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Six-Time Olympic Medalist and Community Advocate Jackie Joyner-Kersee Shares Story with BRIDGE Scholars

BRIDGE students with Jackie Joyner-Kersee

November 9, 2023

Long before she was crowned by Sports Illustrated as the greatest woman athlete of all time, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was a kid in East St. Louis, Illinois, looking for a community. She found support in a local community center, and in her first exposure to athletics. Joyner-Kersee shared the ups and downs of her story with an engaged group of students from Drexel’s various BRIDGE (Build Relationships in Diverse Group Experiences) programs.

Joyner-Kersee, who attended UCLA on a basketball scholarship, recalls returning home to East St. Louis to find her beloved community center shuttered with padlocks on the door. She wondered, “where do young people go?” She began to aspire toward reopening that center, and providing the youth of East St. Louis with access to opportunity.

Her track and field career would bring home a total of six Olympic medals – three gold – over four different Olympic games. Joyner-Kersee still holds the world record for the long jump. When it was time to celebrate her athletic achievements, Joyner-Kersee remembers sitting on a teammate’s shoulders at the Olympic closing ceremony, holding a sign that read “I love you, East St. Louis.”

“They never said anything good came from my community,” she reflected among Drexel students, “but I wanted to show them our community is no different than any other.”

Drexel BRIDGE students, from the College of Arts & Sciences, Lebow College of Business, and the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, can appreciate the value of a supportive community as well as anyone. The BRIDGE Programs are dedicated to supporting underrepresented minority and first-generation college students, and offer leadership training, mentorship, career capital, and civic engagement opportunities. BRIDGE Programs across the University have succeeded in easing the transition to college, improving graduation rates, and equipping students for success after graduation. Perhaps most importantly, BRIDGE offers the social connection and sense of community students crave in their formative undergraduate years.

In 2000, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center opened in East St. Louis. Over the last 20+ years, the Center has grown and expanded its offerings, from afterschool programming, athletics, and STEAM curriculum to multigenerational learning spaces, career and workforce development, and nutrition and food access programs.

One BRIDGE student asked Joyner-Kersee what motivated her to remain open to change, transforming her athletics career into one focused on the improvement of her home community. But Joyner-Kersee doesn’t see the two as entirely separate.

“It was always about getting back to my community,” she said, reflecting on the impact early access to community athletics had on her success. “My coaches saw potential in me that I didn’t know I had.”

Joyner-Kersee’s intimate conversation with BRIDGE students was the culmination of a multi-day visit to Drexel’s campus, which included Drexel Athletics’ Vidas Field Day, an annual event held in partnership with the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood.

 Learn more about Westphal BRIDGE Scholars Program here.