Drexel Convocation 2022 Recap: Thinking and Doing for the Common Good
In his address during Drexel University’s Convocation ceremony on Sept. 22, President John Fry looked back more than two thousand years for a missive to guide Drexel faculty, professional staff and students this academic year.
The source? The ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita. The message? “In all actions, consider the common good.”
“A special quality differentiates us as a community of learners, scholars and practitioners: our relentless pursuit to keep getting better at doing better,” Fry said. “We practically live outside our comfort zones. We lean into tough situations and challenges that call for persistence, patience and courage. We look to achieve that tricky yet crucial balance between challenging one another to get and do better, while also remaining respectful, humble and supportive. And we try to keep the common good in focus.”
The Convocation speakers exemplified community, collaboration, problem-solving and keeping the common good in focus, and they highlighted those topics in their speeches. The event, which traditionally marks the start of a new academic year, also underscored for new and returning Dragons what they can accomplish at Drexel.
“I believe that the care and goodwill we show toward one another — and our ethos of considering the common good in all our actions — can guide us to reimagine an antiracist Drexel where mutual respect reigns and academic freedom rings,” Fry said. “By working to advance antiracism and academic freedom as interrelated and indispensable tenets, Drexel can become a more powerful force for promoting the common good and an even better version of the University we so proudly celebrate today.”
Drexel was built on an inclusive and innovative foundation of bringing together students of all demographics, genders, classes and religions. This history of “coming together” to learn and work on solving the problems of the day has always guided the University, said Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul Jensen, PhD.
“We face many challenges as a global community and almost every single one of those challenges is being confronted, examined and addressed in some way by our faculty, students and staff across this University. How incredibly inspiring is that?” said Jensen. “For me, it’s an immense source of pride knowing that this community — to which we are all members — is tackling the hard questions and actively contributing solutions all the time and doing so in this uniquely Drexel way: with unmatched energy and empathy and with an innovative and collaborative spirit.”
For Richard A. Greenawalt ’66, chairman of the Board of Trustees, Drexel “has never been more alive with innovation, more animated by its civic engagement and purpose or more primed for success across all our core endeavors,” as he remarked at the podium.
Convocation’s three keynote speakers demonstrated how they have “embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative, collaborative mindset that have come to define the Drexel community,” Jensen observed.
Kara Spiller, PhD, professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, showed how her experiences earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University influenced both her research and her career in examining the body’s immune response for tissue regeneration, as well as how she mentors students in her classes and lab.
Spiller shared three strategies she developed to “accelerate the creative problem-solving process:”
- Inspired by her experiences conducting PhD research in China and postdoctoral research in Portugal, Spiller requires all her graduate students to conduct research abroad. “Immersing yourself in an environment where people are trying to solve the same problems that you are — but from a completely different perspective resulting from their very different backgrounds and cultures — makes the science better and more creative,” she said.
- Look beyond your field and your discipline to be more creative. She collaborates with and incorporates physicians and nurses as well as the patients affected by the problems they’re trying to solve; a partnership with Michael Weingarten, MD, professor of surgery and assistant dean of Medical Scholars Tracks in the College of Medicine, led to research and future implementation of personalized care of chronic diabetic wounds.
- Maintaining relationships with scientists working in the industry can advance ideas and solve problems in the real world, Spiller attested.
Alexis Wiley, environmental science ’22, stressed the importance of blending personal interest with community experience and learning from the past to work towards future goals. For Wiley, that blend came from studying abroad in Bioko, Equatorial Guinea; taking the “Disaster Resilience in Puerto Rico” community-based learning course and being involved with a local nonprofit during and after the class ended; learning about community organizations in Philadelphia related to affordable housing and food sovereignty; and working as a program assistant at Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement.
Those experiences as a Drexel student led to the founding of “Lessons of Da Land: Food Sovereignty and Land Justice in Black Philadelphia,” a co-curricular program Wiley created in 2020 for Drexel students and community students that blended coursework with visits with a local farm and several other organizations.
“My advice to others who seek to create a course like this — or a research project, or to address really any societal issue — is to honor the wisdom of the community,” said Wiley. “Community members have unique insights gained through shared history and experiences. We can't work in silos but must be partners in solving the issues we face.”
Raja Schaar, associate professor of product design and design research and program director of product design in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, also talked about the power of collaboration and involvement in her speech, using her experiences meeting with Drexel faculty (including a chance encounter with a fellow faculty member at her first Convocation in 2016) and industry colleagues in design ethics.
“When you teach the world as a complex place, complexity is not challenging. Complexity is opportunity,” Schaar said before sharing a “listicle” about what has made her six years at Drexel “so magical:”
- Take the time to see what’s happening around you. “Oftentimes we think showing up and doing the work is being present. But being present is really about working with, absorbing, and paying attention to the world around you.”
- Act with intention. “When we place one foot in front of the other for the sake of marching forward, we are going to leave people behind,” said Schaar. “So my thing is to think strategically about where you want to go.”
- Be open to collaboration, which “allows you to sort of open yourself to your vulnerabilities and figure out where your gaps are and work with your team to fill them in.”
- Embrace and expand on change. “When we think about this notion of change, we also must think about what we're changing for,” said Schaar.
- Seek joy. “Nina Simone said that we should be seeking joy in relationship to freedom,” Schaar noted, adding that the musician and activist defined freedom as the absence of fear.
Kevin Owens, PhD, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Faculty Senate, noted that the keynote speakers — two faculty members and a recent Drexel graduate — are “working on problems that are critical to our world and having an impact, but that should not be surprising to any of us.”
“All of us who choose to teach have an impact on the future. I applaud my colleagues — your work inspires me,” Owens said.
For the students, María José Garcia, a BS/MS student in biomedical engineering, Nina Henderson Provost Scholar and president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association (USGA), spoke about how Drexel has given everyone “a platform to be changemakers and trailblazers,” and that students can learn so much about themselves and the world around them during their time on campus.
“Whether it is through student life, academics, co-op, athletics, civic engagement or student organizations, we hold a unique power,” she said about Drexel’s students. “As the USGA continues to work for and with students, I hope you feel inspired, empowered and unafraid to reach out to your community. We are here for you!”
A moment of levity during the ceremony highlighted the importance of being engaged in the world we all live in — beyond trying to fix it. Drexel students probably (definitely) shouldn’t skip class, but they can still take inspiration from the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“As perhaps one of the most legendary students of all time, Ferris Bueller, once said, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,’” said Jensen. “So, here we are: Stopping together to look around, to listen and to celebrate.”