Jose Nanez in Minneapolis

The science of the brain and the heart meet in ASU professor and Latino advocate

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

Jose E. Náñez Sr. holds many esteemed titles and roles at Arizona State University, yet his honors and credentials can’t encapsulate his lifetime of advocacy and groundbreaking science.

Náñez is a President’s Professor of psychology in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the executive director for community outreach and student services at Educational Outreach and Student Services, an affiliated professor in the interdisciplinary graduate program in neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience and a professor in Barrett, The Honors College.

Náñez grew up in a small town in northern California. His parents immigrated to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico. Although the farming life in Mexico served them well, they felt that a move to the United States would benefit their son and his siblings, Náñez said. 

“We start building memories we remember at age 3,” said Náñez. “I have many fond memories of my early childhood and adolescence. I was brought up by my parents since birth to respect, appreciate and help people.”

As a bilingual child, he was expected to flip between both English and Spanish at the drop of a hat. This talent took him further than he imagined. And he made sure that his skills did not only benefit himself but others as well. Náñez realized that his neighbors could not file for a driver's license and other social services due to the language barrier and having to write in English. So he tagged along as a translator. When he noticed that cognitively delayed students were being targeted by middle school bullies, he stood up to protect his classmates. His motivation to be an advocate for others started early and has continued throughout his life.  

“There were people who acted like they were above other people, and there were people who were treated less than equal,” said Náñez. “So I became a social justice advocate at a very young age.”

Náñez served active and reserve duty in the U.S. Navy and reserve duty in the U.S. Army. His military service enabled him to pursue a  college education with little debt thanks to the GI Bill. He decided to become a psychologist and neuroscientist after discovering the impact stress has on people both in and out of the military. Náñez earned his associate degree in liberal arts from Butte Community College in Oroville, California, his BS and MA in psychology from California State University, Chico, and his doctorate in psychology from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

His time in college served as a “psychological timeout” to study human behavior. He redefined his life while holding onto the lessons he was taught by the most intelligent people he knew: his parents. It became clear that academia was his path.

He discovered Arizona State University after earning his doctorate in Minnesota. Though the Midwest taught him well, he said ASU was a community where Hispanic heritage was valued and honored. He could have an impact on students who needed a professor who looked like him in their lives. 

“I felt like a role model without people to model for. I felt out of place,” said Náñez. “I wanted to be where they have Mexican American students.”

Over the past 32 years at ASU, Náñez became an advocate for students not only within the university but in the communities surrounding it. He collaborated to design the city of Guadalupe’s preschool program, launched the innovative Summer Experience at West college prep program for high school students and even honored César E. Chávez, whom his parents had worked with in the farm labor movement, with an honorary doctorate from ASU.  

“From him, I learned that serving others can be a mission in life, no matter what you do,” Náñez said. 

For Náñez, his scientific background also intersects with his humanitarian nature; he has also spent his career researching how the brain changes while learning languages and gaining experiences. This has taught him to value the education of both the mind and the heart, or conscience. 

“Scientists say you don’t think with your heart; it’s all in your head,” said Náñez. “But Dr. Chávez would say, ‘What good is an education of the mind if you can’t educate your heart?’”

Every day at ASU, Náñez is asked questions about the mind, racism, curriculum, the Hispanic community and the “heart." He said his work with students and the community here has been very rich, diverse and rewarding. His many awards and honors, including being honored in 2020 for National Hispanic Heritage Month at ASU, show how much the ASU community values him in return.  

“I was brought to this dance called the university, and I'm dancing with the people here,” said Náñez. “I'm dancing with the students here, whoever they are. I am dancing with people wherever they are. So, I guess that’s why I call myself a universalist.”

By Annika Tourlas, ASU Student Life

Reporting by Macy Kimpland and Hannah Moulton Belec