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Drexel President John Fry Discusses His ‘Civic Pathway’ in Community-Based Learning Class

August 06, 2018

President Fry

At Drexel University’s 2010 convocation, the newly instated President John Fry addressed the Drexel community for the first time and announced his dream for Drexel to become “the most civically engaged university in the United States.”

Jennifer Johnson Kebea, EdD, executive director of Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, was in attendance that day and was moved by his speech.

“I heard President Fry start to elaborate on his vision of what he wanted Drexel to do under his leadership,” she remembered. “He could have said anything that he wanted to…. He chose to take that time to say how he believed Drexel could become a more civically engaged university. So, you could imagine that as assistant director of civic engagement at that point in time, it was big news to me!”

Kebea said that Fry’s mission for Drexel has absolutely shaped her work at the University, as well as her own interest in her civic pathway, or civic engagement efficacy, identity and agency.

Flash forward to this term, almost eight years later, and Kebea is teaching a side-by-side community-based-learning class in the Pennoni Honors College called “The Civic Spectrum: Engage. Lead. Empower.” Teaching with Cyndi Rickards, EdD, senior assistant dean for community engagement and assistant teaching professor of criminology and justice studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, Kebea has spent the term engaging with Drexel students and community residents taking the course to discuss the concepts of civic engagement, civic leadership and what it means to be a citizen in today’s society.

And in a real full-circle moment, she hosted Fry at a class one night in July to speak to the students about his own personal thoughts and actions related to civic engagement.

That class, held on July 19, was attended by 12 Drexel students and 12 community residents in Kebea’s class, as well as some of the Mandela Fellows, young African civic leaders who are spending the summer at Drexel through the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

“It was incredible to note the institution's commitment set at the backdrop of the community and its people,” said Mpho Buntse, a Mandela Fellow from South Africa who is a community developer, activist, scholar and emerging social entrepreneur. 

During his time at the class, Fry discussed how his experiences in higher education led him to expand his civic leadership roles, like leading Drexel to expand and grow its outreach and support of its neighboring Mantua and Powelton Village and also becoming chairman of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Before starting at Drexel, he served as served as president of the small private liberal arts college Franklin & Marshall since 2002. From 1995 to 2002, Fry served as executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked to bridge the disconnect between the university and its surrounding neighborhood and increase civic awareness among Penn students and staff.

He said that coming to Drexel, a private research university located in the heart of University City and bordering several West Philadelphia neighborhoods and what was later designated the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, was a huge step in his civic pathway.

“What I learned at Drexel is the power of the anchor institution,” he said. “Drexel is an anchor institution and that means it is rooted deeply in its neighborhood and its city. Its first priority is of course to educate students and to grow the University, but it also has to create an environment where people who are here are willing and able and excited about giving back.”

The “most civically engaged university in the country” isn’t a tagline or a marketing campaign, he said, adding that it’s about “activating all resources that we have at this institution and putting that in the neighborhoods.”

During Fry’s tenure, he expanded the Center for Civic Engagement, which became known as the the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement in 2012, to provide civic engagement opportunities for every Drexel student, faculty and staff member. Several on-campus residences were built on the University City Campus to offer more housing options for students to entice them to stop moving into houses or apartments in the surrounding neighborhoods. But what he’s most proud of, he said, is the creation of the Dornsife Center for Community Partnerships, which opened at 35th and Spring Garden Streets in 2014 to serve as a resource for sharing expertise and knowledge with Drexel’s neighbors. Since then, the Dornsife Center has hosted many programs, clinics, partnerships and classes (like the one taught by Kebeba and Rickards) that connect community residents with faculty, staff and students from across the University.

“I found my civic voice through this experience,” he said.

Fry also shared what he learned through becoming more active with the community. One piece of advice was to “buckle in for the long haul” if you want to do civic work in a meaningful way — and to realize that there should be no time limit, no deadline and no demand to make a profit. Another was to be open to changes in plans and discussions, as he has been involved with projects or ideas only to realize that the work could lead to another project or idea and now he knows to recognize that he has no idea where civic work will lead him. Lastly, he said, he learned about the importance of building diverse coalitions to engage people from all over and create meaningful partnerships.

Afterwards, Fry answered some questions from the audience.

Victoria Smith, a chemistry major in the College of Arts and Sciences, asked what advice he would give to Drexel students who are living in those neighborhoods off campus and want to become better neighbors.

“I think it’s simple outreach to get to know your neighbor,” he replied, recommending that students take the time to meet their neighbors while they greet each other on the street, or meet other residents at the community dinners hosted every month at the Dornsife Center.

Katlego Kolanyane-Kesupile, a Mandela Fellow from Botswana, asked Fry how he uses his privilege and positions to leverage his counterparts to also become civically engaged.

“I feel like it’s my personal mission to spread this word of how anchor institutions, if they can get together, can really do a world of good for the places that are around them. I don’t try to brag about the work. I don’t try to shame [my counterparts]…. I do try to emphasize that if we do want our communities to get better, these institutions and their leaders especially have to get in the game,” said Fry.

“My takeaway from President Fry was [that] facing the difficult call to duty, which may not be the popular track, also means holding your counterparts accountable to their privilege, while you lead by example,” said Kolanyane-Kesupile, who is an “ARTivist,” author, public speaker, performer and digital artist.

In addition to this experience, the Mandela Fellows had previously sat in on this class for a discussion about global and macro-leadership, attended other events at the Dornsife Center and travelled to City Hall for the Mayor's Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affair. Sam Sakala, a Mandela Fellow and well-known rapper Dope G from Zambia, also engaged with the University community by appearing on Drexel’s student-run radio station WKDU the day after Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday for a special live DJ set and interview with Duprex Snape of Jamcity Rock about the Mandela Washington Fellowship and African music, art and culture

The Drexel students and community members in “The Civic Spectrum: Engage. Lead. Empower.” class are currently working on their final project about their personal civic spectrum and civic path.

“The class had a chance to debrief President Fry’s talk this past Tuesday,” said Kebea. “The general consensus was that students truly recognized how authentic and honest he was about his civic goals for Drexel University. They also appreciated that he took the time to share his own personal motivations for being civically engaged throughout both his personal and professional lives.”