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From Philly, With Love: Maisha Kelly Comes Home

By Maisha Kelly, Drexel

Start off heading east on Wynnefield until you get to Fairmount Park. Then it’s south on Belmont, left on the Avenue of the Republic, past the museums and memorials until you hit 34th street. The zoo is the best part… you know you’re getting close, and if you’re especially lucky you might catch a glimpse – or at least whiff – of a kangaroo or bear. It’s just a bit further until you hit Powelton Ave and cross into University City.


It’s an easy 4-mile run between the campuses of Saint Joseph’s and Drexel. Casuals would much prefer to run down Market or Broad, their final leg on Ben Franklin Parkway until they hit the steps and do their best Rocky impression. But for real Philly, a trek through the westside can’t be beat. Running is a blue-collar sport, and there’s no bluer collar of a place than West Philadelphia. No glitz, no glamour, just pure unadulterated grit.


I’m a proud product of those neighborhoods that make up the City of Brotherly Love. Shaped by its streets as a child, its institutions as a student-athlete, and its people as a professional. And throughout my life I have intensely focused on doing my part to help make this city the greatest in the world.


When I graduated from Saint Joe’s, my intention was never to become an athletics director. All I wanted to do was have the opportunity to make an impact on students and athletes traveling on a similar journey to use sports and college athletics as a vehicle to help those that came from the same place that I did achieve everything they hoped and dreamed of.


I remember being 22 years old, standing in front of a classroom full of 6th graders, and thinking I might as well have been on stage at The Kimmel Center about to perform in front of a packed house. I was finally being given the opportunity to make an impact, to help mold the next great generation and transform their future. Or being a young coach and watching my student-athletes run around Franklin Field, the whole city cheering them on as they poured their hearts and souls out onto the track, pushing themselves towards the finish line. There is nothing more beautiful and purer than seeing a young person give their blood, sweat and tears in pursuit of reaching their goals. And no better reward than the opportunity to be by their side helping them during every step of their journey.


Moving from coach to administrator was not my initial plan. To trade my spikes for a pair of dress shoes was not something that I had ever imagined doing. But I also realized that moving towards a new role didn’t mean I was abandoning the thing I loved, in fact it was quite the opposite – if I wanted to make a bigger impact on the lives of young men and women, being an athletics director offered me an unmatched opportunity to do just that.


Fortunately, what was a pivot from my early roadmap also turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I have learned so much over nearly two decades as an administrator, thanks in large part to the mentorship and support of the industry’s very best.


Don DiJulia taught me that putting student-athletes first and investing in people is a genuine art that can lead to success. Leadership means showing up, even if at all hours of the morning or night to send teams off to compete or welcome them home from victories and lessons learned.


Mentor and friend, Drew Marochello, instilled that leadership means collaboration, and that being a decision maker requires you to be a partner with those who look to you for the answers. It means being transparent and communicative, and ensuring that your people understand where, how and why choices are being made, especially ones that have a direct and meaningful effect on their lives. Be authentic.


Supervisors like John Hardt taught me the importance of trusting people from the get-go and giving them tremendous responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, he showed me that being a successful leader requires giving your people room to grow – which means it’s ok to let them make mistakes so long as they’re learning from them. Jermaine Traux taught me that if you want to see people around you prosper and achieve their goals, you have to empower them to do so. I remember vividly when he walked into my office and told me that I was so good at doing my job (internal administration) that he was going to make me do something totally different (external fundraising) because it I would gain entirely new perspectives and skillsets. He turned my world upside down, and boy am I forever grateful that he did.


I have been lifted up my whole career by those around me. Leaders and peers who have been champions and a support network: Jen Heppel shaping my leadership in the conference and national landscape. Robin Harris advocating for me when opportunities to lead presented themselves. And Jill Redmond growing from professional development classmates to lifelong friends and confidants as we rise. My friends and family, my colleagues and my community are my lifeline for this lifestyle and they are the fans in my virtual stands of this chapter of my athletics career. It’s only because of them that I am now being given the reins of my own program as Director of Athletics at Drexel University – one of Philadelphia’s great Division I institutions.


As the leader of the Dragon’s, my philosophy will be simple – We don’t have an opportunity to help others in our community, but rather the obligation. The responsibility rests on our shoulders because we have the tools, resources and platform to change lives and create a brighter future for everyone that touches our program and university. We will become a shining example for our city and for our industry on just how many people the student-athlete experience can impact.


The very first words that our nation spoke came from right here in Philadelphia. They are words we all know: “We the people.” From the very beginnings of this city’s great history, we spoke out to the world in such a way to make it clear that it wasn’t just about us, it was about everyone. At Drexel, we will continue on with that same tradition, and show the world what it means to fight with every ounce of our being for what we believe in, to give generously without apprehension, and perhaps most importantly, to always love our brothers and sisters unconditionally.