Drexel University’s colleges and schools came together virtually for the second year in a row to celebrate its graduating classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ceremonies were livestreamed with in-person speakers from locations on campus, and served as an exciting precursor to the big event: the University-wide commencement ceremony where thousands of Dragons and their loved ones gathered together in person on June 11.
Below is a run-down of the recent events and the kind words shared in honor of the Class of 2021.
William S. Pittman Graduation Ceremony
Before most of the college- and school-specific fun began in June, the annual William Sidney Pittman Graduation Ceremony was livestreamed from the University’s Main Building on May 26. Named in honor of the first African American graduate of Drexel in the year 1900, the Pittman ceremony celebrates the achievements and accomplishments of Drexel's graduating students of the African diaspora.
Students tuning in were first serenaded by a processional from the Master Jay Drummers, and a rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” performed by Kande Duncan, MS biomedical forensic science ’21. After welcoming remarks from Drexel President John Fry and Senior Vice President for Student Success Subir Sahu, PhD, the nearly 200 Black graduates being recognized at the event were encouraged to have someone important drape their Drexel kente stole as their names were read by Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management Evelyn Thimba.
Leadership of Drexel’s Center for Black Culture — Director Shardé Johnson and Assistant Director Rae Coleman — were on hand to present outstanding student awards: one to Chloe Richardson, an undergraduate global studies student and Liberty Scholar, and one to Sierra Harris, a graduating systems engineering masters student.
Shane Nelson, BS psychology ’16, provided an alumni welcome to these members of the Class of 2021, and Kim Gholston, vice president and chief diversity officer, gave the keynote address.
“When your journey seems too hard, and when you run into that person, which is sometimes yourself, who tells you that you’re being foolish to keep believing or that you can’t do something or that you should just give up or you should just settle, just know you got this,” Gholston encouraged the graduates. “Let’s go, Class of 2021. Congratulations.”
College of Computing & Informatics (CCI)
The College of Computing & Informatics kicked off the non-semester program ceremonies on June 7 at 10 a.m. Each college- and school-ceremony that week was livestreamed from Mandell Theater where speakers were either present in-person to give their addresses from the theater’s podium, or joined remotely.
In his opening remarks, President Fry reminded those who’d tuned in of CCI’s status as “the fastest growing college at Drexel.” Then, Yi Deng, PhD, dean of the college as well as Isaac L. Auerbach Professor, lauded graduates for their accomplishments in such challenging times, and explained how their academic backgrounds in technology and innovation will help drive transformative advancements across almost every industry, as proven by the pandemic.
Blessing Adogame, BS information systems ’21, shared a similar sentiment in her address to the Class of 2021.
“Being able to adapt as a class shows that we can handle any challenge and all changes that we face in life. It's these things that we have seen, been a part of and even sometimes created that will inspire us to build the next innovative product, system or service,” she said. “The world belongs to those who embrace change and are adaptable. Class of 2021, we are well positioned to take on the world. Never forget that!”
Det Ansinn ’95, founder and president of software development company BrickSimple LLC, gave the keynote address, and reminded this year’s graduates that given what they have been through during their degree path, they should consider themselves “ready for anything.”
“The world runs on what we do here [at Drexel CCI]. The so-called nerds have inherited the earth. You have both the power and responsibility to make sure that this world is a better place,” he said.
Pennoni Honors College
The nine students graduating with custom-designed degrees through the Pennoni Honors College were honored during a livestreamed ceremony on June 7.
Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and distinguished professor of English, commended this select group, calling them “a special kind of student… to take the leap into a major that is not already conceived and charted.” Jasmine Timar, a custom-designed graduate in environmental marketing, further highlighted her peers’ trials and triumphs in “finding the knowledge [they] were looking for” through each unique degree path.
Keynote speaker Dawn Marie Bazemore, a dancer, choreographer and scholar, lauded the graduates for navigating their “COVID college” experiences while upholding the tenants of innovation, collaboration and inquiry necessitated by their fields of study.
“I can only imagine how different my life in dance would have been if I had had the opportunity to design my own field of study in undergrad that encompassed dance, political science, activism, and art design,” she said. “Yet, here you are, already clearly forging your own path with a clear understanding of its endless possibilities.”
In addition to this event, the Pennoni Honors College also held a virtual Medallion Ceremony on June 8 in which all honors program students were celebrated. Cohen imparted on the honors students 10 lessons she believes they’ve learned through the program that they should continue to practice once they leave Drexel, including to be curious, tenacious and humble, to know when to let go, and to enjoy the journey. Student speaker Christian Maxey, BS honors ’21, implored his fellow graduates to honor the challenges they have overcome and strive for continued greatness.
“We sometimes have a tendency to not think about how positive and substantial change can happen even while it seems the world is crumbling before us,” Maxey said. “I want us to challenge that idea this afternoon. I want us to make room for both the amazing recollections we will take with us, and the demanding days and nights we endured. … And we should remember that we are the most prepared to enter this world where it is today: because we’ve lived it.”
LeBow College of Business (LeBow)
Dean and R. John Chapel, Jr. Dean’s Chair of the LeBow College of Business Vibhas Madan, PhD, said in his opening remarks for his college’s ceremony on June 7 what many LeBow graduates and their loved ones tuning in from home were undoubtedly thinking.
“I would be remiss if I did not mention the extraordinary circumstances under which we are all living,” he said. “Commencement is a time when we celebrate our graduating students’ achievements, and we wish we could physically be with you, celebrating today.”
But despite these and many other challenges over the past year and a half, Madan reminded students that these can be met, and even solved, by ambitious and engaged citizens like this class of Dragons.
“We’ve seen first-hand the power of teamwork in confronting and overcoming this shared crisis. We’ve also witnessed the power of coming together to fight social and racial injustice. We’ve seen the change that can be achieved when we come together to denounce racial inequities in this country and abroad... Now as alumni and as professionals, we ask that you join our efforts to make not only Drexel LeBow, but also the entire world, an equitable place for all,” he said.
Student speakers at LeBow’s ceremony included Hiral Patel, BSBA ’21, and Mohamed Ghayeb, a master’s student in marketing. The keynote address was given by Stan Silverman ’69, MBA ’74, former president and CEO of PQ Corporation and current vice chairman of the Board of Trustees for Drexel.
“You are starting your careers after more than a year of the disruptive change brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Out of disruption, however, comes opportunity,” Silverman said to graduates. “We are not bouncing back, but springing forward with new and improved ways of doing things. As you pursue your career, the best advice I can share with you is to step out of your comfort zone. Be open to new opportunities that come your way and create your own opportunities. Embrace change, the only constant in life.”
College of Arts and Sciences (CoAS)
The College of Arts and Sciences, which President Fry called “the academic heart of Drexel,” kicked off the college and school ceremonies on June 8.
Outgoing CoAS Dean Norma Bouchard, PhD, reminded students how their coursework, co-ops, research and Drexel experience overall have helped them be “prepared not merely to succeed in this challenging world, but to change it for the better.”
Tim Hanlon, a biological sciences graduate and outgoing president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association, gave an address on behalf of CoAS undergrads chronicling his own self-growth and that of his peers during their time at Drexel. Graduate student speaker Angel Hogan, MFA ’21, who is also a department manager in the LeBow College of Business, instead called on Dragons to think about what the stories of their future will tell.
“Let us turn silence into language, turn language into action. Let us courageously speak truth, opening a revolutionary dialogue of visibility and transformation. Our story is the living, breathing tapestry belonging to every one of us. The story is ours,” Hogan said. “We are the stories of Drexel. Of Philadelphia. Of Pennsylvania. Of the world.”
Carole G. Dodson, BS ’71, an ExxonMobil retiree, provided the keynote address, in which she discussed her education and career history, and encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunities they receive.
Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship
“While this may not be the graduation that you expected, nor the world that you though you would enter, remember that we don’t always get to choose our circumstances,” said Founding Dean of the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship Donna De Carolis, PhD, at the Close School’s commencement ceremony on June 8. “As entrepreneurs and innovators, you have the skills and character, the mindset, to create and develop solutions. I’ll say it once and I will say it again: at its core, being an entrepreneur is about resilience.”
The school celebrated more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students finishing their entrepreneurship and innovation degrees, and heard from undergraduate valedictorian Thomas Kiesnowski BA ’21, who said when encouraging his classmates, “We are about to embark upon the world with the knowledge, and the ability to be the entrepreneurs of our own lives.”
Vijay Ullal, MS ’82, founder and CEO of Seabed VC, a venture capital-based firm headquartered in San Francisco, gave the keynote address. He discussed his life and success in his entrepreneurial career, but also left the Close School graduates with some parting words of wisdom.
“If you meet a genie who grants you one wish, wish for a wonderful family. If the genie grants you a second, wish for lots of opportunities to be uncomfortable. If the genie is particularly generous and offers you a third, wish for unbounded curiosity. And you will have all the happiness and success that you desire in the world,” he said.
Goodwin College of Professional Studies
Michelle K. Riordan, the undergraduate student speaker for the Goodwin College of Professional Studies commencement ceremony on June 8, confirmed that she, like many of her peers, had a different idea in mind when originally picturing graduation day.
“For starters, I always imagined I would have been much younger,” the graduating student in general studies and Drexel’s associate director of donor relations, scholarship stewardship for Institutional Advancement, joked from the podium.
But it’s the diverse backgrounds of many Goodwin students that make them the “heart of Drexel,” Riordan went on to say.
“Each of you have your own story: the single dad, the working mother of three, the student that struggles with test anxiety, the soldier who is adjusting to civilian life, the adult learner that felt they missed their chance. The list goes on,” she said. “Whether you were seeking a non-traditional curriculum, taking the steps to finally finish your education, earning a second bachelor’s degree to complement your career, or finally gaining enough courage to enroll in college for the first time in your life, you did it!”
Selena A. Lopez McKenzie, who earned an MS in non-profit management, described in her address how the program and her Drexel experience helped shape and guide her. Marilou E. Watson, co-chair of the Life Sciences Practice at the national law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP and member of the Goodwin College Advisory Board, gave the keynote address, in which she also mused about her younger self.
“Earlier this year, I decided to write a letter to my younger self. I did this because I wanted to understand why I was placed on my particular journey in life,” she said. “It caused me to take a close look at the things that occurred with the hope of applying my current maturity and understanding to what was largely unknown or misunderstood at that earlier point in my life. It also allowed me to step out of the way of what I perceived at that time, to appreciate the road it caused me to travel.”
College of Engineering (CoE)
College of Engineering Dean and Distinguished Professor Sharon Walker, PhD, encouraged graduating “Dragoneers” to celebrate a job well done, but also recognize their privilege during the CoE ceremony on June 9.
“This privilege comes with a great responsibility: to be mindful of the talent you possess, and to take advantage of the incredible opportunity you have to make a positive impact on our world,” she said. “We have taught and mentored and instructed you, and now you are off to fulfill your role as engineers to innovate, to invent, and to use your knowledge and skill to serve and advance humanity.”
She went on to highlight a few inspiring stories of students in the Class of 2021. Undergraduate speaker Rasheem Clark, a 2021 mechanical engineering grad, then told his own story of perseverance — how he faced academic and financial difficulties when first starting at Drexel, went on to find his support system and graduate during the pandemic.
“College is also an opportunity to work on personal growth. It is a good thing to do because you will have higher chances of gaining a better handling of life. As my late grandfather once said, ‘the best lessons in life are taught through experience,’” Clark said.
Graduate speaker Zhengqiao Zhao, who earned his master’s degree and PhD in electrical engineering from Drexel, chronicled his journey to find his passion for data science through research opportunities and the co-op program. The keynote address was given by Anne Stevens, BS ’80, an industry executive and pioneer for women in engineering. Stevens, who also received an honorary degree, shared lessons she learned over her 40-year career.
“We must always be open to new ideas and novel ways of thinking an approaching challenges,” Stevens told the graduates. “… Your education at Drexel has prepared you to responsibly lead in whatever field or endeavor you pursue.”
School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems (BioMed)
Shawn Joshi, an MD/PhD graduate who spoke at the commencement ceremony for the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, touted the importance of community despite the virtual nature of the June 9 event. He described how the scientific community helped him make sense of and take action following his brother’s traumatic brain injury, as Joshi went on to obtain several research opportunities to study neuroscience and disability, including a Fulbright grant to England.
“In opening up, talking to my friends, mentors, and colleagues honestly without fear and shame, it's as if all of the dominos fell one by one towards our common goal. … It’s a prime example of what either has been or can be possible when we embrace our position as one piece in this whole, wonderful and very powerful community, of which we are now all very officially part of,” Joshi said.
Undergraduate speaker Shaelynn Fisher discussed all she and her classmates had learned from classes, co-ops and the state of the world during their time at Drexel.
“Look how much we have grown not only as individuals but also as a student body,” she said. “We are innovative, creative, ambitious, technical, and diverse in more ways than one.”
Catherine Ford Corrigan, PhD, president and CEO of global engineering and scientific consulting firm Exponent, gave the keynote address. She similarly instilled in graduates the importance of collaboration in their field.
“You are the sum of your experiences — a lot of which are influenced by other people,” she said. “The professional world will be no different. What you learn will be a product of your interactions with other people, your ability to work together and create a solution weaving elements from different perspectives.”
School of Education (SoE)
In another rousing student address, Pete Ophoven, a master’s student in creativity and innovation for the School of Education, likened his peers’ future to that of a sailing metaphor during the June 9 commencement ceremony for the school.
“’The challenge is to get as close as possible to the storm, without jeopardizing the ship. That is what sailing is all about,’” Ophoven said a friend once told him before a sailing journey. “The metaphor struck me profoundly. His journey is like the journey we all face in our lives. We aren’t really looking to find a quiet beach, although that sounds nice right about now. We are really looking for the place where our interest meets the challenge of being alive.”
Kinu Aneja, the SoE undergraduate speaker receiving a BS in elementary education, reminded her classmates that teaching is about so much more than what can be garnered from a textbook
“When I think about what it means to be a teacher, I don’t think about the way I was taught phonics in kindergarten or how to solve equations using the Pythagorean theorem. I think about the way I was supported and encouraged during those formative years. … real teaching is taught from a place of love, a place of compassion, and a place of hope.
Fredricka Reisman, PhD, founder and professor emerita for the School of Education, gave the keynote address, and was introduced by one of her mentees and another staunch SoE supporter, businessman and philanthropist Jeff Westphal.
Westphal College of Media Arts & Design (Westphal)
“Westphal is a place where creativity blossoms and collaboration is ignited,” said Claire Miller, a 2021 music industry grad during the June 10 commencement ceremony for the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. And this ode to the creative spirit ran through the entire event.
Colin Lott, a graduating interior architecture and design master’s student, encouraged graduates to embrace their unique perspectives in their work while also lifting up those from all backgrounds, and remember that there is no part of the world left untouched by artists, designers and creatives like the Westphal Class of 2021.
“I would be shocked to hear that you’ve made it this far not loving what you do — a majority of the time,” he said. “It is that love for what you do that is the cornerstone of your amazing work. It is the difference between working to live rather than living to work.”
And though a scientist by trade, keynote speaker Lisa Jackson, vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, recognized the importance of this work as well.
“This has been a complicated year to say the least, so I wanted to keep my message for you today pretty simple. My message is this: we need you right now,” said Jackson. “We need artists and creators and storytellers more than we have in any time in living memory.”
Dornsife School of Public Health
“All of the issues that we study in public health — that we learn how to act on and advocate for — are front and center in today’s world,” said Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD, dean and distinguished university professor of epidemiology for the Dornsife School of School of Public Health. And the school’s 2021 graduates were equally front and center at its commencement ceremony on June 10.
Each student speaker spoke about the unique bond this class has going through COVID and their shared mission.
“Going through graduate school during a pandemic is no small feat,” said Puja Patel, MPH in health management and policy ’21. “I hope that throughout our professional journeys that we can continue to call on each other as a community.”
“Even after we embark on our own journey’s today, I am comforted knowing we all share a passion for equity, social justice, and health as a human right,” said Afrah Howlander, BS in public health ’21. “I am confident that we are the future of our field. I hope you know that as we part ways today that you know you left an immeasurable impact on this school.”
Kenneth Olden, PhD, an influential leader and visionary in public health and environmental health, gave the keynote address.
College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP)
The theme of purpose was at the heart of the College of Nursing and Health Professions commencement celebration on June 10. Dean and Distinguished University Professor Laura Gitlin, PhD, said purpose was what helps set CNHP students apart.
“We have all chosen lives that are, and will continue to be, motivated by an innate desire to make life better – to heal,” she said. “… At the heart of our united purpose is the drive for social justice and health equity — it is a kind of calling.”
Student speaker Deborah Nicholson, who earned her master’s degree in nursing, also discussed the concept of purpose, even relating it to the Disney movie “Soul” as well as to her own journey through Drexel.
“Professors and students [in CNHP] lift each other up in support of our sense of purpose, caring, and service to success,” she said. “And now, after a few more bumps in life’s road, this Soul, is finally and proudly graduating with all of you!”
Randolph Rasch, PhD, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Nursing, gave the keynote address, wove Drexel’s “Ambition Can’t Wait” motto into his address to the 2021 Forever Dragons, as well as the concept of “soul-listening” as a way to remember or purpose and our passions.
“’Soul-listening’ is a way to remember who we are, to remember the human being that is ‘me,’” he said. “This listening, and remembering, is a foundation for the next aspect that I think is important in a life of service.”
In addition, Drexel’s college and school on semester schedules held events in May. The College of Medicine held a hybrid commencement ceremony on May 18 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. The Kline School of Law celebrated the classes of 2020 and 2021 on May 19 at LaSalle University.