Now, 42 years later, the former Swarthmore class president has received his diploma and graduated as a member of the Class of 2017.
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“It was amazing – I was stunned at the reaction of the audience and the standing ovation I received from the faculty,” said Davis, 63, of Harlem, N.Y. “It was liberating to have those doubts and that sense of lacking something go away.”
Swarthmore College is happy to claim him.
“Kip Davis exemplifies Swarthmore’s tradition of cultivating life-long learners,” said college president Valerie Smith in an emailed statement. “We are so proud to count him among our graduates.”
Davis, a senior account manager for an international market research firm, began his undergraduate education at Swarthmore in 1971. But when graduation arrived four years later, he had not completed his senior thesis and could receive his degree.
“I think I just burned out emotionally and academically,” said Davis, of Harlem, N.Y. “I thought of college as an end point, and not a beginning point.”
Despite not receiving a degree, as class president Davis got to deliver a commencement speech. It focused on following one’s passion rather than competing for a career – advice he followed as he pursued a theater career post-Swarthmore, working as an actor in New Haven, Conn., and New York and attending the American Conservatory Theater in 1978.
Through theater, Davis began a gradual re-engagement with the college. Ten years after giving the commencement speech, the opera he co-wrote, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, was performed at the university before moving to the New York City Opera in 1986.
Davis said returning to Swarthmore helped him realize how much he missed being in that intellectual environment. So, in 2007 when the opportunity arose to enroll in an alumni course with his former professor Philip Weinstein, Davis jumped on it. Taking the course encouraged him to be a more active alumnus and mentor for students, and Davis went on to found the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network in 2013 and become a member of the Swarthmore Alumni Council in 2015.
However, in his work advising students, Davis found himself emphasizing the importance of the senior thesis, advice he felt was “intellectually dishonest” since he hadn’t completed the the project himself.
Last July, Davis began to inquire how he could get his diploma and discovered his thesis paper was all that stood in his way.
Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, chair of the college’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, became Davis’ mentor and started him off “like all the other seniors.”
“The yearning for him to finish this last piece of business was really strong,” said Willie-LeBreton, who has advised hundreds of students in her 20 years at Swarthmore. “His emotion, and his persistence, and his desire to get the research right and get the writing right was so clear and unequivocal.”
Davis wrote his thesis on a topic especially close to his heart: Oak Bluffs, Mass., a middle-class African American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard where his family has owned a house since 1955.
In his 140-page paper, Davis argued that the community “provides a refuge from stereotypes and racism in mainstream America” and remains incredibly important today.
With his thesis complete and the support of family and friends, Davis graduated with a degree in Sociology and Anthropology on May 21.
As he proudly stood among the younger members of his graduating class, Willie-LeBreton said Davis demonstrated to other students the importance of following their dreams.
“I think it sends the message that their success in life is not because of their degree, their success in life is that they have the tools and an incredible network,” she added. “Once a Swattie, always a Swattie.”
Davis certainly agrees and plans to continue his involvement with the College.
“I’m just eager to get on with the rest of my life,” he said. “But unlike most undergraduates I’ll be back, so see you in the fall!”