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10 Mar 2023

Drexel University’s Maisha Kelly — making Philadelphia history

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March 10, 2023 Category: Sports Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Maisha Kelly (far right) with cheerleaders, and members of the Drexel Athletics department.  (Photo courtesy: Drexel Athletics Department)

By Jim Brown

From the time she was a student at the C.W. Henry Elementary School, Mt. Airy native Maisha Rachel (Palmer) Kelly had a passion for track and field.  Today that passion and hard work have led Kelly to become the first African American woman to lead Drexel University athletics in the school’s 131-year-old history.

After elementary school, Kelly continued to pursue her dreams as a student-athlete at Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School (GMAHS) in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. She was a standout as the captain of her cross-country track and field team, graduating in 1995. She serves on the board of trustees at her alma mater.

“Thanks to Drexel’s co-advisor Larry Wilson, who was the coach of my club in high school, I was a track and field individual state champion in the 800 meters, and a member of the relays that finished in the top two in the state (PIAA District 1 4A),” Kelly said.

Later, Kelly became a member of St. Joseph University’s track team. At St. Joe’s, she was influenced by great mentors like athletics director Don Dijulia. 

Maisha Kelly (far right) with cheerleaders, and members of the Drexel Athletics department. (Photo courtesy: Drexel Athletics Department)

“I actually just met with a student-athlete,” Kelly said. “It was about really showing up for them the way that Don Dijulia showed up for us as an athletic director. If there was somebody [who needed to] to see us off on the bus at 6:30 a.m. up to Rhode Island for an Atlantic 10 Indoor Conference Championships, Don Dijulia was there.”

As Kelly worked on her professional development path, she was helped by other mentors like Drew Marrochello, athletics director at Boston University, who also helped to shape her own approach as a director, she said.

“So, I look for my student-athletes to look forward to me not just showing up on the sidelines, but they [also] need to hear, ‘I believe in you,’” Kelly said.

After graduating from St. Joseph’s in 2000, Kelly pursued further education at Temple University while teaching 6th grade with the goal of a career in athletic administration always at the forefront. She graduated from Temple in 2005 with a master’s degree in sports and recreation administration.

Kelly then worked in the athletics department at Bucknell University for 10 years before returning to Philadelphia. While there, she created the university’s first student-athletic leadership development program and the Bucknell Athletics Leadership Institute in 2011. Kelly was responsible for leading over half of the 750 young men and women athletes and 12 Division I sports programs at Bucknell’s Patriot League.

She became an NCAA Division I athletic director by applying the same discipline she exhibited as a track and field athlete, Kelly said.

“I wanted it to be my way of life, so I started training,” Kelly said. “I started applying for jobs to see if my skill sets matched up and enjoyed being in the spaces where I could support students.  That was just the start — [it] progressed from there.” 

As a go-getter and a barrier breaker, Kelly worked hard to get to this point in her life and continues to do so in her historic new role at Drexel, as well as being a mom to her two children. This position is the greatest honor of her life and her familiarity with the school and the area where she grew up is a plus, she said

“It’s about being the first African American female to lead at Drexel in Philadelphia to serve in that role,” Kelly said. “I mean, it came with just a powerful and honestly surreal feeling, but [also with] a powerful meaning — it’s that it’s so right. It’s everything — my history, my identity, my passion — [it] all derives in Philadelphia.”

“Maisha is a proven, high-energy leader who no doubt has an ambitious vision for Drexel Athletics,” Drexel University President John Fry said. “She has a demonstrated ability to work with all campus constituencies and understands the vital importance of nurturing student-athlete leaders.”

Maisha Kelly with Drexel President John Fry at her left and members of the Drexel Athletics department. (Photo courtesy: Drexel Athletics Department)

It was Drexel’s vice president for student success, Dr. Subir Sahu, Ph.D, who first informed Kelly that she was their choice. Despite being thrilled about the offer, which she did not accept on the spot, it felt surreal to her, Kelly said. Still, after hearing the exciting news, she immediately called her husband Keith and the rest of her family. It was a true “pinch me — I must be dreaming” moment in her life.

In her new role, Kelly leads more than 470 student-athletes and 18 Division I NCAA sports programs.

Supporting students and colleagues in all areas, athletic and academic — at all times — is important to Kelly, she said.

“It’s not just all about executing in competition,” Kelly said.  “It’s about how you support them academically. How do you run the operations of an athletics department, and how do you situate leadership in the way of coaches and managers of other spaces [so that they can] be successful in their own right?” 

Kelly said that she is most proud of being able to work across a spectrum of places and people which she attributes to her success, in addition to her experience as a track and field athlete herself.  The sport brings everybody across the demographics together — socioeconomic and racial, she said. 

Her passion for track and field led her to serve on the NCAA Athletic Board. As Bucknell was in a rural community that had few Black and brown people, Kelly played a crucial role on their DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Council — comprised of administrators, coaches and student-athletes — during her tenure.

Kelly hopes that her historic appointment at Drexel has a positive effect on the young people who inhabit neighboring communities like Mantua and West Powelton. Maintaining focus and having a strong support system are both crucial, she said.

“Behave, and find your people,” Kelly said. “Find your champions. Find your community. And surround yourself with people who pour into you and that feel passionate about pouring back into, because it becomes a beautiful thing.” 

“I’m lucky I had people who invested in me,” she said. “Even when I stumbled, they invested in me. So, I would say, [believe] in yourself. That’s not just a cliché, but it’s real, because there are certainly things that are thrown at you. I’d love to say I had a rock star career, but I didn’t. But I had people believe in me in other ways, and I was able to live that out. So, I think that’s the greatest message. Believe in yourself and find your champions to help lift you up in your community to keep you strong.”

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