Class of 2024 Models Resilience, Celebrates Graduation With Joy

a young Black woman holds a diploma while wearing graduation robes

They started college masked and keeping a social distance in the early days of a worldwide pandemic; they ended in celebration, unmasked, basking in the happiness of accomplishment.

an older white man spreads his arms behind a lectern on a stage

Davidson College said its farewells to the Class of 2024 on Sunday, May 12, marking an end and a beginning as they enter a world filled with ever-changing possibilities and challenges. 

This class experienced its fair share of both. 

They didn’t have traditional high school graduation ceremonies because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which started a few months before that 2020 milestone. Instead, many marked high school’s end with drive up diploma handoffs and Zoom. Their college careers started amid pandemic restrictions.

a group of students stand on a football field spelling out "2024"

It's a Davidson tradition for incoming first-year students to take a class photo during the week of orientation. Because of the pandemic, the Class of 2024 didn't take their class photo in 2020 -- instead, they gathered as seniors to create the image.

Those memories made Sunday an especially anticipated moment for the 505 graduates, who donned their black robes and caps as their families, friends and the Davidson community celebrated the college’s 187th commencement. 

After a week of destructive storms hit the United States, including the Charlotte region, Sunday arrived with welcoming sunny skies and warm, pleasant spring temperatures.

“What a joy it is to be together as a community on this glorious day,” President Doug Hicks ’90 said. “Class of 2024, you make us proud — for your brilliance, your determination, and your contributions to our distinctive college.

“You modeled resilience. And grit. And now joy.”

a young man accepts a diploma from an older white woman
a young Asian man holds up a diploma in graduation robes
a young woman embraces an older man while in graduation robes
a group of students in graduation robes
a group of young people in graduation caps and gowns smile while taking a selfie

Majors, Honors, Scholars

The graduates represent 24 countries, 43 American states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Their most popular majors were economics 90, biology (83), political science (56), psychology (49) and computer science (44).

Twelve graduated with the highest Latin honors of summa cum laude; 236 magna cum laude, and 131 cum laude.

The class spent their four years at Davidson helping refugees from faraway wars, and local students and families in need. They committed their time and talents to research, the arts, and athletics. They worked toward social justice and to combat climate change.

Some leave Davidson as aspiring physicians, attorneys, scientists and academics, and will head to postgraduate studies. Others will go right into careers such as finance, government, social work, teaching and marketing. And others will go on to fellowships in the United States and around the world.

The class includes six John M. Belk Scholars, bringing the Belk alumni total to 164. The Belk Scholarship recognizes students for leadership, creativity, compassion, integrity, intellectual curiosity and outstanding academic achievement. The award, which covers tuition, fees, room, board and two $3,000 stipends for special study abroad, is one of the country’s most competitive and generous undergraduate scholarships.

Hicks took a moment to remember Class of 2024 member Sam Anderson, a Belk scholar who died in 2021. 

“We feel Sam’s presence with this class through the friendships he formed on this campus and beyond,” Hicks said. “We hold Sam’s family and friends close today and we give gratitude for Sam’s life.”

Hicks urged graduates to enter their next roles as learners, leaders and forces for positive change.

“Remember that hope is an action verb,” he said. “You are not just inheriting a world; you can and must shape that world. Be an example and prove the power of education not only for yourselves but also for your families and everyone you meet along the way.” 

a group of professors in academic regalia cheer and smile
a young man accepts diploma from an older man
a young woman holds up her diploma looking at it

Teaching & Service Awards

The college also handed out awards to professors and community members. They include:

Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award

Students nominate professors for the annual award. The professors will each receive $7,500, and each gets to direct an additional $7,500 to fund a campus project of their choice. This year’s recipients are:

Karen Hales, Professor of Biology

The award commends her “unwavering dedication, profound impact on students, and nurturing of a generation of scientists who not only excel in their fields but who also approach problems with independence and creativity.”

“Her legacy is evident in the success and gratitude of her students, who continue to benefit from her wisdom, humor, and mentorship long after they leave her classroom.”

Raghu Ramanujan, Chair and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

The award commends “your ability to effectively convey material to students of varied abilities and backgrounds, and capacity to simultaneously be a great support for … students while pushing them towards greater achievement.”

“For recognizing students’ potential and challenging them to realize it, for your contagious enthusiasm and dedication to the craft of teaching, for broadening participation in computer science and having an impact…that can’t be measured.”

Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards

The awards go to one graduating student and one member of the larger Davidson Community who exemplify “the fine spiritual qualities practically applied to daily living … persons who have given unselfish service without due recognition.” 

Student Award: Samuel Ndichu Waithira 

The Bonner Scholar, an economics major and applied mathematics minor, held multiple leadership roles and “has led with creativity and care to make a positive impact here and in the Davidson community.”  

Waithira has logged more than 1,600 hours of community service during his college career. Last year, he received a Project for Peace grant to implement an initiative named “Growing Futures” in Kenya, his home country. The project promotes sustainable agriculture and agribusiness to create a viable economic model to cover the operational costs of the Hosanna Children’s Home.  

“In addition to his wonderful service contributions, he has maintained a strong academic record while taking very challenging courses,” one professor said. “He hopes to use his academic prowess to continue helping others during his professional career.” 

Community Member Award: Jane Elizabeth Campbell ’87

Campbell grew up in a military family and lived around the world before attending Davidson. She worked briefly for the college, then served 26 years in the U.S. Navy, with assignments ranging from Afghanistan to the White House, before retiring as a captain.

She moved back to Davidson in 2015 and became an active advocate for affordable housing — as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, and through the program Room in the Inn, a coalition of churches that helps feed and shelter people without homes. 

Often those who receive the community award are invited to the ceremony with a bit of subterfuge so that it remains a surprise. In Campbell’s case, award nominators were confident she’d be at the ceremony in one of her roles:

 “It is hard to remember a significant college or town event where she was not present to take photos for the non-profit website News of Davidson.” 

Honorary Degree Recipients

The college also conferred two honorary doctorate degrees to alums Porter Halyburton and Douglas Orr.

Porter Halyburton ’63, Doctor of Humane Letters

After graduation, Halyburton joined the U.S. Navy and went to Vietnam on a fighter bomber, completing 75 missions before his F-4 Phantom was shot down near Hanoi and he was captured, spending more than seven years in POW camps.

His family and country thought he’d died; he was listed as Killed in Action, and they held a funeral for him in Davidson. (To this point, Halyburton’s trademark dry humor about his unlikely return from the dead has entertained many media interviewers over the years.) On Sunday, Hicks drew a laugh from the commencement crowd as he conveyed that Halyburton’s “headstone moved with him around the country and is now a fixture in his daughter’s Greensboro back yard.” 

Halyburton received many top military awards and served on the faculty of the Naval War College. Now retired, he’s active in reconciliation tours of Vietnam, sharing “lessons of courage, of the importance of freedom and power found in forgiveness.”

Douglas M. Orr, Jr. ’61, Doctor of Letters 

Orr served as a faculty member and vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “helping shape the fledgling university and support the astonishing growth of the region.” 

He later served as the president of Warren Wilson College in Asheville. His philosophy: college should “raise the basic questions of calling and selfhood, and thereby allow students to find the pathway to a life full of meaning and service in a free society.” 

At Warren Wilson, Orr launched the Swannanoa Gathering Summer Traditional Music program that now attracts 1,500 participants from all over the world.

He co-authored Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia with Fiona Ritchie, host of the popular NPR program “The Thistle and Shamrock.”

“His scholar’s heart, musician’s ear and knowledge of North Carolina led him to a path of traditional music,” Hicks said. “His work has shaped the educational and cultural landscape of North Carolina and beyond.”

an older man and a middle aged woman stand together in front of a stage
a young Black man shows his diploma to family while smiling
a faculty member wearing sunglasses and academic regalia smiles
students in graduation robes process
a group of young women cheer while holding phones
an older white woman in graduation robes smiles
a group of families stand and wave at a graduation ceremony
a young Black woman in graduation regalia smiles with her family
an Asian woman helps her son fix graduation cap while smiling
a group of students in graduation robes together

Watch the Livestream of Sunday's Ceremony: