On July 12, Executive Director Jennifer Johnson Kebea of the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement announced that she would be taking on a new position as President of Campus Philly. After 12 long years at Drexel, Kebea shared her reflections and experiences at the Lindy Center with the Triangle. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Triangle: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you first became involved with the Lindy Center?
Jennifer Kebea: I was at Drexel for 12 years, almost to the day. Before then, I was the Inaugural Director of Career Programs for Campus Philly. I got to know the Center for Civic Engagement at that time because we were co-hosting a nonprofit career panel. It was like 2008 and the middle of a pretty serious job recession in the United States. A lot of people were not hiring interns; they weren’t thinking about that space.
But Drexel was a bit of a shining star. They were hiring, their enrollment numbers looked good and they were building. It was exciting to work with colleagues on that campus and see what was really growing there. Just like they always say: You network and get to know folks, and that’s how I landed at the Lindy Center as the Assistant Director.
In 2010, John Fry came to Drexel and gave a speech for the university during convocation. It was the first time the university was getting an opportunity to hear him speak and share his vision about the university. He could’ve said anything he wanted, but he chose to really reflect on A.J. Drexel, who founded Drexel to be a university that served regular, ordinary, everyday people.
He asked: Would A.J. Drexel be proud of our university? And his answer was no, we’re not doing enough. We are situated in Philadelphia, right next to Powelton Village and Mantua and other neighborhoods in the periphery of Drexel, and our school is not as deeply engaged as it should be. He really put forth a challenge for us to really dig into the civic engagement mission, along three different dimensions. This idea that the university would lean into its academic mission with engagement in community-based learning or community-engaged participatory research, encouragement of public service by mobilizing our “people power,” and calling out the institution as an entity was a pretty new concept in higher education.
Over the next 10 years, things unfolded in really significant ways to lay the groundwork for an institution that is deeply committed to this work. I’ve been part of it ever since, and it’s been a tremendous honor, for sure. Over time, I went from being an Assistant Director to the Associate Director to the Interim Director for a long time, and then finally I was the Executive Director for about the last eight years.
TT: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about this and how Drexel is at the forefront of this civic engagement-led movement across US campuses. So, thank you for that additional context!
JK: Sure! And to your point about Drexel leading the pack, […] there are other institutions that are doing this work very deeply as well, but to have the very top leadership at Drexel say that this is important and we’re going to do this holistically and throughout the whole campus, that was a very big deal.
KR: For sure! And what are some of the initiatives and accomplishments of the Lindy Center that you feel the proudest of?
JK: Over my time at the Lindy Center over the past 12 years, we’re really affording undergraduate students the opportunity to think critically about their own civic identity. How do you show up as a citizen in the world, and think intentionally about your own civic pathway? I mean, whatever community you are defining for yourself, how are you going to show up and really participate?
CIVC 101 has been an opportunity to allow students to reflect on that, and think more deeply about how they’re showing up in the world, no matter what lens they’re looking at the world through. That’s something that I’m certainly proud of, because it’s a one-of-a-kind course in the U.S., especially when you think about scale.
Just this past year, 94 percent of incoming students indicated that they wanted to attend college to contribute to the greater good. That’s such a big statistic and speaks miles to the types of students we’re attracting to Drexel — students who are civically engaged, who are thinking about this type of work, who want to contribute. 79 percent of the incoming class indicated that Drexel’s commitment to civic engagement was a real reason, an important factor as to why they came to Drexel, which is a huge marker of success to me.
We’re introducing students at the very entry-level through CIVC 101, but that’s not supposed to be a be-all-end-all. That’s supposed to be a springboard into other types of opportunities and inspire you to be engaged. To kind of move the pathway along, we’ve trained […] over 150 Drexel faculty on community-engaged learning principles, so that they can infuse all that pedagogy into their teaching and research with their students.
The other big thing I’ve been really proud of, especially coming after an extremely tense election year, is just kind of reflecting on how the Lindy Center has shown up in that space. Ultimately, over the last decade, we have helped over 10,000 students register to vote through a module in CIVC 101. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, Drexel, for the past couple of election cycles, consistently registers about 5 percent above the national average. Our students are turning out at greater rates than what the national average is, and I think that speaks highly of our group for sure.
TT: That’s great! Thank you for sharing those achievements. It’s exciting to hear Drexel’s increasing capacity and initiatives related to civic engagement, and I’m excited to see what the future brings for Drexel in that area. The next question is more so related to the end of your time at the Lindy Center and wrapping things up as Executive Director. How do you feel about leaving Drexel after 12 years?
To put it in a nutshell, it’s certainly bittersweet. I mean Drexel has been home to me for 12 years. I’ve continued my education here, made tremendous relationships with different faculty, peers, staff and colleagues at Drexel — not to mention the thousands of students that are now in my network, that I’ve been so grateful to learn from and with along the way.
I also just turned 38. I was at Drexel for a third of my professional life — which is a long time! In that regard, the opportunity at Campus Philly really spoke to me, and I didn’t take it lightly to leave Drexel at all. The alumni office is currently running a campaign right now with the hashtag #ForeverDragons, and that represents me through and through!
I would also add that I didn’t completely leave! I’m still teaching for the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, for their nonprofit management program, and also for the School of Education and their higher education leadership program. So I’m still kind of around on the periphery and […] just so excited to see where things go next!
TT: Are you looking forward to your new role as the President of Campus Philly? What are you hoping to accomplish in your new role?
I have a long history at Campus Philly. When they were founded, the first Inaugural Executive Director of Campus Philly came to my campus for a meeting with some of our campus leadership. I was really just captivated by their mission. As a student, I was just coming to grips with being a biology major, and that wasn’t my pathway. I actually loved higher ed and realized that this was a career and space where you could grow, make an impact. I was an intern for them back then in 2004 and 2005, and just a few years later, I joined and worked as their Inaugural Director of Career Programs.
When I first started at Campus Philly, they were thinking a lot about “brain drain” — this concept of making sure we don’t lose our college-educated talent in the region. In order for Philadelphia to grow and become successful, we needed to have that type of talent in place. However, over time, Campus Philly certainly realized that we have a lot of work to do internally in our own city about success for Philadelphia and what that looks like. Right now, we are in critical COVID recovery. How do we make sure the city feels open again for college students to come and enjoy and be here? And it’s not even our first-year college students; it’s our second-year college students, too, who didn’t have the opportunity to have that first experience on campus.
The second space is going through some rebranding with the Campus Philly mission. Campus Philly fuels inclusive economic growth by empowering diverse college students and recent graduates to explore, live and work in the Greater Philadelphia region. In other words, success for every college student is what we believe. How are we ultimately setting up pipelines that allow for more local Philadelphia high school students to access higher education, to be successful, to find success in higher education in Philadelphia? And then also enter the workforce in this booming economy that Philadelphia is poised to experience in the next decade? So, that’s something we’re going to be working on very closely and I’m going to lean into my experience at Drexel and how the university thinks about cradle to career workforce development.
TT: What’s one farewell message you have for the Drexel community?
It’s a two-part answer. For Drexel: as an institution, we have realized that community engagement is a multifaceted, multi-generational commitment. It requires a long-term institutional commitment to the work, and I would encourage Drexel administration, faculty and staff to lean into that. It is a long game to […] realize the successes that we’re really just seeding at this point in time.
And then for students: just reflecting on this changing shift I’ve seen in the last 12 years in the way that students come prepared to college to be activists. Gen Z is really off the charts when it comes to activism. They are asking all the right questions, they are really speaking truth to power and being critical of the very institution that they go to school at, the very communities that they belong to. Those types of conversations have to keep on happening, and I would encourage students to keep leaning into that.