Joe Sawma, Newman Civic Fellowship Winner

Adelphi proudly announces its 2023 Newman Civic Fellow, Joe Sawma. Opportunities like the Newman Fellowship award—a yearlong civic learning and networking experience—are life-changing for our students. Sawma is seen here in the Dining Hall of the Ruth S. Harley University Center, where he created his food donation program to fight food insecurity.

Adelphi’s sixth consecutive Newman Civic Fellow has been named—the latest in a long line of exceptional student leaders. Sophomore Joe Sawma, an immigrant student from Lebanon who speaks three languages, was awarded the 2023 honor.

A Newman Civic Fellowship is one of Adelphi’s most prestigious leadership opportunities for students.

Sawma was recognized by the Newman Civic Fellowship organization for creating a program that lets Adelphi students donate outstanding balances from their meal plans toward items for the campus food pantry. His A Meal for Me, A Meal for You initiative has collected more than $4,000 worth of items for students facing food insecurity since he founded it during his first year at Adelphi. He will join around 200 students to engage in learning opportunities nationwide and develop new ideas for social change.

Adelphi President Christine Riordan noted in her letter to the Newman Fellowship judges: “In his young Adelphi career, Joe has already embodied the University’s values of innovation and community connection through his leadership on campus. A Newman Civic Fellowship will further support Joe’s academic goals, broaden his perspective and introduce him to a purposeful network of others with similar values.”

Sawma originally got the idea for the food donation program shortly after arriving at Adelphi, when he realized balances on student meal plans couldn’t be rolled over. The plans were “use it or lose it,” and students were using their unspent funds for items they didn’t need. “They were buying unneeded plastic cups from the campus Starbucks just to spend down their accounts,” Sawma said. “Or they would buy multiple meals and take a bit out of each one. It was wasteful.”

He’d seen hunger firsthand, at home. He’d spent his teen years back home in Lebanon watching his countrymen struggling with hunger. “I saw middle class people who couldn’t put food on their tables due to a series of political crises. There was a cooking oil shortage and long, long lines just to get a single bag of bread at the supermarket,” he said. “I came here and saw those unspent meal plan dollars as an opportunity to do good.”

He and two of his friends got to work on his idea. They designed boxes to accept donations and put them all over the Adelphi campus. Then they designed and distributed flyers encouraging people to use their unspent meal plan dollars on nonperishable food items and prepackaged meals that they could drop off in the boxes. “We made people aware that there were people who needed their unused meal swipes, and we made it easy for them donate,” he said.

The outreach worked. Sawma gathered approximately $1,000 in donations the first semester he did the food drive. That number has now passed $4,000. The items go to the Panther Pantry, an on-campus food bank that helps Adelphi students and staff struggling with food insecurity.

He sees the Newman Civic Fellowship as an invaluable way to broaden his commitment to doing good. “I want to expand my meal plan donation program to campuses across the United States,” he said. “I hope to make some connections through Newman to make that happen.” He wants to start with neighboring campuses on Long Island and go from there. “We can turn this into a big project that reaches many,” he said.

The Newman Civic Fellowship isn’t the first time Sawma has been noticed for being a standout student. He also won the 2022 Outstanding First-Year Student Award, and he received a 2022–2023 Sue Levering Social Justice Scholarship for his work to support social justice, human rights and community engagement. Sawma is also a Levermore Global Scholar, part of Adelphi’s innovative program that prepares students to become global thinkers and leaders in a rapidly changing world. He is also director of programming for his residence hall council, a member of the Equitable Adelphi Action Team, and the newly elected president of the Student Government Association—while maintaining a 3.96 GPA and holding multiple jobs on campus.

As Student Government Association president, he wants to revive student life on campus—which he says has struggled to recover from pandemic closures. “I want commuters on campus during weekends,” Sawma said. “A lively campus is where students make important connections and gain experiences that help them grow. I want to bring that back.”

The upcoming year for Sawma will be an even busier one. Through his fellowship, he will be doing skill development and professional learning, one-to-one leadership development with a local mentor, have access to special scholarship and career opportunities, and participate in Newman’s annual convention—while enjoying the national recognition this remarkable student deserves.

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