From Student to President: All in a Day’s Work
Widener University takes hands-on learning and leadership development very seriously. Just ask senior civil engineering student Willie Mathis III.
Mathis spent a recent Monday swapping places with Widener President Julie E. Wollman. He went to presidential appointments, and she went to his classes.
Known as President for a Day, the program provides the opportunity of a lifetime for an undergraduate student looking to better understand what a day is like for a university president. Mathis, who was selected through a competitive application and interview process, was the 18th student to serve as President for a Day at Widener. He said it was an honor.
“It’s rare that a student has the chance to switch roles with their president, and see what it takes to run a university. Reflecting on my four years at Widener, this is a place that truly provides the tools needed to be a great student and even better leader. This is a campus of endless possibilities if you take the first step,” he said.
Mathis’ day as president included several high-level meetings. He talked with Vice President of Administration and Finance Linda Gilbert about the main campus master plan, got a diversity update from Chief Diversity Officer Miki Davis, met with Provost Andrew Workman and Dean of Students John Downey for a talk on student engagement and leadership, and discussed student financial insecurity with Vice President of Enrollment Joe Howard and Director of Financial Aid Services Paula Lehrberger. He lunched with Vice President for Advancement Terry Travis and Widener Trustee Lou Rodriguez, who earned a civil engineering degree from Widener in 1991 and is president and founder of Rodriguez Consulting LLC.
He also had a private meeting with Chester Upland School District Superintendent Craig Parkinson, where Mathis was able to discuss an idea he presented in his President for a Day application materials, which would give students from the local school district greater access to Wolfgram Memorial Library. In the end, they discussed multiple ways the university and the district could partner.
“I believe with the resources our university has and Dr. Parkinson’s expertise, we can create a tight-knit community that sets Widener apart from any other university in the country,” Mathis said.
Mathis said the President for a Day experience awakened him to the number of people the president needs to meet with in a single day, and the responsibility that comes with that.
“The decisions that must be made for the campus’ best interest are very tough and it requires having to do what is right rather than focusing on the negative feedback that may come with any decision. What I learned most was the aptitude for learning and growth never ends,” he said.
Wollman, meanwhile, had lunch with Mathis’ friends in the Pride Café, and attended three of his engineering classes. One of the classes featured three guest speakers connected to NBC Universal, including alumnus Richard Massii ’97, vice president of Reliability & Performance at Peacock.
“President for a Day is a unique experience that gives me the chance to see Widener classrooms and services from a student perspective,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to hear what is on the minds of Willie’s classmates and friends, and be a part of their on-campus learning experiences.”
And, Wollman said she found civil engineering class discussions on transportation infrastructure eye opening.
“This experience really showed me a new way of looking at roads and bridges, and gave me a much stronger appreciation for the engineering work that goes into them,” she said.
Mathis will graduate in May with a bachelor of science in civil engineering. In addition to taking classes he holds an internship with IMC Construction, a general contractor based in Malvern, Pa. He will join the company in a full-time position as a project engineer after graduation. Mathis has also been heavily involved in activities during his time at Widener, including holding officer roles with the Student Government Association, Widener’s Alternative Spring Break program, and the university’s American Society of Civil Engineers chapter, serving as a resident assistant, and competing on the rugby team. He is a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and the Presidential Service Corps/Bonner Leadership Program, in which he volunteers 150 hours each semester at local community service organizations.