Davidson Celebrates the 455 Graduates of the Class of 2015

Davidson bade farewell to 455 students under the spreading oak trees on front campus Sunday morning, May 17. Thousands of family members raised congratulatory whoops and hollers as graduates crossed the stage one at a time as their names were called to received a diploma from college President Carol Quillen.

The most popular majors for the graduates were political science with 62, economics with 59, biology with 51, and psychology with 44.

The graduates represented 39 states and 17 foreign countries. 191 of them received Latin honors as outstanding scholars-116 as cum laude, 72 as magna cum laude, and three sharing First Honor as summa cum laude students with perfect grades throughout their college careers. They were math major and astrophysics minor Samuel T. Castle from Clemson, S.C., Davidson Honor Scholar classics major and math minor Elizabeth M. "Liz" Engle from Aurora, Colo., and biology major James H. Helzberg from Mission Hills, Kan.

College is often viewed as a defining experience. That might be hyperbole in some cases, but it was honest truth for Helzberg. As a first year student in fall 2011, he injured his knee playing intramural flickerball. The surgery to repair the damage unexpectedly triggered an extremely rare autoimmune response that left him paralyzed and severely pained in his right arm and shoulder. Helzberg spent several weeks at a time in and out of the hospital in Kansas City undergoing physical therapy sessions and an experimental treatment of high dose steroids. Once he was on the road to recovery, he helped his team write an article about the new treatment that was published in the Journal of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.

Helzberg was on medical leave from Davidson for spring semester of his first year, and returned for fall term of his sophomore year. Extensive rehab work has allowed him to fully participate in campus activities and begin playing tennis again.

Though his father was a physician, Helzberg said he didn't seriously consider studying medicine until his own hospital stay.  "The care I received was a big influence in deciding to attend medical school," said Helzberg, who will attend Duke University Medical School. "My experience was terrible, but I saw the importance of physicians in maintaining a patient's morale. I'm a strong believer that morale can affect recovery, and I want to give my future patients that level of personal attention."

Helzberg said he was glad to finish as First Honor despite his episode, but said it's not his most profound point of pride. "The thing I'm most proud of in my college experience is relationships and friends I made, and people I'll remain in contact with for the rest of my life."

Class President Sam Littlejohn announced the results of the Senior Class Gift scholarship drive. He reported that the class surpassed its participation goal with more than 91 percent of classmates donating a total of $7,557. Furthermore, that figure triggered additional donations from President Quillen, which brought the overall total to more than $20,000."

Davidson does not host an outside speaker at Commencements, opting instead for farewell remarks from the president. President Quillen, who began her tenure at Davidson in August 2011, told graduates she would long remember them as the first students with whom she spent a full four years on campus.

She  talked about the changes in the Davidson community in that four year period, and said it has been a particularly important moment in Davidson's history. She said, "You and I arrived at Davidson when, like it or not, the Davidson bubble disintegrated. We are now more than ever connected to the world beyond our campus."

Quillen questioned what the changes mean for Davidson's intimate community. She asked, "How do we continue to nurture a face-to-face community as we celebrate the opportunity our increased global connection affords?"

Quillen offered a three-part answer to that question. "One, know that it is better to listen before speaking, and that your words are the material you need to build bridges between people."

"Two, act like a human being. Know that there are limits to what you can know, and that we are all vulnerable."

"Three, hope trumps fear. No matter where your journey takes you, no matter how scared or lonely you feel, know you are not alone. You carry all of us in this special community wherever you go."

Honorary Degree

In addition to presentation of diplomas, Commencement included several awards, including an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to alumnus William Eskridge Jr., a 1973 Davidson summa cum laude graduate widely recognized as a legal expert in the emerging field of gender, sexuality and the law.

In 1990 Eskridge represented a gay couple suing for recognition of their same-sex marriage. In 1996 he called for the United States Supreme Court to constitutionalize same-sex marriage, a call that may yield results this summer if the Court strikes down state laws restricting marriage to heterosexual unions.

Eskridge has been Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School since 1998.

He has published a field-establishing casebook, monographs, and numerous law review articles articulating a legal and political framework for proper state treatment of sexual and gender minorities.

The historical material in his 1999 book Gaylaw formed the basis for an amicus brief he drafted in a 2003 Texas case which invalidated consensual sodomy laws. In his continued efforts to influence the national conversation about gay marriage, he has also recently published an opinion in The New York Times Sunday Review exploring the relationship between religion and marriage equality.

His citation also praised Eskridge for his service to Davidson. He has visited frequently in support of the college's Gay-Straight Alliance and Pre-Law Society. He was also instrumental in helping arrange the visit to campus this spring of Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Other Awards

Algernon Sidney Sullivan Awards recognizing a student and a community member for "fine spiritual qualities practically applied to daily living... for unselfish service without due recognition" were presented to graduating senior and Belk Scholar Yeeva Cheng, and to Davidson resident Rosemary Klein. Cheng, who has also received a Watson Fellowship that will send her around the world next year studying a Chinese minority group, was cited as "one of those rare students who combines an unusually sharp, ever inquisitive mind with an empathetic, loving heart."

She has been central to efforts to publicize and gain redress from the government of India for a group of Indian citizens, including her father, who were falsely imprisoned as spies during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. As a first generation student herself, she has helped organize a peer mentoring program with the college's Quest Bridge scholarship program for first generation students. In addition to a stellar academic record, she has managed to travel most weekends to Shelby to work in her families' Chinese restaurant.

Rosemary Klein was cited for integrating community service so thoroughly that "It is not something separately color-blocked on her calendar, but is integrated into all aspects of her being."

Klein has most particularly made her mark as an effective, empathetic educator at Davidson Elementary School. She has also been a mainstay at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, and was a founder of the Circle de Luz nonprofit that empowers young Latinos through mentoring, programming and scholarships. She was praised for "working in quiet, away from the limelight way, doing what needs to be done, looking for the person who needs to be heard or helped."

Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Awards were presented to Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain and Associate Professor of Economics Mark Foley. Each award includes $7,500 for the recipient, and $7,500 more for the recipient to designate to a college cause.

Cain was praised for his Socratic method of teaching - answering students' questions with further questions to help them learn to learn. He teaches astronomy, introductory physics, physics of the environment, electricity and magnetism, statistical and thermal physics and solid state physics. His research interests include the measurement of the elastic, mechanical, optical, and defect properties of solids through the use of ultrasonic, spectroscopic, and ionic conductivity techniques.

Beyond his academic expertise, Cain was described as so attractive a classroom presence that students crowd his office even outside of class hours to banter and discuss with him. Departmental majors joke that if you have a question for Professor Cain, you need to pack a lunch, for there is no hope of escaping office hours until you could teach the material!

His citation noted that many students sign up for Cain's classes initially just to fulfill a requirement, "but there they discovered a universe." Inspired by him, they look behind the equations and numbers to wonder about how our universe really works, and in the process, they discover new worlds of their own imagination."

Cain has been significantly involved with the College Board's Advanced Placement Physics program as a reader for the exams, and member and chair of the Development Committee for redesign of AP Physics courses. He has previously received Davidson's Thomas Jefferson Award and the ODK Teaching Award. He also received the Francis Slack Award for Service from the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society. He earned his master's degree from Wake Forest University and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Mark Foley joined the Davidson faculty in 2000 after earning his graduate degrees from Yale University. He teaches courses in game theory, econometrics, statistics, labor economics, microeconomic theory, and behavioral economics-the last of which is a blend of psychological insights with economic models. His recent research analyzed the role of inequality in group performance.  In addition, he has studied the effect of youth demographics on conflict across countries, highlighting the importance of the labor market. He has been a visiting Fulbright Scholar in Hungary.

Foley was cited as a professor who embodies the values of a Davidson education, in part by making himself constantly available to students. He is known as a rigorous academician who rewards only the best work with high grades, but goes to great lengths to help students reach their full potential. One alumnus remembers, "What was so amazing was that he maintained this popularity among students despite the fact that his classes were flat out hard; even those student who did not earn great grades loved him."

Another testified, "He manages to make the process of learning difficult topics a joyful experience. . . by not only bringing enthusiasm and humor to his classes each day, but also by uplifting his students through patient, thoughtful responses to their frustrations."

Finally, students present and past praise Foley not only as a teacher, but as a mentor whose efforts to aid them academically and professionally stretch well beyond their undergraduate years.

Commencement Weekend Activities

Commencement activities began Friday afternoon with an outdoor concert by the Jazz Ensemble, with special recognition by conductor Bill Lawing of six senior class performers. Members of the choir also recognized their seniors at a performance Saturday evening in Davidson College Presbyterian Church.

The college's alumni office also honored graduates on Saturday at a luncheon for the approximately 35 students whose parents or other close relatives are Davidson alumni.

Graduate Richard Hendrix of Atlanta was keynote speaker at the event.

Hendrix spoke about Davidson's history as a close-knit family, and how its reputation and stature has increased through alumni who became widely recognized leaders, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, John Belk and basketball coach Lefty Driesell.

But Hendrix also credited other, less widely recognized students and alumni who have led the college through times of difficult, but necessary, changes, such as the first African American and female students.

Though the college today enjoys greater recognition than ever, Hendrix said it still faces challenges such as meeting financial needs of students and overcoming the tension between innovation and tradition. "While by almost any metric we are the strongest we have ever been, we find ourselves beset by more challenges than ever before," he said.

But he concluded by expressing confidence that the college can respond successfully because, "I have felt the love and seen the power of our Davidson community first hand, and it is strong."

Later on Saturday, five senior ROTC students were commissioned into the armed forces as second lieutenants-James Atkins, Griffin Brand, David Diaz, Matt Long and Zoe Wuckovich. Lt. Gen Jack Stultz (retired), a 1974 Davidson graduate, delivered the commissioning address. Stultz told the five new officers they were joining an organization held in high esteem by the public, which is a welcome change from the negative attitude of the public toward the Army he joined toward the end of the Vietnam War. He reminded them that status was earned by individual strength, sacrifice, and adaptability. "Leadership is constant learning," he stated. "You're joining the profession of arms. It's something special. Don't treat it lightly."


The traditional Saturday evening Baccalaureate service featured a sermon by college chaplain Rob Spach. Referencing Psalm 36 and Romans 8:38-39, Spach titled his remarks "Turn a Gathering Darkness Into Light."

He asked graduates to be honest about their Davidson experience in the joy of the occasion, and not overlook instances of heartbreak they shared from tumultuous worldly events.

Spach said, "It's not that some people are wicked, and others good... We are all caught in webs of wrong such as indifference, racism, callousness and fear... When we're wrapped up in our own little worlds, we are subject to influence by the transgressive lies that speak about other people, about other groups of people, even about creation itself."

He said the psalmist contends that people become more entangled when "there is no fear of God before their eyes." Spach interpreted that as a refusal to consider other people and our place in the vast universe.

He said it's an illusion to think we can achieve and flourish separately. "My wellbeing and my hope are inextricably linked to your wellbeing and your hope," he asserted. "We all need the very ones that we keep at a distance. We need them not so that we can ease our conscience, but so that we can be ourselves... I think mindfulness of this truth is a seed of hope."

Spach recalled the struggles of Davidson's late president, Samuel R. Spencer, in leading Davidson to accept greater campus diversity. He said, "For Dr. Spencer, our community couldn't honestly claim to embody humane values and affirm the worth of every person while ignoring the perspectives, ambitions, and narratives of people it had long excluded."

Spach said the graduates, in their time of transition, have an opening in the rapid flow of life to pause, look around, and make choices about who they want to be, and how they want to live in this world.

Spach concluded, "Maybe our joy this graduation weekend, and your transition in the weeks and months ahead, is going to be honored most fully when we pause to behold reality with a solemn terror. Can we stop, and pay attention, in awe and wonder and empathy, so that we're reminded, even in our worst times, of the dignity of all things and all people, and of the steadfast Presence who is always in every place, beckoning us to take part, wherever we are, in the slow, unrelenting, holy struggle to turn a gathering darkness into light? Can we?"


  • May 17, 2015