Aspire Scholars Program Brings High-Achieving Students Together With Mentors, Each Other

Riki McDaniel and Robert Watts

Riki McDaniel and his faculty mentor, Robert Watts, were connected through the Aspire Scholars program.

Meredith Wooten, director of the Center for Scholar Development with Pennoni Honors College, recognized that life at Drexel — especially for high-achieving students — rarely slows down. That’s why she founded the Aspire Scholars program, which is open to current sophomores in any departmental major and designed to provide opportunities to develop and clarify goals within a small community of peers and with guidance from chosen alumni or faculty.

Wooten’s desire to establish the program stemmed from her work with high-achieving students on fellowship applications, as many expressed regrets of not knowing about or taking advantage of available opportunities earlier. Even more struggled to articulate their motivations behind set academic and professional goals. The Aspire Scholars program aims to counter this regret by intervening early, and encouraging these students to question and communicate who they are and what they value most.

“The program allows us to identify and reward some of our most promising students early in their education, as well as to create a space in which they are challenged to do the work of reflection and building relationships and a knowledge of the self that will help deepen their intellectual engagement, connect with their communities of interest and foster greater authenticity and confidence,” Wooten said. “Ultimately, we hope to enable our scholars to push themselves to realize their potential at Drexel and beyond.”

The inaugural class of scholars were named for the 2016-2017 school year. Riki McDaniel, materials science and engineering ’20, was part of that first class and said that he came into the program with a rather vague notion of what he wanted to get out of it. That’s why he tried not to limit his search for a mentor through the program to any particular discipline.

“I had a general feeling that I wanted to get better at communication, but also get comfortable and start to figure out what I want to do after I’m done at Drexel,” he said.

McDaniel ended up selecting Robert Watts, an associate teaching professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, to help him achieve these goals, but has gotten much more out of the relationship. Watts has assisted McDaniel with everything from public speaking (by bringing him to a taping of The Moth Radio Hour) to teaching him soft skills that help him form good habits like sticking to exercise programs and journaling.

“I got lucky,” McDaniel said of his mentorship. “I met with Robert Watts, who happens to be a really open, easy-going guy who asks really good questions. So it’s been really helpful.”

McDaniel said the relationship he built with other students through the program was also helpful in that it was a chance to hash out what they were interested in doing long-term not just for themselves, but amongst each other.

“We would talk about things we were interested in doing eventually, things that we were currently doing now and how they might connect,” he said.

“We would talk about things we were interested in doing eventually, things that we were currently doing now and how they might connect,” he said.

“I’m really happy this is something that undergrads can do because undergrads have so many questions,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like, am I doing the right thing with my life? What do I do? Who am I going to be when I graduate? Am I going to be different? There are just so many questions, and to have people to talk to, I think that’s very important.”

Antigone Bellanich, information systems ’20, said the program has allowed her to ask questions and reflect on important topics in a way that usually isn’t possible given Drexel’s fast-paced nature. She added that within the program —and specifically working with Wooten —the students are always informed about new opportunities and programs that they wouldn’t otherwise know to seek out.

“She seems genuinely interested in really helping us, and helping us do what we want to be able to do,” Bellanich said of Wooten. “It’s just nice to know you have that support system and you’re not alone, and just to get different perspectives. You can ask your friends, you can ask your family, but it’s nice to have as many people as you can to ask those questions.”

Wooten said the small size of the program helps reinforce an atmosphere of trust and honesty, in which students can feel comfortable sharing insecurities and asking for advice or help. In addition, she hopes that connections with faculty and alumni facilitated through the program can move beyond pragmatic career advice in favor of deeper personal and professional development.

"The goal is to provide students with a stronger foundation and tools for creating a Drexel experience that fits with who they are and what they hope to achieve in the coming years."

Find out more about the program, including the application process and what is expected from scholars, on the Pennoni College website.