ABINGTON, Pa. — When the Rev. Vernon K. Walker enrolled at Penn State Abington, he was a bit of an outlier — a nontraditional student juggling a full-time job with a full course load. However, in the 12 years since he completed his degree, Walker has positioned himself at one of the centers of the social justice movement, specifically tackling climate justice issues at the intersection of systemic racism, the environment and public health.
“I’m where I am today because Penn State Abington was my launching pad," he said. "It was a great place to figure out my passion and my path."
Walker’s trajectory has taken him to Massachusetts, where he has earned master’s degrees in theology and social work from Boston University and in public policy from Tufts University while working with vulnerable populations as a case manager, community organizer, associate pastor and political faith organizer.
He was named a 2022 Neighborhood Fellow in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts. The fellowship is awarded to mid-career master’s candidates from underrepresented groups with deep leadership experience in urban community politics, economics, education and housing.
While completing his master degree programs, Walker spent several years at Communities Responding to Extreme Weather and with the Better Futures Project in strategic planning and fund raising.
In the summer of 2023, he joined Boston-based Clean Water Action as its climate justice program director, focusing on policies and legislation that will offer those disadvantaged by racial, social, economic and other barriers a voice in the climate transition process.
"I do a lot of policy advocacy, and I work on bills in the Statehouse such as one to improve indoor and outdoor air quality for residents of low-quality rentals," Walker said. "I work in coalition with other organizations and advocate for regulatory bodies to offer more equity for energy efficiency in the state."
What inspired Walker, who was born and raised in West and North Philadelphia, to forge a career in such a challenging field? Walker cited two factors: his faith and his experience at Abington.
“While I was at Penn State Abington I was preaching in local churches, working in a prison ministry and feeding the homeless," he said. "I took a speech communications class that helped make everything I was doing easier. Penn State gave me a starting point with a really good liberal arts education, and I benefited by getting a degree from an internationally recognizable university. I’m glad I went to a Big Ten school."
Walker, the first in his family to earn a college degree, was working full-time for a human services nonprofit when he transferred to Abington after earning an associate degree in psychology at another institution. His union’s tuition reimbursement plan helped ease the cost of earning a degree.
“I worked straight through every weekend so I could attend class during the week," he said. I studied abroad in England for an embedded course, I was inducted into Alpha Sigma Lamba national adult honor society, and I was president of the Abington Christian Fellowship."
Walker cited several faculty and staff for their support, including Salar Ghahramani, associate professor of business law and international law and policy; Robert Hoffman, assistant teaching professor; the late Ross Brinkert, associate professor of Corporate Communication; and Dan Meuleners, the campus finance officer and adviser to the Abington Christian Fellowship.
He traced the inspiration for his move to the Boston area to another faculty member, Valeria Harvell, associate professor of African American studies.
“I had Valeria for a course on the life and thought of Martin Luther King Jr.," he said. "I still have his biography from that class, 'Bearing the Cross,' and Dr. King went to Boston University. I was planning on getting my first master’s at Duke, but I moved to Boston instead."
Although Walker is now firmly ensconced in New England, he hasn’t left Philadelphia behind. He was selected to be the commencement speaker last year at his alma mater, Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in West Philadelphia.
He said the advice he offered to the new Dobbins graduates also applies to Abington students: Perseverance and resilience are the keys to being successful in your academic journey and in life.
“Follow your dream," Walker said. "Find a niche within the work you do that makes you come alive. The world needs you to come alive and do something about issues you care about. What makes you come alive?”
About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,100 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 25 majors, accelerated master's degrees, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.