Convocation 2023: Personal Stories of Impact “Only Possible at Drexel”
Concepts irrevocably linked to Drexel University’s identity — real-world engagement, impactful partnerships, and collaboration with the community and across disciplines — were on full display at the University’s 2023 Convocation in Mandell Theater on Sept. 28. The annual fall event is about “reconnecting to our mission as an institution and the people who bring that mission to life,” Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen told the crowd.
In opening remarks, Jensen and President John Fry celebrated many positive tailwinds — in enrollment, staffing and performance — that are lifting Drexel as the University enters the 2023-2024 academic cycle.
This year, Drexel welcomes more than 5,600 new undergraduate and graduate students and is currently exceeding its undergraduate enrollment target, said Fry. First-year retention rates are more than 90 percent and have been strengthened by the establishment of the Academic Resource Center, a new academic advising and counseling services hub led by Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Success Rebecca Weidensaul. President Fry commended interim deans Aroutis Foster, PhD, of the School of Education and Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH, of the Dana and David Dornsife School of Public Health and welcomed new faculty members. Leaders from Salus University shared the stage; once finalized next summer, Drexel’s merger with Salus will usher in greater opportunities for growth and collaboration that will enhance both institutions.
Fry commended a recent series of research achievements and national recognitions, in fields ranging from materials science to autism research. Among those, Director of the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute Yury Gogotsi, PhD, was named co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Center for MXene Synthesis, Tunability and Reactivity, which could play a critical role in developing more clean energy. The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute won its third $10 million Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) Award, making Drexel one of only five universities in the country that has received more than one ACE Award. Students also had a strong year of research as they took home 17 of 39 awards at the March annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for which Drexel acted as host. The University also raised $77 million in gifts over the past year, much of which will support scholarships and programs.
He also noted Drexel’s improvement in Wall Street Journal and US News national rankings, in which Drexel rose to 54th out of 400 in “2024 Best Colleges in the U.S.” and 98th out of 435 in “U.S. News Best Colleges, respectively, after the ranking services adjusted their methodologies to emphasize student outcomes.
“We believe we will continue to climb in national rankings as we keep providing the things that matter most to students: a welcome and supportive learning environment and a rewarding experience that prepares them for a lifetime of success and personal fulfillment,” Fry said.
Significant headway has been made toward improving Drexel’s financial footing, Fry said, noting that the University ended the fiscal year with an overall increase in net assets of $38.4 million and a favorable variance of $41 million to the budget. Higher education continues to evolve, however. As the University evolves with it, the Drexel 2030 Strategic Plan will serve as a roadmap to success as leaders contemplate changes to academic structure, bureaucratic processes, and strategies to stabilize finances in the new environment, he said.
“All of our work on the academic and operational fronts will allow us first to focus on what Drexel is good at and good for, and second to ensure that we continually get better at what we do … I know changes on this scale are challenging. But this University has an amazing capacity for innovation, collaboration and partnership to solve problems and to reinvent itself into an even more powerful force for higher education and the greater public good,” Fry said.
The 2023 Convocation speakers are “wonderful examples” of how focusing on Drexel’s strengths can bring about an even greater impact on the world around the University, Jensen said.
“They demonstrate that real impact happens outside the disciplinary boundaries,” Jensen said. “When it comes to the complex global issues they are seeking to address, each one of them acknowledges that they cannot do it alone ... The perspectives and tools that bridge our respective disciplines, the diverse backgrounds of our faculty, students and professional staff — we need all of these to continue to evolve and thrive as an institution. That means doing a better job of bringing people together to amplify the impact of our work.”
Each keynote speaker shared stories that they believed could not have happened anywhere besides Drexel, they said.
For Rachel López, director of the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic and associate professor at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law, that story was of Terrell “Rell” Carter, a man sentenced to life in prison with whom she co-authored an award-winning law review article, “Redeeming Justice.”
López and a cohort of her students first met Carter at a state prison outside of Philadelphia, where he was leading a discussion organized by the Lindy Center for Neighborhood Partnerships on the idea of a “right to redemption.” López, along with a cohort of law students, worked with Carter to frame the right to redemption as a human right that should be incorporated into existing U.S. law, the basis of their article.
“The article was forged through countless 2,000-character messages via the prison messaging portal and 15-minute monitored calls that one of my co-authors made in the 30 minutes when he was permitted to be outside his cell,” López said.
The collaboration ushered in a new type of partnership in legal scholarship and teaching and ultimately contributed to Carter’s release in 2022.
Carter, whose sentence was commuted, is now a creative writing graduate student at Drexel, and he and López consider their collaboration a new genre of legal scholarship they call participatory law scholarship (PLS), which enables people with no formal legal training to influence the legal system through extensive lived knowledge of how laws function and dysfunction. López believes this type of community partnership is key to forming a more just and equitable society.
“Our collaboration, which is changing the face of legal scholarship and education, would only be possible at an institution where community engagement is more than just a tagline,” López said. “It is truly Drexel-made at a time when we as a human species are facing some of the biggest challenges to date. I believe that collaboration and leadership like this is what the world needs most.”
Monica J. Harmon, executive director of the Community Wellness HUB in the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, interim College of Nursing and Health Professions director of the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services and an assistant clinical professor, spoke about the importance of tackling historical and societal factors that hinder health equity by listening to community voices.
She shared the story of Mr. Jackson, a man who had been incarcerated for 54 years and was trying to adjust to the world outside of prison. As she helped assess his medical needs, she could see he needed to open up and work through his feelings, but his anxiety held him back.
“Then one day,” she said, “I saw Mr. Jackson at a community dinner at the Dornsife Center. I asked him how he was doing and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘I'm talking to someone. And I like it. You said it would be all right and it is.’ Mr. Jackson was alive and enjoying life fully for the first time in decades. He now likes talking to the law classes and attending the HUB’s health education programming.”
There are similar stories Harmon has, including a cross-disciplinary course through the Pennoni Honors College in which students learned a 12-step community outreach and engagement technique from Loretta Sweet Jemmott, PhD. The results have been powerful, and community members have continually asked for more engagement as these experiences have informed the services and programs at 11th Street and the HUB.
“This work is critically important to Drexel University's future as we all work together to heal, unite and bridge with the community,” Harmon said. “The faculty, staff and students of Drexel and Dornsife make that happen and make a difference in the lives of those we serve.”
Jamaica-born Alex Ashley, a second-year international PhD student studying chemical engineering, told the story of how his ambition — after 100 cold calls to researchers that only a professor at Drexel answered — brought him to the University. He described how, as a child, his mother warned him against playing in the bush because many homes stole electricity through hidden live wires running along the ground.
“Even though I was always a curious child, I listened to my mother and heeded her warnings,” Ashley said. “However, I carried with me the awareness that electricity was an expensive commodity and over time, that awareness became an interest that I nurtured into a desire to harness solar technology to make electricity accessible to all accessible to all. A little too ambitious? Maybe. But this desire is what led me to Drexel and allow me to be speaking to you right now. You know what they say: Ambition can't wait.”
His research investigates how to make more efficient solar cells and he studies how electricity is created and lost within those cells, with the goal of replacing traditional fossil fuels with solar energy. As he was about to begin his PhD, the work of professor of chemical and biological engineering in the College of Engineering Jason Baxter, PhD, and his ultra-fast spectroscopy (which is just “a fancy way of saying how we study solar cells,” Ashley said) caught his eye. Ashley reached out in the hopes of working with him, and to his surprise, Baxter answered.
That summer of research cemented Ashley’s decision to pursue his PhD here as he combats climate change and creates clean energy. The University has been instrumental in Ashley’s research and personal growth, he said, and he’s been inspired by Drexel’s commitment to sustainability and climate change activism through the Environmental Collaboratory and other programs. He’s also become invigorated by Drexel’s progress in fostering a more diverse and inclusive community and has become involved in personal and academic arenas of diversity and inclusion. The University has made progress in that area, but can’t rest on its laurels, Ashley said.
"Collaboration is the lifeblood of academic success, and the spirit of collaboration and interdisciplinary research are central to Drexel's identity,” Ashley said. “As students, we must actively seek out opportunities to collaborate across departments, colleges and with external partners, for it is through collaboration that we can address complex societal challenges with innovative solutions.”
Ashley’s speech ended with a challenge to the University community to find things they are passionate about and work towards making them better and more visible on campus. His challenge brought a round of applause from the crowd.
“To envision a great goal is to expect great challenges, and the more challenges you encounter and overcome the closer you are to achieving greatness,” Ashley said. “My personal odyssey at the university has been a testament to the power of collaboration, the strength of support and the shared commitment to address the world's most formidable challenges."