Growing up in Chester County, Jason Wingard used to ask everyone he met about their life experiences – his school bus driver, the Wawa employee, his teachers. He was a child who wanted to know more about the world, his place in this world and the paths open to him.
It’s a skill that has served him well. Wingard worked on Wall Street. He has written books, held leadership positions in Ivy League schools, and is now president of Temple University, the first black person to hold that position.
On Thursday, he encouraged a class at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School in North Philadelphia to do the same: approach the world with curiosity and learn from everyone.
“I have a very large network, I know people all over the world,” said Wingard, the son of an educator father and a mother who worked in human resources. “Now when I need something, I know people everywhere because I put myself out there to do it.”
As president of Pennsylvania’s second-largest university, a school with 35,000 students, campuses on multiple continents, and thousands of faculty and staff, Wingard keeps a busy schedule. He hadn’t had time to visit any schools in Philadelphia since becoming president in July 2021.
But a letter from Fabian Austin, a college and career counselor at the school, moved Wingard, and he cleared his schedule Thursday morning to visit Cristo Rey, a private college-preparatory high school in a gleaming converted factory on West Allegheny Ave.
“He thought students would benefit from meeting me — what I symbolize historically, but what they could learn from me, from my background,” Wingard said.
On Thursday, Wingard sat in a chair outside the University of Austin counseling class, answering questions posed to him by student moderators Diana Albino and Anala Thompson, who spoke on behalf of their classmates from class.
What is the hardest decision to make as a Temple president?
On his very first day as president, Wingard had to decide on university-wide COVID-19 protocols for the fall semester, whether classes would resume fully in-person (they did), and whether Temple would have vaccination and masking mandates (he did).
Wingard gave a recent example of a tough decision he had to make: A few weeks ago, Temple’s women’s and men’s basketball teams were playing at the exact same time. He had to choose which match to attend.
“I have four daughters,” Wingard said. “I will always choose women’s football.”
Albino wanted to know what advice Wingard had for students, like her, who aren’t sure what career path they want to follow. What did he think he wanted to do when he was growing up?
“I wanted to be a professional basketball player,” said Wingard, a graduate of West Chester Henderson High and Stanford University. “I was taller than the other kids, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Basketball didn’t work out, but Wingard’s journey in business and academia has taken him to perhaps more interesting places. The president of Temple encouraged the Cristo Rey juniors to be open, to have varied experiences.
“Don’t feel like you have to say what interests you right now,” Wingard said. “When you do your best, you find out where your skills lie and where your passion lies.”
Relaxed and friendly, Wingard answered all questions posed to him. But he also had a few for students.
Who inspired them?
Albino said it was his parents.
“You would really say that? You are 16 and you would say that? Wingard, the father of five, asked.
“They’ve been through a lot and they’ve sacrificed a lot for me. My parents came from the Dominican Republic, and they started here and they worked their way up – I’m really grateful for that,” said Albino, who wants to study architecture or medicine.
Thompson said she was inspired by her little sister, who is 7.
“I just feel like I have to be a leader for her,” Thompson said. “She has nothing to admire right now. I had more when I was younger than her.
Wingard may be running a massive organization now, but he said he sees himself in Cristo Rey’s students.
“I’m going to give you one last piece of advice: have faith in yourself in whatever you choose to do,” he said. “Sit up straight, speak loudly, speak with confidence, because you are all very smart. … I am president of Temple University because I sat where you sat and enjoyed what I had in life.