A love built at ASU forges a new path for future Sun Devils

Alumni couple Brian and Leah Swanton have created an endowment for urban planning students starting fall 2020

They met on their first day, in their first class, almost 30 years ago.

It was Introduction to Architecture at Arizona State University. He sat in the second row. She sat directly in front of him in the first row, with two guys on either side of her vying for her attention.

“I was this nerdy 17-year-old back in the second row trying to strike up a conversation with them,” Brian Swanton, urban planning alumnus '95 and master's degree in public administration alumnus '03, recalled of that August day in 1991. “But honestly, she was two years older than me and I figured that she was out of my league.”

Leah Swanton, urban planning alumna '95 and master's degree in public administration alumna '09, recalled the same initial meeting with a chuckle. “I remember he seemed really young and a little immature, but I kept an open mind... It started off as a friendship and I didn’t really imagine that first day it would turn out to what it has been now,” Leah said.

Today, 21 years of marriage and three children later, Brian and Leah Swanton, both strong figures in the Phoenix urban planning and development community, still reflect on that day as the start of their enduring love for the place and institution that brought them together.

A tight-knit family in a big school

Brian and Leah Swanton at their ASU graduation in 1995. Photo courtesy of Swanton family

Despite their initial meeting as first-year students, Brian and Leah didn’t speak to each other much until almost two years later when they both switched their majors to urban planning and were placed in the same upper-division cohort with 10 other students.

“We had 24-hour access to our own (work) studio for the entire two year period, so we were a bit of a dysfunctional family,” Leah remembers. “Twelve of us pulling all-nighters together, working on projects together, having to present in front of professionals and getting critiqued publically in front of each other, even getting torn apart to some extent. It was an interesting experience. We really all looked after each other and were like a tight-knit family.”

The emotional highs, lows and long days connected Brian and Leah to each other, and in that environment, their friendship flourished.

“There was a time when I got really sick; I wasn’t really able to make it to class and I needed some additional time on my assignments,” Leah recalled. “Brian came over and he helped take care of me. He helped talk to the professors and communicate what was going on. He contacted my mom to give her updates. He really cared, and I just kinda knew from that experience — that this guy is something special. And that’s kind of what sealed it for me.”

The two went on their first date the last semester of their senior year at Monti’s La Casa Vieja steakhouse on Mill Avenue.

Five months later, they graduated together. Two years later, they were engaged and a year after that, married.

“The thing I love about Leah the most is how she keeps me accountable and makes me a better person,” Brian said. “I was immature at 17 when she first met me and here, 46 years old, I’m still a little immature at times and she’s the rock, not only for me but our whole family. She’s always there with compassion and really thinking about other people other than herself.”

Through the years, both Brian and Leah agree that at the cornerstone of their marriage is the fact that it’s been a true partnership from the very beginning.

Brian and Leah Swanton on their wedding day, March 14, 1998. Photo courtesy of the Swanton family

Brian, who also serves as an adjunct professor and a guest lecturer at ASU, is the president and CEO of the national real estate company Gorman and Company, specializing in developing affordable and workforce housing. Leah has built a 20-plus-year career with the city of Phoenix in the planning and development department, where she creates and drafts new policies that affect environmental change from a planning perspective. Today, Brian and Leah live in north Phoenix with their three teenage daughters. Their eldest, Gabrielle, is a sophomore in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College and a marketing major in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Despite their busy work lives, the Swantons’ ties to the community run deep with service. Both serve on several advisory boards, including one for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and are actively involved in their church and youth mentorship.

“Our work lives are so busy, but we still like to give back to the community together," Brian said. "We like to get outdoors, we like to travel and we like attending ASU basketball and football games together. We’re on the Herm train.”

Giving a hand to the next generation

Committed to fostering the next generation of students and giving back to the place where their story began, the Swantons have established the “Brian and Leah Swanton Urban Planning Scholarship,” a permanent endowment that will provide two annual scholarship awards to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing bachelor's degrees in urban planning or a Master of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

The couple referred to their own student experiences and believing in ASU’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as the inspiration for their gift.

“What I love about ASU is its commitment to inclusiveness for all socioeconomic backgrounds. However, when you are that inclusive, you have a large student body that has a real challenge of paying tuition, books and room and board,” Brian said. “We just want to do our little bit to give a hand to the next generation of ASU Sun Devils. We have a lot to thank ASU for.”

Leah agrees. “We are really blessed both in our experience at ASU, because it really shaped and molded us into who we are today and it brought us together. It basically brought our beautiful children to us, so it’s time for us to give back.”

“Every time we step on campus or get close, we beam with pride. There’s a lot of memories and they’re all a lot of good memories at ASU,” she continued. “We’re just excited about being a part of someone else’s memories. It’s their turn to have that chance.”

The Swanton family at an ASU football game in 2018. Photo courtesy of Swanton family