As Mamta Motwani Accapadi begins her new role as Vice Provost for University Life this semester, student leaders commend her dedication to enhancing the Penn experience for all community members despite its virtual setting.
Accapadi officially assumed her role as VPUL on Aug. 17 in conjunction with the start of the online semester. She has since prioritized virtually meeting as many Penn community members as possible, including leaders of student organizations and faculty members. This semester, she hopes to provide students with the resources they need to vote in the upcoming presidential election and help the Penn community recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Accapadi said she wished she had the opportunity to meet students on Locust Walk, this semester’s online format has allowed her to attend more student-organization events than she would have been able to attend in person.
“It's been humbling to start in this role not being able to be in a room to gather folks and build community,” Accapadi said. “It’s also presented the opportunity to rise and work harder and be creative in how I show up and present.”
Accapadi replaced Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, who left the role after 25 years to serve as Penn’s inaugural Vice Provost for Student Engagement. Prior to coming to Penn, Accapadi worked as the Vice President for Student Affairs at Rollins College in Florida since 2013, preceded by four years as the Dean of Student Life at Oregon State University.
Accapadi said the opportunity to work closely with student leaders and co-create a Penn experience that all members of the community can enjoy drew her to Penn. She added that while she still has a lot to learn, she recognizes the importance of the VPUL to bridge the gap between administration and students.
“I come from a place from love,” Accapadi said. “Relationships are the most sacred thing to me. I want to be a convener of meaningful experiences that could transform the student experience."
Accapadi began meeting with student organizations even before classes began this semester. College senior Connor Beard is the undergraduate chair of Natives at Penn, a student organization dedicated to increasing awareness of Native culture and history on campus. Accapadi virtually met with the organization on Aug. 20 to show her support for the group.
Beard said he felt grateful that Accapadi took the initiative to reach out to NAP, especially because he has previously experienced a “feeling of invisibility" as an indigenous student at Penn.
“The simple fact of her wanting to start a dialogue with us and hear about our experiences is such a powerful thing,” Beard said. “It might sound really simple, but it’s a lot more than we’ve gotten in the past.”
Second-year law student and NAP graduate co-chair Brooke Parmalee agreed with Beard, adding that Accapadi's genuine willingness to learn about the experiences of Native students at Penn brought her to tears.
“Having an ally like Mamta gives us so much hope and is so relieving,” Parmalee said. “The fact that someone in a position that has the power to make change was recognizing us was huge.”
NAP created a petition on Sept. 1 — that has since garnered over 1,000 signatures from students, faculty, and staff — calling on Penn to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day as a holiday. The group hopes that adding the holiday to Penn's list of secular and religious holidays observed during the academic calendar will promote visibility of Indigenous students at Penn. The list features holidays associated with the cancellation of class and those that are not and simply recognized by the University.
Wharton senior and Panhellenic Council president Sahitya Mandalapu said she has already virtually met with Accapadi twice, once individually and once with other Greek leaders at Penn, this semester. After Mandalapu told Accapadi at a meeting that the Greek community wanted to be more socially and politically active, the two decided to replace Greek Week — a series of activities and speaking events for members of the Greek community — with Social Justice Week.
Social Justice Week will be held from Oct. 12 to Oct. 15 and feature events on various topics including mental health, violence prevention, and cultural appropriation.
“She is such an incredible woman,” she said. “She’s just so inspiring and I think she sees the best in students and she makes me want to live up to the potential she sees in me.”
College junior and Student Activities Council chair Grayson Peters said that he and other members of Penn Student Government have met virtually with Accapadi a few times since she became VPUL. Peters commended Accapadi for advocating for open communication between administration and student leaders.
“She seems really enthusiastic about working with student leaders and hearing student perspectives and actually taking those to heart,” Peters said. “There’s a big difference between hearing us out and actually understanding what we say and representing our interests in her office and people above her.”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.