Global Studies Major Serena Hermitt Discovers Passion for Community Work
By Gina Myers
November 15, 2021
When Serena Hermitt arrived on campus, she couldn’t yet see the academic and career path she would be on at Drexel. She started her freshman year in the First-Year Exploratory Studies Program, which allows undecided students to explore a variety of interests before selecting a major.
“I had a lot of different interests, and I was having trouble pinning down one to stick with for four years. I felt like choosing a major meant I had to put my other interests aside,” explains Hermitt.
However, it wasn’t long before she discovered the perfect program that allowed her to pursue her various interests: Global Studies.
“I didn’t even know Global Studies was a major when I entered college,” Hermitt says. “I took Global Studies 102 my winter term with Dr. Nada Matta, and I loved the class. I was like, ‘Yes, I am a Global Studies major.’ The nature of Global Studies is interdisciplinary, so you get political science classes, philosophy, economics, public health, anthropology—so many types of classes. All of my interests were combined in Global Studies.”
Hermitt decided to concentrate in global justice and human rights and minor in Spanish, which helped her discover her passion for working in the community.
A Transformative Course Abroad
During her sophomore year, after taking the course After Maria with Steve Dolph, PhD, assistant teaching professor of global studies and modern languages, Hermitt decided to travel to Puerto Rico over winter break on a Community-Based Global Learning (CBGL) opportunity.
“After Maria is an advanced Spanish class where we learned about Puerto Rico, the history of Puerto Rico, and colonialism in Puerto Rico, from Europe to the United States today. And we discussed Hurricane Maria and how natural disasters aren’t always natural,” she says. “For example, you can think about Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate effects on more vulnerable communities.”
For the ICA, Hermitt admits that she did not immediately know what she signed up for—she had just trusted Dolph, respected his work and was excited to take on whatever the trip entailed.
“I remember at one of our first meetings before the trip, [Dolph] told everybody that we would be sleeping in tents on a permaculture farm in the middle of rural Puerto Rico, and I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’” she laughs. “I had no idea what I was going to be doing, but I decided to just trust the process.”
The group’s second meeting involved going into a jail and talking with men who were incarcerated about the meaning of community.
“This conversation was the beginning of me realizing what community had meant to me and what community means to other people. Community isn't just where you live. It's also all the interactions you have with people. It's how you contribute to the community—it's voting, it's your practices, it's your food, it's everything. I just found that conversation to be really important.”
Before they had even left on the trip, the experience was already beginning to change the way Hermitt viewed the world and how she saw herself in her community. The trip itself only added to the transformation Hermitt was undergoing.
“Our group really connected with each other through critical reflection and shared experiences, from visiting the jail to traveling to Puerto Rico together and camping on a farm in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but it was really just a time of gratitude and service,” she says.
In Puerto Rico, the students stayed at Plenitud PR, a nonprofit educational farm and community dedicated to service in sustainability and the arts. There they learned about rainwater harvesting systems and even installed one at a school in rural Puerto Rico. This CBGL is one instance of the College of Arts and Sciences' intensive investment in civic engagement to foster experiences like Hermitt's.
“The experience changed my trajectory and made me realize Global Studies can be more open than just working at the UN or going to law school or getting a master’s in public health. It’s so much more than that—it’s community-based. It’s working with people. It’s using your education to serve others,” says Hermitt.
“It was the starting point of when I realized that I wanted to do community work, and then the commitment blossomed through my co-ops.”
Discovering Her Passion for Community Work
So far, Hermitt has completed two co-ops, one with the state government and the other with a non-profit, which she says were “very different, but both very valuable experiences.”
Hermitt began her first co-op with the Pennsylvania Department of Health in the Office of Health Equity on April 1, 2020, which was the week the office began working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. The office established a COVID-19 Health Equity Response Team, which was comprised of medical practitioners and people from nonprofits, government organizations and religious organizations, among others. The group focused on populations that were more vulnerable to COVID-19. Hermitt served as administrative support and worked as a throughline from the Office of Health Equity to these volunteer community partners in Harrisburg. It was through this experience that she would meet TaWanda Stallworth, program director for Camp Curtin YMCA.
After her co-op with the Office of Health Equity ended, she began working with Camp Curtin YMCA. It was here that Hermitt met a lot of people from different backgrounds who were coming together to work. She credits the experience with helping her decide where her place is in community work.
“It opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t know existed. I discovered the whole nonprofit circuit in a small city like Harrisburg is really extensive at a time when there was a huge need in the community for everything. From food to education, there is just a huge need,” she says.
At Camp Curtin YMCA, she coordinated Cornerstone Academy, which was a program that allowed students in the community to use the gym space to do their virtual learning. This helped parents who either had to go to work or who didn’t have wifi at home.
“We’d give the kids breakfast and lunch, help them with their homework and do activities with them throughout the day. It made me realize I wanted to work with kids, which is not something I had thought before” says Hermitt. “Seeing their positivity and their resilience through such a hard time helped me get through the hard times, too. And it was great to be able to be in the community helping people during a time when a lot people were feeling stuck at home.”
She also found her Spanish minor useful in this work, as it allowed her to communicate with parents who only spoke Spanish.
“Even though I'm not completely fluent in Spanish, having the experience through the classes that I've taken here really helped me to be able to communicate with these parents in a way that not a lot of places can do. I think talking to people in their native language is a way to make people feel comfortable with you, which is really important, especially when they're letting their kids stay with you through the day,” she says.
Hermitt found such meaning in this work that she even took a brief leave from Drexel so that she could stay on and continue to help.
“It was a hard decision because I really enjoy going to school, taking classes and learning more, but it felt worth it to take the time off to really focus on this work being done in the community.”
Pay It Forward
Now Hermitt is happy to be back on campus and in class, continuing to pursue her Global Studies major.
“I cannot speak higher of Global Studies. I love, love, love all the professors in Global Studies. They are so diverse in their knowledge, in their backgrounds, in every aspect that you would want a professor to be,” she says. “For example, if you need a mentor and you're really into Middle East and North Africa studies, there's somebody that you can go to, and there's somebody else that they know—there are just so many connections.”
At one time, Hermitt thought law school was in her future, but now she is less certain. After graduation, she is looking forward to working in the community and maybe pursuing a master’s of social work, and then perhaps—even if it’s 20 years down the line—maybe she will consider applying law school.
Regardless of what is in her future, Hermitt knows she will use what she has learned as a Global Studies major. “I'm going to use my Global Studies degree every day for the rest of my life in how I think about things and the decision-making processes that I go through. It has changed how I think and has taught me how to be critical while also being creative, which I think is unique to Global Studies.”
Hermitt feels grateful for all she has experienced so far and to be where she is today, and she is thinking about how to pay her privilege and experiences forward.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Toni Morrison. She would tell her students that when you've been trained so well for these jobs, your real job is to free somebody else. That really resonated with me because I feel like I've been very lucky in my life. I'm very lucky to be able to get an education from Drexel and to have met all my professors, to have found Global Studies and to just really be where I am right now,” she says.
“I feel like now my job is to use that education to serve other people—to serve them in a way that they can have the same opportunities that I did.”