Exploring Drexel’s Diverse History, One Class Project at a Time

A poster and materials from The Drexel Collection related to international travel at Drexel.

Since Drexel University’s 125th anniversary in 2016, the History Department in the College of Arts and Sciences has offered a course on the University’s past that featured walking tours, lectures and readings from a book written by two Drexel professors called “Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891-2016.” But last term, the one-credit course open to all majors was taught in a different way, with new goals and outcomes. 

For their final projects, students were tasked with researching student, faculty and staff populations of University history that interested them — both for a final project and to lay the groundwork for students in future classes. Why? Because those projects are the start of a long-term exploration of the history of diversity at the University, with diversity being broadly used to define and describe a community made stronger by the differences and the uniqueness of its members, according to Scott Knowles, PhD, professor and head of the History Department, teacher of the HIST 125 course and co-author of “Building Drexel.”

“As we tell ourselves about Drexel, we never really looked at that systematically,” he said at the class’s June 11 poster presentation. “We wanted to focus our questions on the student body and the Drexel experience over time. We’re using the question of Drexel diversity as a way to engage the past and future at the University that we want to see.”

The reason for the change in the course’s focus grew out of discussions that started over a year ago when faculty and staff from the History Department, Drexel AlumniUniversity Communications (including this author), the Office of Equality and Diversity and Drexel University Archives began meeting to discuss how to better communicate and share stories about student populations and the University’s rich and diverse history. 

As a result, Knowles reformatted his class so that the students could choose their own research topics, complete their own archival work for research and photos and explain their key findings through a poster presentation. The 18 students who took “HIST 125: The History of Drexel University” last term came from a variety of different colleges and schools at Drexel, and even beyond (one participant was an exchange student from Cardiff University in Wales). The populations they ended up studying included women and the arts, LGBTQIA+ students, working class students and international students at Drexel.

When turning in their final assignments, students included an annotated list of at least 10 primary sources as well as secondary sources like books and articles related to their topic. The class projects started last term will be continued by Drexel students taking the class in the future, as well as history majors and minors. 

On June 11, the class “hacked the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery,” as Knowles joked, and held a pop-up exhibit showing off poster presentations of what they found, as well as items from The Drexel Collection, the University’s flagship art collection, that related to their research.

The Drexel Collection Director Lynn Clouser and Dylan Lafferty, a student employee with The Drexel Collection and a Westphal Studies Program major in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, chose items from The Drexel Collection to supplement the posters in the pop-up gallery. In the winter of 2020, The Drexel Collection will install a show featuring the student research as well as paintings, maps and objects from the collection. 

But you won’t have to wait until then to learn more about what the Dragons uncovered. Here’s what they discovered last term:

The poster and some of the students who investigated international students and exchanges at Drexel.

International Student/Study Abroad (link to poster)

Group members from left to right: Bao Dang ’19, a computer engineering graduate from the College of Engineering (left); Tom Davies, a mathematics major from Cardiff University (center); and Saloni Shetty ’19, a general engineering graduate from the College of Engineering (right). Mengjie Li ’19, a hospitality management graduate from the Center for Food & Hospitality Management, and Billy Schoen ’19, a mechanical engineering graduate from the College of Engineering, were also part of the group. 

This group, which was a mix of international students, Dragons who had travelled and studied abroad and an exchange student, was inspired by their own international trips and the University founder’s Austrian father to research Drexel’s history of international outreach. They found that Drexel’s first known exchange student was Mabel Sandberg of Norway, who won a scholarship to study library science at Drexel in the ’50s. 

The students who researched Drexel's history of LGBTQ+ student organizations and history.

LGBTQ+ at Drexel (link to poster)

Group members from left to right: Corrine Mastrella Presti ’19, a music industry graduate from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design; Drake Burcham, a pre-junior finance major in the LeBow College of Business; Maddi St. John ’19, a music industry graduate from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design; George Swatek ’19, an electrical engineering graduate from the College of Engineering; and Samuel Moya, a pre-junior accounting major in the LeBow College of Business.

These Dragons looked at the history of LGBTQ+ students at Drexel while also learning more about the University’s present Queer Student Union (QSU). In addition to flipping through yearbooks and reading files of student organizations at Drexel University Archives, the students attended a QSU meeting and conducted research at the William Way LGBT Community Center’s John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives to learn more about local LGBTQ+ history. 

Their findings were also summarized in a 13-minute “Drexel’s LGBTQ History” podcast examining past LGBTQ clubs at Drexel, the national and University response to the AIDS epidemic and the current and future of LGBTQ+ representation at Drexel. 

Egla Gjergo and her poster on the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

Student Political Ideology (link to poster)

Group member: Egla Gjergo ’19, an electrical engineering graduate of the College of Engineering. 

While reading “Building Drexel,” Gjergo was intrigued by passages describing Drexel’s protest of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which required students in STEM, education and foreign language fields to sign a loyalty oath in return for federal loans. Under President James Creese, the Drexel Institute of Technology protested the act alongside over 100 schools and the American Civil Liberties Union, and offered alternative loans to students. Interestingly, Drexel students didn’t seem to be that involved or opinionated in the files that Gjergo found in University Archives; she only found two articles in The Triangle, Drexel’s student newspaper, mentioning the Act, and those only highlighted the funding opportunity rather than arguing for or against the Cold War and McCarthyism-tinged oath. 

Kelsey Hendry and her posters on women in the arts at Drexel.

Women and the Arts (link to poster)

Group member: Kelsey Hendry, a sophomore graphic design major in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. 

Hendry was interested in researching the experiences of women at Drexel, which had opened its doors for men and women since the very beginning. She learned about the School of Home Economics, which was predominantly female and had integrated arts education into its offerings after Drexel’s Art Department, one of its original 11 founding departments, was shuttered in 1905. To learn more about how women kept arts education alive at Drexel, Hendry created an extensive timeline of arts education at Drexel (available here and here) and researched its most well-known alumnus, muralist and artist Violet Oakley, and its famous professor, illustrator Howard Pyle, who taught Oakley and many others at Drexel from 1894 to 1900.

The Evening College group.

The Evening College at Drexel (link to poster)

Group members: Matt Bureau ’19, a computer engineering graduate from the College of Engineering, and Nicholas Turano ’19, a computer engineering graduate from the College of Engineering.

Originally wanting to investigate the diversity of the age of students at Drexel, Bureau and Turano ended up focusing on the Evening College, which offered night courses for working individuals and had started as one of the founding departments of Drexel (it is now known as today’s Goodwin College of Professional Studies). They found that most of the Evening College students, who were usually over the age of 30, were generally older than students at other Drexel colleges and schools. However, the ages of Evening College students declined except in the post-war years where soldiers returned home and took classes at colleges and schools.  

Some of the group members who investigated working class students at Drexel. Photo credit: Scott Knowles.

Professional and Working Class Students (link to poster)

Group members were Nolan Banky ’19, a construction management graduate of the College of Engineering; Michael Munyon, a pre-junior civil engineering major in the College of Engineering; JT Lumpkin, a civil engineering student in the College of Engineering; Alexander Zlatopolsky ’19, a construction management graduate of the College of Engineering and Nolan Banky ’19, a construction management graduate of the College of Engineering.

When Drexel was founded, it was open to students of all classes, and evening courses were held so students who worked during the day could take classes at night. All of these group members were engineers, and they looked into Drexel’s expansive co-op program, which was started over a century ago to train students for the workforce, starting with engineers after World War I. They also used the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network to investigate what factories, warehouses and businesses surrounded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry when it was founded in 1891 and was contained in Main Building for decades. Some students worked at those nearby companies and walked to Drexel after work for classes.