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Four Perfect Summa Grads Lead Outstanding Class of '14

Commencement 2014
(l-r) Genevieve D. Nielsen, James A. Durling, Justin C. Strickland and Sarah H. Gustafson.

View commencement photo album.

Could it be that Davidson's Class of 2014 is the most academically gifted in the college's 177-year history? Evidence for that hypothesis can be drawn from the fact that four graduates tied for First Honors in the class at Commencement on Sunday, finishing summa cum laude with straight-A grades throughout their Davidson careers. Never before have there been more than two students in a graduating class with that distinction!

The four were: Amos Norris Scholar James A. "Jamie" Durling of Chevy Chase, Md., who graduated summa cum laude with a double major in history and philosophy, with Honors in Philosophy; John M. Belk Scholar Sarah H. Gustafson of Wilton, Conn., who graduated with High Honors in History; Genevieve D. Nielsen of Winnetka, Ill., who graduated with Honors in Economics; and Justin C. Strickland of Springfield, Va., (a double major in biology and psychology) who graduated with High Honors in Psychology.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Wendy Raymond ventured that the record reflects the talents and hard work of the four individuals, rather than an overall measure of the academic achievements of the entire class relative to the norm. "We are extremely proud of our four First Honorees," she said. "But we take pride in all our graduates. Their achievements speak well to our outstanding admission staff, which enrolled them, and the faculty members who nurtured and inspired their academic growth."

In all, Davidson bade farewell to 456 students. A crowd of family members raised congratulatory whoops and hollers graduates crossed the stage one at a time and received a diploma from college President Carol Quillen.

President Quillen congratulated the Class of 2014 for their accomplishments. "For you, the graduating class, this day feels satisfying and full of promise," she said. "It marks the culmination of heights you have achieved and a new beginning."

Quillen recalled a trip to Jerusalem in 2005, when she traveled with a diverse group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. She explained how, initially, her traveling group agreed on almost nothing.

"The disagreements among us reflected the most deeply held convictions of our personal experiences," she said.

But Quillen said the group began to connect through small, shared interests, like yoga or literature. "We realized we were more than the rigid identities with which we had armed ourselves," she explained.

She expressed the hope that Davidson provided the Class of 2014 with the same appreciation for the complexity of individuals and their stories. "You graduate knowing that human relationships are formed through the complexity that we all share," she said. "You know that no single story can do justice to the complexity of the facts."

The graduates represented 37 states and 20 foreign countries. 173 of the graduates received Latin honors as outstanding scholars with 112 graduating cum laude, 57 as magna cum laude, and the four First Honor summa cum laude students. The most popular majors were political science with 58, economics with 53, biology with 48, psychology with 48, and English with 40.

In addition to presentation of diplomas, Commencement included presentation of several awards, and presentation of an honorary Doctor of Science degree to noted virologist Larry T. Mimms, a 1976 graduate of the college. Since 2009 Mimms has been Vice President of Research and Development of Quidel Corporation, a California-based manufacturer of diagnostic healthcare products.

After majoring in chemistry at Davidson, Mimms earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Duke University and was a NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University in cellular and developmental biology. He has held several positions in private sector corporations involved in biochemical research, including his own company.

Commencement 2014

While working for the firm Gen-Probe Inc., Mimms lead a team which won the 2004 National Medal of Technology for development and commercialization of new blood testing technologies and systems for the direct detection of viral diseases.

Following the presentation to Mimms, senior class president Antonio Rodriguez '14 announced the class gift to the college's Annual Fund. He reported 92.2 percent of classmates contributed a total of $8,956. That achievement, led by gift drive chairs Avril Coley ‘14 and Keith Durante ‘14, allowed the class to also claim a challenge gift from President Carol Quillen that raised the overall total gift to $25,000.

Graduate Joi C. Spaulding became the first Davidson student to complete a major in the new Africana Studies department. In expressing her excitement about the designation, Spaulding noted that a few students have previously completed Africana Studies through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), even if she is the first to benefit from the recent establishment of the discipline as a curricular department. In fact, Spaulding also began her Africana Studies through the CIS, but was able to switch to the major when it was approved.

"I'm happy to know it will now be an option for future students," she said. "I think it will help Davidson attract some students interested in the subject who may have looked elsewhere without it."

Spaulding's departmental thesis reflects her additional academic interest in medicine. She considered a pre-med track early in her Davidson career, and participated in the college's medical mission summer program in Mwandi, Zambia. She also wrote her honors thesis under Professor Brenda Flanagan about traditional medicine and healing practices in the Geechee community on Sapelo Island in Georgia, a community with Spaulding family roots.

Spaulding has received a Davidson Impact Fellowship to work next year with the Communities in Schools program in Charlotte, and plans to apply to medical school thereafter.

Another graduate with a story to tell is Sara Leffingwell of Rockville, Md. When Sara was seven, her grandfather gave her a Davidson cheerleading outfit for Christmas, and sent a photo of her wearing it to then-president Bobby Vagt.

President Vagt wrote back to Sara that if she worked hard, there would be a place for her in the Class of 2014. Sara did work hard. She also kept the president's letter, and submitted it with her application to Davidson! When she was accepted, President Vagt wrote her again to urge her to enroll.

"I didn't originally want to go to Davidson because my whole life my relatives told me I should go there," Sara said. "But I ended up doing it, and within the first two days on campus I knew it was the best decision I've ever made!" said Sara. Highlights of her Davidson career included leadership of the dance team and a semester abroad in Copenhagen. She was a cum laude biology student, and in early June will begin work in Dallas as a clinical research assistant for Baylor Medical School.

As a graduation present, Sara's mother, Betsy, presented her a framed display of President Vagt's letter, her official offer of admission, and her diploma-along with the cheerleading outfit photo. To complete the display, President Vagt, who was on hand for Commencement, posed for a photo with Sara in her graduation robe.


First Honors student Jamie Durling also received one of the day's two Algernon Sidney Sullivan Awards, which recognize a student and a community member for "fine spiritual qualities practically applied to daily living... for unselfish service without due recognition."

Durling's award citation noted his service to a broad spectrum of community members. He was a leader on the cross country and track teams, served as president of the Gay Straight Alliance and developed its "Safe Spaces" program, and he acted as "the voice of conscience" as a representative in the Student Government Association.

The community winner of the award was former Davidson mayor and economics professor Randy Kincaid. He was praised for his unflagging concern for public affairs and dedication to community betterment. His citation noted, "If public discourse were a sporting event, he would have reached Olympian status long ago."

Kincaid served the town as a commissioner from 1977 to 1995, then was mayor from 1997 to 2007. He was a tireless advocate of "smart growth" – a balance between progressive building policies and environmental preservation. He was a founding leader of Habitat for Humanity in Davidson, and promoted fair housing and racial and income inclusivity in town planning.

But his private concern has been as notable as his public service. With no fanfare, Kincaid has comforted and served fellow citizens who are ill and shut in, or simply in need of some time and attention. His citation concluded, "Today he is a spokesperson, a conciliator, an advocate, a servant, and a friend to all who need the word ‘Davidson' to mean more than the sum of its parts."


Hunter-Hamilton winners
Samuel Sanchez y Sanchez and W. Trent Foley

The college presented Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Awards to Professor of Religion W. Trent Foley and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Samuel Sánchez y Sánchez. Each award includes $7,500 for the recipient, and $7,500 more for the recipient to designate to a college cause.

Foley has taught at Davidson for 30 years, specializing in the history of Christian thought in the late antiquity and the early medieval periods. He also teaches Latin, which facilitates his research on the Venerable Bede, an early English theologian and historian who wrote his works in Latin and drew heavily in his writings on the thoughts of Latin theologians.

Foley was praised for his impressive erudition, irrepressible good humor, keen intelligence, and enduring energy and enthusiasm. One alumnus recommender described the first of her many classroom encounters with Foley by noting how he "brought to life these men of the past, made us laugh, took us seriously, and left us feeling like this class was going to be important to our lives. He will never know how important it was to mine." One student recalled that Foley's office was "something of a sanctuary" amid the hustle and bustle of campus life.

Sánchez y Sánchez, who joined the faculty in 2004, specializes in medieval and early modern Hispanic literature. His research interests include literary and cultural representations of love and death, courtly love literature, and early modern literacy. He also teaches about pilgrimage, material culture, and linguistics.

Sánchez y Sánchez was cited for engaging students with a clever and effective sense of humor. One recommender wrote of his ability in class to integrate a mix of audio, visual, and text sources with lecture to promote meaningful class discussion. Some students claimed his courses in medieval and later Spanish literature were transformative. One wrote, "With humor and grace he helped us see what seemed to be dusty and inaccessible texts as living, subversive narratives."

Commencement weekend included a luncheon for about 30 graduates with alumni parents. Graduate Scott Sellers '14 of Chapel Hill, whose near and extended family boasts 25 alumni, was keynote speaker at an Alumni Office luncheon honoring those families. Though he heard frequently about Davidson through the family tree, Sellers said his ultimate decision to attend was based on the fact that the campus simply "felt right." He said his decision was affirmed every day in interactions with fellow students, faculty and staff who were kind and generous.

ROTC Commissioning
ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Later on Saturday, three senior ROTC students were commissioned into the armed forces as second lieutenants-Michael Corbett ‘14, Daniel Merrill ‘14, and Christopher Polo ‘14. Major General James V. Young, a 1983 Davidson graduate, delivered the commissioning address. He emphasized that Army values are similar to Davidson values, such as the Honor Code, and urged them to live those values every day in interaction with the troops they will lead.

The traditional Saturday evening Baccalaureate service featured a sermon by Chaplain Rob Spach titled "Neshume-le and a Shared World." Spach addressed the subject of "precious and complicated" families, saying, "It's in our families, both our immediate nuclear families and the wider communities to which we're connected, that we feel most deeply the range of emotions - the joys, the sorrows, the belonging, the loss, the finding - that are a part of being human."

He cited Psalm 133 and excerpts from the Book of Matthew that described a time when there was animosity between the tribes of Israel. Spach compared that time with the present, which often seems marked by suspicion and hatred of others.

Spach referred to an essay by physician Rachel Ramen in which she recalled the blessing bestowed on her regularly by her grandfather, who called her Neshume-le ("beloved little soul"). Spach said, "...We have the opportunity, you and I, to bless those around us... not only those in our immediate family, but people very different from ourselves. In offering blessing to another human being, something small is sown, but it grows into something that has worth without measure."

He continued, "The world will continue to be much the world as we know it, with its divisions and hard edges and hatreds, but a mustard seed will have been planted and will grow... We can help make our world, in little ways, into the one in which we want to live, into a shared world, in the here and now."

Spach concluded, "My hope for you this afternoon is that you will know that you are enough, that you are blessed. And secondly, that you will have the wisdom, and the courage that has to accompany it, to speak and embody, in whatever way is authentic to you, the kind of blessing that helps create a shared world for whomever you encounter in the human family."

Awards and Honorary Degree Presented