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2017 Commencement

Remarks by John A. Fry

June 13, 2017

Good evening everyone. And congratulations, graduates. This very special night belongs to you. And it’s a pleasure to welcome the members of that big supporting cast that helped get you here: the proud families and friends, our distinguished faculty, trustees, professional staff and administrators.

Everyone here tonight is part of the extended Drexel family. And like most big families, it takes a very special occasion to bring us all together. This is our second all-University Commencement. But this time it’s under the lights here at Citizens Bank Park — home of the Phillies.

And the Phillies have the distinction of playing in the first night game in Major League history, back in 1935. Losing to the Reds at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. For a tradition-conscious institution like baseball, this was major-league change — pardon the pun. And there was resistance. The owner of the Washington Senators flatly declared, “There is no chance of night baseball ever being popular in the bigger cities.”

Like Major League Baseball, Drexel University is an institution proud if its traditions. But one of our proudest traditions is being an agent of change. That tradition of driving positive change, instead of waiting for it, is stronger than ever today. It’s reflected in each of you graduates, and it goes back to our very beginning.

The class of 2017 is graduating as we wind up our year-long celebration of Drexel’s 125th anniversary. And the more I learn about Drexel’s history, the deeper admiration I feel for the man who was our original change-agent: our founder, Anthony J. Drexel

A.J. Drexel was an investment banker. He had an investor’s talent for assessing the future and recognized that the new industrial revolution was creating a demand for workers with skills that weren’t being taught in any school. So, he created the Drexel Institute of Art, Science & Industry to prepare young people for the skilled jobs of the new age. But also to enrich their lives with art and music.

That was a new direction in education, and helped set the foundation for Drexel University. A.J. Drexel was adamant that this new school would be equally accessible to women and men, and to people of all races and religions. Those values are universally endorsed in the U.S. today, if not always practiced. But they represented radical change when Drexel opened in 1891.

This was a time when New Jim Crow laws were legislating discrimination against African Americans. Meaningful civil rights legislation was still 75 years away. Most colleges didn’t admit women, nor would women be able to vote in presidential elections for another 29 years.

Suffice it to say, A.J. Drexel set directions for us that have stood the test of time. And through his example, he encouraged traditions that became an essential part of who we are today. One of those traditions is civic engagement, reaching out into the community to help make a difference in people’s lives.

And I think even A.J. Drexel might be surprised to see how civic engagement has expanded from a Philadelphia-based tradition to a global tradition.

I just came back from a 10-day visit to Southern Africa, along with Dana and David Dornsife — two of Drexel’s greatest supporters. And also Shannon Marquez, our vice provost for international development. The Dornsifes are roll-up-your sleeves and get-involved philanthropists, incredibly generous to Drexel and true believers in civic engagement.

In Southern Africa, we’re civically engaged with villages in some of the poorest places on earth. We’re partnering with the Dornsifes and the humanitarian organization World Vision to provide these communities with an accessible, reliable supply of safe, clean water — a vital commodity that a billion people in the developing world don’t have.

In Swaziland, I visited with a family where three teenage sisters got up at 4:30 every morning to make a two-hour walk to retrieve water for the family before they went to school.

But in Zambia, I awarded certificates to World Vision professionals who had completed Drexel’s online graduate-level course on water sanitation and health issues. And I got to enjoy the enthusiasm of the Drexel co-op students working in these African communities for 3 to 6 months as part of the Dornsife Global Scholars program.

The community engagement work we’re doing in Africa might be very different in its particulars from the work we’re doing with our neighbors in West Philadelphia. But the spirit is the same in both places: Drexel people are working to lift families, giving them opportunities, giving them choices, giving them hope.

Most of you have experienced some form of civic engagement during your years at Drexel. I hope that experience convinced you that life is enriched by interaction with our neighbors for the common good of the community.

Just as our national life is enriched when America interacts with our neighbors in the world for the common good of the global community, you’ve also felt the benefits of the Drexel tradition of combining academic excellence with career preparation. That tradition partially explains why within a year of graduation 96 percent of Drexel graduates are employed full-time earning substantially more than graduates of comparable schools, or they are in graduate school.

But we start out with a substantial advantage, because our applicants tend to be people like you, with the intellectual gifts and personal strengths to earn a Drexel degree. Which also makes me sure that you will relate to our Commencement speaker — John Maeda — a brilliant and original thinker who’s working at the intersection of business, technology, education and the arts.

And wherever you focus your professional energy, I’m confident that you will use your talents to engage with the world and in the best Drexel tradition to be agents of positive change. A.J. Drexel would be proud of you. I certainly am! Congratulations.