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Meet the Drexel CoAS Director of Advising and Student Success



August 26, 2020

Brad Petitfils, PhD, is the Director of Advising and Student Success in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. Hailing from New Orleans, he brings to Drexel a wealth of experience spanning campus planning and assessment, curriculum development and instructional technology, as well as international and global engagement. Get to know Dr. Petitfils with this Q&A!

What did you do before coming to Drexel?

Brad Petitfils, PhD - Director of Advising and Student Success

I started my career at a Jesuit university in New Orleans, and initially worked in instructional technology until Hurricane Katrina. Thereafter, I was thrust into the world of online course design and worked with departments to create online degree programs.

After getting my doctorate, I moved into Institutional Research and worked for a time as Director of Campus Planning and Assessment, and later became Senior Director of Student Success and Institutional Research and Effectiveness. During those years, I was also the university liaison to the regional accrediting agency, I was teaching two courses per semester in the psychology department, and I was director of our summer abroad program in Paris, France. I left New Orleans for a similar role at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2018, but when I learned of this opportunity at Drexel, I couldn't pass it up.

What book, movie, show or podcast would you recommend?

Well, part of my research has been focused on the intersection of pop culture and hidden pedagogies, so it’s hard to choose. I am really a fan of Wes Anderson films in general, but I thought “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was sublime. In the past, I have taught courses on the old HBO show “Six Feet Under,” which still holds a special place in my heart. More recently, I was teaching a course on the Netflix series “Black Mirror,” though that seems to be a bit dark considering our current contexts!

What is your favorite food or restaurant?

My favorite restaurant is probably Antoine’s in New Orleans. It has been run by the same family since it opened in 1840, and is the birthplace of dishes like Oysters Rockefeller. They are also famous for setting tables on fire during dessert with wonderful flambé shows. It’s a nostalgic place for me. Always lots of laughs and good times there.

When is the last time you did something “for the first time”? What was it?

During this pandemic, I have been taking advantage of still living in Asheville, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In June, I did a five-mile hike on a rather isolated trail that was recommended by some friends. I have been on many hikes before, but this was the first time I did one alone, and the experience was a bit unexpected. Lots to think about on that trip, and once I reached the summit and spent some time looking around, it helped to put some of our contextual chaos into perspective.

What/who inspires you?

Right now, I have to say my younger sister is the most inspiring force in my life. She is a nurse at a hospital in New Orleans, and contracted COVID-19 in April. She spent roughly four weeks in the hospital, with a brief stint in ICU, and thankfully, made a remarkable turnaround. Though even today — four months later — her recovery continues, she has recently been liberated from the need for supplemental oxygen at home and is looking forward to returning to work. That kind of selflessness is special. We literally owe our lives to people like her.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Probably teleportation. I love to travel, but I’m not so fond of flying. It has become such a stressful experience—and that was before the pandemic! This would really solve some of my problems.

If you were to live in a different time period, which would you choose and why?

The Francophile in me says Paris during the Belle Époque. In the past, when I taught in Paris during the summers, I was always grateful for the opportunity to share the city with new groups of students and witness the living history of places that remain unchanged today. Over the years, I have learned about ancestors who were the first to live in Haussmann-era buildings and wonder what it must have been like to see a city in the midst of such rapid modernization through their eyes — the evolution of the arts after the Franco-Prussian war, the Eiffel Tower as the centerpiece of the World’s Fair in 1889 and the Paris Métro as the centerpiece of the World’s Fair in 1900 — it must have been fascinating and controversial all at once.

What was an impactful moment from your own college career?

I have to say it was my relationship with my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Mary McCay. She was the English department chair when I started my undergraduate career (as an English major), and as a first-generation college student, she helped me to navigate that first year really successfully, especially during times when I thought I didn’t belong there. Over the years, she and I have become great friends, and I am still in regular contact with her.

Which current event/issue do you think students should know more about, and why?

I think students should know more about the crisis in public education that we face in the US today, especially in the world of K-12 education. This would require students to know about the history of education first, but also an understanding of the ways that funding and policies currently work.

For instance, politicians at all levels of government are more focused on how tax dollars are spent rather than curricula, so the content that students “learn” comes second to the money that is spent to “educate.” There are examples across the country where we spend more per inmate than we do per student in public schools. This has never made sense to me: wouldn’t a civilized nation want to focus more on educating its people rather than incarcerating them?

What have you been working on recently?

Aside from thinking of how and when to move to Philadelphia? Well, I have two writing projects in different stages of development. First, I am working on an article with a former colleague about the role of education in what will become the post-COVID world. Also, I have had a new book idea in mind for some time now, and I have taken advantage of the pandemic to get more reading done. My earlier work focused on hyperreality and posthumanism, but now I am thinking of the birth of film as a new medium and comparing that history to the birth of the Web as we know it today. I’m interested to see how the two comparatively evolved, and what we might learn about individuals and society based on our collective reactions to new technologies.

What would students or colleagues be surprised to learn about you?

I share an ancestral grandfather with the French Impressionist Edgar Degas. His mother was from New Orleans, and that branch of my family has been in the city since the 1720s.

If you could relive a moment in your life, what would it be?

In 2017, my mother had just turned 65, and she came down with a cold. Though she was otherwise healthy, it quickly turned into pneumonia. I spent the last night with her in the hospital before she was moved into ICU, and she only lasted a few days thereafter. I suppose I would want to relive our last Christmas together. She always loved the holidays.

What did you want to be when you were a kid? What made you choose to work in higher education?

When I was young, I loved to read, and later excelled in English classes. I wanted to teach English, partly inspired by Robin Williams’ performance in “Dead Poet’s Society.” I did pursue a secondary teaching license as an undergraduate, and spent a semester working in a public high school in the suburbs of New Orleans.

I still remember the conversation I had with a parent that convinced me I needed to work in higher education rather than secondary: I had a list of students at midterm who were failing English and I was asked to call the parents of the students and talk to them about why their children were failing. One parent responded, “I know my son is smart. Can’t you just make the tests easier?” That was the end of my high school teaching career.

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement thus far in your career?

I have always been a proponent of the administrator-teacher model in higher education. In the past, teaching has allowed me to connect with students who would normally never have visited our support offices — whether for advising, or tutoring, or even counseling — primarily because they were afraid to ask people for help.

In this context, I think I can point specifically to teaching my “Six Feet Under” course in New Orleans. When I first offered that class, I wasn’t sure how students would react to it, but word spread around campus, and by the time I left there, it had garnered somewhat of a cult following. In my last semester there, though there were only 80 students enrolled, nearly 300 people showed up for the last lecture, including students’ families and former students who had graduated years prior.

I am really at my best, and happiest, when I’m working with students — whether through advising, mentoring, teaching, or guiding them through the streets of Paris. I’m looking forward to the end of this pandemic so we can start working together (in an embodied sense) for Drexel students.

What do you hope to add to the CoAS community?

Well, up until now, I have spent my career in liberal arts institutions — and the ethic of care that I’ve learned is heavily influenced by the tradition of the Jesuits. When I interviewed for this position, someone asked “Why CoAS?” I remember saying that CoAS is my intellectual home; that is, the work of the programs in CoAS is typically the work that we see in liberal arts institutions. And so, while I can’t speak to what has happened before my arrival, I hope that I can bring some of the ethos of the liberal arts approach to the CoAS community: student-centered, a holistic sense of care for their well-being and growth, and sympathetic mentoring. The advising staff are obviously committed to students here in CoAS, so I feel like we will work well together moving forward.

Learn more about undergraduate advising in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences!