Abdullah to Retire from Penn State

Lydia Abdullah, pictured center in red
Friday, June 23, 2017

Lydia Abdullah, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for Finance & Business, will retire from Penn State after a 41-year career.

Abdullah began her Penn State career ten days after graduating from the University in 1975, taking a position as the first African American accounting trainee in the Office of the Corporate Controller. She was hired by the Office of Internal Audit in 1976, moving up from assistant auditor to audit manager. “My years in the Office of Internal Audit helped me develop my attention to detail and gave me the opportunity to complete projects from start to finish—seeing the big picture,” she says. “That office provided me a lot of opportunity early in my career to grow into leadership roles.”

In 1989 she was selected as the first female African American Administrative Fellow, a year-long experience that changed her, she says, professionally and personally. The fellowship allowed her to gain new perspectives into the workings of Penn State. “I learned so much,” she says. “As an employee you can get tunnel vision, but as a fellow I was able to see the vista. It made me a better person because it taught me to listen and to keep my eyes open.”

Abdullah credits Steve Garban, former senior vice president for Finance and Operations, for mentoring her throughout the fellowship and beyond. “He was phenomenal,” she says. “He was caring and would impart nuggets of wisdom. He encouraged me to get all I could out of the fellowship and to stretch beyond what I was comfortable with.”

After the fellowship, Abdullah took a position in the University Budget Office, where her primary responsibilities involved external reporting. “This position allowed me to continue to explore the totality of the University,” she says. “In that capacity I had to know a little about everything, or at least where to find the information.”

From 1990 until 2011, she served as an unofficial liaison for diversity and inclusion for three senior vice presidents for Finance & Business. When former senior vice president Al Horvath asked her to establish the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, she welcomed the opportunity. “That was my chance to formally sit at the table for the work I had been doing for two decades,” she says.

During her Penn State career, Abdullah has helped develop and implement the Commission for Women Mentoring Program, established the Office of Diversity & Inclusion for Finance & Business, chaired the Task Force on Policing & Communities of Color for Penn State and the Borough of State College, and worked on the University’s conversion to the federal government’s redefinition of race/ethnicity categories for official reporting.

She was recently selected by the Council of College Multicultural Leadership (CCML) to receive the 2017 Standard­-bearer Way Paver Award for her work with diversity and inclusion initiatives at Penn State and throughout the community.

Working in diversity and inclusion has not been without challenges, Abdullah says. “Being the ‘one and only’ in the room, either as a woman or a person of color, is challenging,” she says. “It can also be frustrating to retain people of color as employees—particularly staff and administrators. Unfortunately, underrepresented people are still sometimes not welcomed into the community where they must live and raise their families. We need to keep working on these issues. Not only do we need greater diversity of thought and ideas, but we have to be aggressive and consistent in including everyone all the time.”

Abdullah has appreciated being a part of positive changes that have taken place at Penn State over the last 40 years. “We have made strides in diversity and inclusion,” she says. “I’ve felt freedom to express my opinions and ‘speak truth to power’ when needed.” She has also found satisfaction in developing personal relationships with others, despite their cultural differences, and in mentoring new employees and watching them grow.

“It’s Lydia’s passion that has made all the difference,” says Vern Davis, contractor liaison for the Office of Physical Plant. “Her passion for work is impeccable, and her passion for people gave them the courage to reach higher. Many people will walk these hallowed halls who would not have made it without Lydia’s guidance, care, and compassion. People who make a positive change in the world dedicate themselves to what gives life, meaning, and purpose, and they use their power and influence well. Lydia has done just that for the Penn State community.”

“In many respects, Lydia has been the conscience of Penn State,” says David Gray, senior vice president for Finance & Business/treasurer. “She asked each of us to raise our own personal bar, to be inclusive and accepting of people’s differences and distinctiveness. Lydia has helped us build a stronger and more resilient Penn State. Through her accomplishments such as the diversity mentoring teams and the Diversity and Inclusion Climate Survey, she has made a lasting impact on the Penn State community for which we will be forever grateful.”

During retirement, Abdullah plans to remain in the State College area with her husband, daughter, son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. She will also remain an active member on various community boards and with her church, Unity Church of Jesus Christ.

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