The multifaceted Mya Gordon

With a passion for community engagement, the fourth-year student balances her drive with hobbies, friends, and finding beauty in imperfection.

Mya Gordon leans against a fence at the biopond, with spring foliage in the foreground
The BioPond, pictured here, is one of Mya Gordon’s favorite spots, where she goes to unwind and relax. 

For all Mya Gordon’s accomplishments during her time at Penn—a 2023 Women of Color at Penn award, a 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Involvement award, and fellowships at The Netter Center for Community Partnerships and The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy—she’s most proud of the person she’s become.

“I’ve seen myself change,” Gordon says. “Every year I’m more myself.”

Originally from Lake Oswego, Oregon, fourth-year Gordon decided to attend the Penn in large part because of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which was for her “a huge draw,” she says. In high school, Gordon had worked with her school board on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and made a 14-minute documentary, “Lake ‘No Negro,’” on racism in her hometown, where she was one of a handful of students of color, Gordon says. “I knew I valued working with community and community members.”

As a rising second-year, Gordon participated in the Penn Program for Public Service Internship, a summer program in which students take an academically based community service course taught by Netter Center director Ira Harkavy while writing a 100-page paper and working on a problem-solving project of their choosing in West Philadelphia. For Gordon, that was racial literacy at a local high school. “I’m really interested in how large institutions can utilize their resources effectively to lift up marginalized communities,” she says.

Gordon came into college intending to become a doctor. But, while she continued to perform well in pre-med classes, she realized that the passion just wasn’t there. “I’ve always known that what I want to do with my life is focus on helping people in some way,” she says, “but I wanted to shift towards interpersonal relationships, working with communities. Dealing with the social problems that people encounter, it felt more meaningful to me.”

She wound up majoring in urban studies, which “has a human touch,” Gordon says. “I always recommend students take urban studies courses because they’re honestly life-changing. You just go really deep into a topic and learn new ways of thinking and understanding and interacting with people.”

As a rising third-year, Gordon conducted a research project with the Netter Center, interviewing more than 40 people across the University to understand how Penn engages with West Philadelphia and how to further that engagement through democratic practice. Through this project, Gordon became a research grant fellow with the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy and used the material for her senior thesis.

She also served on the Paideia Student Advisory Board, conceptualizing, planning, and facilitating dialogue around University community engagement, inviting students across the University to reflect on and share their experiences across programs and activities in the West Philadelphia community. Through this process, Gordon realized she was interested in pursuing university community engagement as a career.

After graduation, Gordon will work as an Emerson Fellow for the Netter Center while pursuing a master’s in higher education studies at the Graduate School of Education

During her time at Penn, Gordon showed a continued commitment to community work, says Rita Hodges, the Netter Center’s associate director. “She has a really impressive ability to understand some of the big-picture systems and policy-level, institutional thinking about how this work gets sustained and how to build strategic collaborations,” Hodges says, “and then she balances that big-picture thinking with work and engagement on the ground. The ability to do both of those things is really impressive at the undergraduate level.”

Speaking to Gordon is like “talking to a peer in my graduate program,” Hodges says. “Her passion and authenticity for supporting meaningful and mutually beneficial university community partnership really shines.”

Gordon’s now trying to balance drive with contentment. “I’m a very intellectually curious person, and I’m passionate about things that I’m involved in,” she says, noting how she’s always pursuing her interests, connecting with others, and pushing to make her ideas a reality. “But that isn’t everything. That’s not totally who I am. So, I am giving myself space to be that other person, too.”

That “other person,” Gordon says, tries to spend as much time as possible with her friends or with animals, riding her bike, or in nature. She’s been known for picking and collecting flowers around the area, which she calls “a victimless crime,” as she only picks what wouldn’t be missed. She’s started spending time at a ceramics studio, hand-building vessels that are “so close to perfect but never truly perfect.”

Above all, she’s trying to get away from the idea that “I, as a student, need to constantly produce something in order to have meaning,” Gordon says, the idea that there’s always something she could be doing, should be doing, like maximum productivity is always in her grasp yet somehow just out of reach.

And she’s trying to spend a lot of time with friends, including Meg Gladieux, a Penn GSE student who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences last year. Gladieux and Gordon first met in the Penn Program for Public Service, with Gladieux serving as the course’s teaching assistant.

“All of us were coming out of the pandemic,” Gladieux says, figuring out their college identities and navigating a new world. “It was the first summer we all had vaccines; Philadelphia had just lifted the mask mandate.”

Gordon is “one of the first people I was able to open up to at Penn,” Gladieux says. “She’s just so joyful, and she is so invested in her friendships and her relationships with people.”

What she’s learned is that “everybody’s going through it,” Gordon says. “I don’t know if I’ve met somebody who’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is the easiest! I’m always living my best life!’ Sometimes, it’s really challenging. But it’s nice to take turns leaning on each other and helping each other out.”

“The people I have met here inspire me. Being with them makes me feel more myself,” Gordon says. “I don’t need to do anything because they accept me for who I am.”

In community-focused work, it can be hard to see what’s working, Gordon says. It can be easy to focus on the roadblocks, the constraints, the frustrations. It can be easy to burn out. When that happens, you will find Gordon in the flowers, breathing in their scent, remembering that, as accomplished as she is, she’s more than that, too.