Life-changing text alert puts Penn State student on path to success

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Brian Davis found out that he was accepted to Penn State while practicing parallel parking in his hometown of Philadelphia.

“I received an alert on my phone and it said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted at Penn State University Park,’ and I started crying — it was a dream come true,” said Davis.

“At 13, I told my friends that no matter how I did in high school, my grades, my SAT scores, I’m going to Penn State. I didn’t even look at any other schools; it was Penn State or I wasn’t going to college,” he said, laughing.

Now 21, Davis, a soft-spoken, confident young man with a sparkle in his eye, is ready for the next step: He graduated this spring from the University with a bachelor's degree in African-American studies, with minors in international studies, civic and community engagement, and sociology. He’s ready for his new job as an elementary school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area through Teach for America.

He’s ready for anything, he said, because of his experiences at Penn State.

“Penn State has impacted my life in so many ways,” said Davis. “Where I come from in Philadelphia, there was a lot of violence while I was growing up. I don’t like to say I made it out, but I feel like — this is what happens when a person is put in the right place at the right time, with the right resources.

“I feel very powerful, and Penn State has helped me find that confidence in myself,” he added. “To take advantage of opportunities for myself, but also to create opportunities for others.”

Starting the journey

The beginning of his college journey wasn’t a smooth one, however. Although he excelled in high school, he nearly failed most of his freshman courses. He was overwhelmed and had trouble identifying the resources that would have helped him to adjust. At the end of his first semester he was thinking about leaving the University he had so longed to attend.

“I didn’t know where to start. I’d never been in a place with so many resources before, and it was actually an obstacle because I had trouble navigating a path. I was eager and excited, but had poor studying and writing skills in spite of earning straight As in high school,” he said. “It made me reflect on my experiences in inner-city Philadelphia and how it prepared me for college.”

But he didn’t leave Penn State. Even then, Davis showed a remarkable ability to take a rough situation and look deeply into himself to see what he brought to the experience, and what he could do to effect change.

“It was really me who had to hold myself accountable for the goals that I wanted,” he said. “I started to go through a very big transformation in my life that began with me. I started asking myself all these questions, trying to figure out who I was and what did I want? And what did I want to see changed at Penn State to make it a better space for people like me?”

Seeking mentors

Davis identified one of his biggest hurdles. “My freshman year I was completely isolated,” he said. “I wasn’t in any organizations, I didn’t know about anything and I didn’t know who to ask.”

He started to reach out to people he felt would be good mentors. He learned about faculty whose research interests also interested him; he approached his instructors and speakers that he’d heard talk at events; he introduced himself to University leaders, including Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity; Carlos Wiley, director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center; and Penn State President Eric Barron.

“It was really me who had to hold myself accountable for the goals that I wanted. I started to go through a very big transformation in my life that began with me."

—Brian Davis, Penn State alumnus, class of 2018

He was met with support and encouragement, and as he progressed in school, these mentors held him accountable, challenged him to overcome his obstacles and reach for the success he wanted.

“I would give most of the credit for my success to the African-American studies department — all of my professors there are my mentors, every single one of them,” said Davis. “They and my other mentors have given me so many opportunities to be who I want to be, to create my own story — to be a voice for the students and actively trying to create change here at the University. It’s been the experience of a lifetime.”

Sophomore year — and beyond

Things began looking up for Davis in his sophomore year. He became extremely organized. His scholarship improved. He engaged in campus activities, joining six different executive boards and getting more and more involved in different forms of leadership and service.

He discovered the Study Abroad Program, and eventually traveled to Haiti, Cuba, Amsterdam, Australia and Curaçao. In addition, he visited France, Belgium, Germany, China and Jamaica.

He served as a student intern for Penn State’s Student Engagement Network, whose mission is to encourage participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact.

“When you get involved on campus, get involved in things that are orientated around your academic interests so it becomes a form of engaged scholarship," said Davis. "As I got more involved, my grades actually got better, because I was involved in things that were conducive to my scholastic interests.”

He held more than 20 student leadership positions; was a Pollock Halls residence assistant; worked in the University’s Education Abroad advising office; and served as a community and faculty outreach director and evening celebration director of Penn State's annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration.

“I have a tip for other students: When you get involved on campus, get involved in things that are orientated around your academic interests so it becomes a form of engaged scholarship,” he said. “As I got more involved, my grades actually got better, because I was involved in things that were conducive to my scholastic interests.”

As president of the Penn State Social Justice Coalition student group, Davis met frequently with University leaders to discuss diversity and inclusion initiatives, including the organization of a peace walk each semester. He also served as a student member of Penn State’s Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity.

As a junior, Davis gave a TEDxPSU talk titled “Dismantling Contemporary Police Brutality Through the Lens of Basketball,” in which he discussed police brutality using metaphor and imagery from basketball.

Later that same year Davis recruited fellow students to collect and deliver $2,000 in donations and 5,000 bottles of water to churches, food banks and about 89 different undocumented families in Flint, Michigan. He also participated in an Alternative Spring Break initiative where students partnered with campus groups to collect hundreds of pounds of towels, pillows, blankets and toiletries for families in Houston, Texas, who were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“Even if we’re over 400 miles away or 1,500 miles away, it doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to help people,” he said. “And what happens is — when we think about our values here at Penn State, with its community, its diversity, its integrity — we have no choice but to be engaged.”

He has been invited to talk in numerous University classes, at mentoring events in Philadelphia, and at high schools and colleges, including Temple University and the University of Colorado.

In his senior year, Davis became a mentor himself.

“I give my mentees assignments to do,” he said. “When you see so much potential in someone and you have their best interests at heart, you only want the best for them.”

The Penn State Treasure

Davis had an epiphany in his junior year: He wanted to help other students find what they needed to transition to college life and succeed from their first day on campus. He approached Whitehurst with a simple idea: a visual guide that collected information about multicultural resources on campus, academic and otherwise, into one printed book.

The result of that conversation became the Penn State Treasure, first published in fall 2016. The booklet includes information from Counseling and Psychological Services, the LGBTQA Resource Center, contact information for each college’s multicultural programs office, and more.

The success of the first volume led to a second, double the size of the first. The book has evolved into an annual student-run publication for underrepresented first-year and change-of-campus students.

“I feel very powerful, and Penn State has helped me find that confidence in myself," said Davis. "To take advantage of opportunities for myself, but also to create opportunities for others.”

Recognition — and the future

Davis’ efforts have not gone without recognition: He received 40 academic, leadership and service awards during his time at Penn State. Among these are the 2018 Eric A. Walker Award, presented to a student who has contributed most to enhancing the reputation of the University through extracurricular activities; the 2017 Rock Ethics Institute “Stand Up” Award, honoring undergraduates who are ethical leaders; and the 2017 Jackson Lethbridge Tolerance Award, in recognition of outstanding efforts to enhance the understanding of diverse cultures and create a community where all individuals are accepted and valued equally.

What’s next? For starters, he is excited to begin his teaching job in California. Of course, that’s not all he’ll be doing.

He would like to write children’s books, and continue public speaking. He loves art, reading, writing poetry, taking walks. He’s learning French. Someday, he said, he might go into government.

“I see myself working someday for the United Nations; that’s always been a dream of mine,” said Davis. “But also being a professor, teaching history, and trying to find a way to have people civically engage in ways in which we can create change for society.”

A lot has happened since Davis first arrived at University Park. His belief that people are here to help each other has led him to many opportunities to engage as a student leader, activist, public speaker, humanitarian and scholar. No matter what the future brings, he will always make time for reflection and examination, to ensure he’s on the right path.

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Last Updated June 19, 2018