitness space across the multiple locations comprising what’s known as the Sun Devil Fitness Complex.
Within each, you’ll find LifeFitness and Freemotion cardio pieces, Hammer Strength selectorized and plate-loaded equipment, Perform Better fitness accessories, and much more. There are 40-plus acres of recreational fields, four pools and a one-million-gallon pool in Tempe. Over 40,000 meeting and event bookings take place in the spaces each year. Plus, the state-of-the-art facilities support almost two million visitors annually.
While standalone campuses, they are far from separate. “The four locations with the same experience is probably the biggest way we are unique,” said Tara Yesenski, the associate director of Polytechnic and Sports Programs. “We all work as one staff. It’s not unusual to be on multiple campuses within the week. It’s Wednesday and I have already been at three out of the four campuses.”
The idea has always been to have four fully-operational programs at each ASU location. In fact, when Juarez and the family moved to Phoenix, they made sure to buy a house from which he could have access to each campus.
“The president wanted no matter where you go to school at ASU, you’re going to have all the amenities like the Tempe campus,” said Juarez.
Hiring, Onboarding and Development
The idea of “one university, four locations” has gone beyond just physical offerings. Mary Rose McGinn, the program coordinator of Facility Operations, said they work as a team to ensure hiring and onboarding practices are as close to identical as possible at each location — with alterations depending on the populations served of course.
“In our weekly meetings, we discuss best practices and make decisions for all four of our teams to carry out at their location,” said McGinn.
SDFW has approximately 750 student staff. To make hiring and onboarding run smoothly, McGinn said the main thing they look for is attitude. Using Zoom to keep up with the high applicant rate — and to be able to meet students wherever in the world they are prior to returning to campus for the year — the staff search for students with positive attitudes, and who will go above and beyond for the team.
Once part of the SDFW family, students are given shadowing plans. Kandace Irvine, a program coordinator, said this helps new staff get comfortable with the facility and breaks down typical “gym stereotypes.”
EXTRA CREDIT: Who is Jorge Juarez? Learn more about him here.
In addition, Irvine shared they use SkillSurvey to ascertain professional development data of student staff. This has allowed them to close skill gaps by tailoring professional experiences to help students prepare for life and work after graduation.
All of this is no small feat. “Our teams dedicate themselves to the hiring and onboarding process exclusively as we approach each hiring season so we can continue to set ourselves up for success that semester,” said McGinn.
However, COVID-19 hasn’t made hiring any easier. Navigating and identifying the gaps in the ASU student population since the pandemic has been a challenge. To recruit students, Irvine shared they spend a lot of time staffing tables at events and using “street team” style marketing efforts. It allows them to meet students where they are.
“We feel this helps with our approachability as gyms can be intimidating places for those who are new to campus, new to health and wellness, new to sports, etc.,” said Irvine.
ASU Signature Events
Another way SDFW is working to decrease that intimidation factor is through several signature events. A favorite of both Juarez and Yesenski is Gold Rush. Participants make their way through an approximately one-mile-long Nickelodeon-esque obstacle course. The best part is college students’ families participate as well, from kids in strollers to grandparents.
“I’ve been part of a lot of family weekends at a lot of different institutions,” said Juarez. “But this is one of the ones I experienced for the first time and thought, ‘This is the way family weekends should be.’”
ASU sees around 2,500 families register for Gold Rush each year. “When we first started this event, I just thought the families would think it was fun and watch their college student and maybe a parent would run the course,” said Yesenski. “What I wasn’t expecting was the whole family coming together and running the course.”
Gold Rush is just one of SDFW’s signature events. For example, the department also puts on the Sun Devil World Cup. Students represent their countries in seven-versus-seven soccer matches, complete with country flags and jerseys. Food from the different countries represented in the tournament are brought in as well — you can find Chinese dishes to Turkish delicacies.
“My philosophy is if it’s for the students, let’s just do it,” said Juarez. “It might not work and it might bomb, but I’d rather try something than not try something because we think it’s going to fail.”
However, there is a lot of planning that goes into these signature events. Yesenski said she’s learned that monthly and event checklists, multiple event planning and progress meetings, debriefing after the event, and keeping really good notes have been huge for success.
With all of this going on across four locations, the SDFW team is “on-call” nearly 24 hours a day. The Sun Devil Fitness Complex is open 113 hours per week 361 days per year. So, the reality of burnout must be addressed proactively.
For Juarez, it starts with his decisions as a leader when it comes to boundaries between work and life. The hours between 5 to 8 p.m. — when his kids are home from school and before they go to bed — has been a sacred time that only the most drastic of crises can intrude upon.
Plus, having lived as a diabetic since December 7, 1999, Juarez can’t ignore proper nutrition and exercise. “The key to managing my diabetes is what I eat and how I move. Those are the two keys to battling this disease,” he said. “I can control both of those, and so I learned early-on the importance of movement for my body.”
As a leader, Juarez uses this knowledge and intervenes early with staff. He takes wellness seriously for himself, and then prompts his staff to do the same. Whether it’s giving time back in different ways or encouraging them to remember what’s important in their own lives, each step goes a long way toward preventing burnout.
Because the reality is they are busy. With four locations and thousands of students to serve every day, there are a lot of moving parts at ASU. The staff told Juarez as much during a get-to-know-you team lunch in 2021. “And I thought you know what? It’s OK to be busy, but you have to be impactful,” he said.
So while it has been a breakneck pace since Juarez joined the ASU team, it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. The SDFW team is staying busy and making an impact across four locations at one university.