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Davis United World College Scholars


Pilot Schools Reflect on 20 Years

College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic is an institution shaped by fire. The Bar Harbor fire of 1947 inspired the need for an educational institution to help rebuild a devastated community here at our home on Mt. Desert Island, Maine. The Cuyahoga River fire and the metaphysical fires tearing the social and ecological fabric of the country in the late 1960s molded our mission. A campus fire in 1983 nearly ended our educational experiment and demanded a remarkable comeback. And then, the extraordinary vision and generosity of the Davis UWC Scholars Program ignited an intellectual fire that transformed our institution more profoundly than any other single event in our history.

This year we celebrate Shelby Davis and Phil Geier’s pilot project to bring United World College Students to five US institutions of higher education: Princeton University, Middlebury College, Colby College, Wellesley College, and College of the Atlantic. Let’s admit that COA lacked the size, reputation, brand awareness, and maturity of the other schools in the cohort. The Davis-UWC Scholars Program took a chance on a small, young institution with an important and inspiring mission. That venture philanthropy changed what we taught and how we taught, changed the way we thought about and consumed food in the dining hall, reshaped our conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and revolutionized how we understood our place in the constellation of higher education. In a word, the Davis Scholars program completely internationalized College of the Atlantic.

The Davis UWC Scholars program’s mission is to “build cross-cultural understanding across U.S. campuses and ultimately throughout the world in this century. The stability of our world, and ensuring America’s place in it, demand no less than an initiative this large in scale, innovative in design, and as powerful in impact.” That mission and vision has also supercharged our ability to deliver on our mission: building a more sustainable, year-round community on Mount Desert Island and seeding the world with thinkers and doers with the intellect, the creativity, and the passion to make the planet a better place for humanity.

Since the start of the program 318 Davis scholars from 88 countries have come to the COA campus; but they also came to and transformed the MDI community as a whole. Davis scholars brought diversity to an island community that was somewhat culturally homogenous. Davis scholars worked with MDI high school students to eliminate single-use plastics in Bar Harbor; they’ve joined scientists and scholars at the Jackson Laboratory to understand the genetic roots of addiction; they’ve volunteered to improve trails threading through Acadia National Park; they’ve become members of hundreds of local families through the COA Community Connections Program. The boundaries between the COA campus and the MDI community have always been porous, and that porosity has meant great things for our island home.

Those Davis scholars, equipped with the combined experiences of the United World College and College of the Atlantic, are now rebuilding primary schools throughout rural Nepal, shaping international climate diplomacy through the UN Framework on Climate Change, and designing the next generation of green buildings and homes. Considering the impact of the Davis UWC Scholars Program as a whole, with its 99 partner institutions and thousands of students from 164 countries, brings a monumental dose of hope in a world that desperately needs it. 

Comments from Darron Collins, COA President and Alumnus