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Davis United World College Scholars


Transformation at a Partner School

College of the Atlantic’s president views the Davis UWC Scholars Program as “the most significant inflection point in our 44-year history.”

By Darron Collins, PhD, College of the Atlantic President

In 15 short years, the Davis UWC Scholars program has helped transform global education in the United States. Part of this impact can be described quantitatively; most of it cannot. We know the generosity, dedication, and vision of Shelby Davis, Dr. Phil Geier, and others have touched the lives of 6,198 scholars from 148 countries and 91 U.S. colleges and universities. There’s no other way to describe those numbers than as simply astounding. But statistics fail to illustrate the actual impact on individual students and their families, the Davis UWC Scholars Program colleges and universities, and higher education in the United States as a whole.

My own history has afforded special insight into some of the transformations the program has made possible. As a student of the College of the Atlantic in the 1980s and 90s before the advent of the Davis Program, and now as president of COA 15 years into the program, I’ve been lucky to witness things firsthand. Along with Colby, Wellesley, Princeton, and Middlebury, College of the Atlantic was fortunate to have been chosen as one of the original five schools of the Davis Program. That fortune is the most significant inflection point in our 44-year history.

I arrived at College of the Atlantic inspired to change the world — wet behind the ears, but scrappy. We were a school of just 220 students. A fire had burned the center of campus to the ground (a transformation of a different kind), and students, staff, and faculty alike felt a responsibility to rebuild the institution.

Filled with purpose, my four years at COA — from 1988 to 1992 — were some of the best years of my life. We were adventurous, successful students; we all sought a nontraditional college experience; we were largely from the mid-Atlantic states and New England; we were almost entirely white; we all spoke English as a first language. More difficult to define but every bit as real, we also approached the world wearing similar lenses and generally hoped and dreamed of a new world that looked pretty much the same to all of us. As students, we were homogenous, and that made it easy to feel welcomed, safe, and somewhat tribal.

I returned to the College of the Atlantic as president in July of 2011, 19 years after graduation. During my first year back at COA as president I must have been asked a hundred times, “So, Darron, how has the college changed since you were running around here as a student?”

The answers to that question are clear. The commitment to human ecology and to a more just, sustainable world is as strong as ever. There are more buildings and more resources. The student population has grown by 50 percent. But those changes are superficial compared to the evolution that has occurred among the student body. Over the past 15 years, we have matriculated 208 Davis Scholars from 70 countries. Our current student body of 350 students hails from 40 U.S. states and 40 countries, and one of every six COA students is a Davis Scholar. I tease Shelby about this number whenever I see him. “We may never be able to win the Davis Cup for the highest number of Davis recruits,” I say, “but you might think about creating a special award for the school with the highest percentage of Davis Scholars on a given campus.” But, again, it’s not in the numbers where we find the real story.

The real story of our transformation is found first in the classroom — or, in our case, in the woods, on the ocean, in the businesses, courtrooms, theaters, laboratories, studios, and other sites where our students practice human ecology. In these places, the presence of Davis Scholars has radically changed the conversation. We’re not interested in the niceties of political correctness where diversity is concerned, but in the evolving dialogue that simply could not have taken place without the cultural and perspectival heterogeneity brought by the Davis Scholars.

Importantly, the evolution in the classroom was not about the Davis Scholars lifting others out of an intellectual or cultural morass. All boats were lifted, but it has been through true dialog among all students and between students and faculty. Because COA students work in tandem with faculty to design their own course of study, the radical change in dialogue we saw in the classroom required a response. Students — Davis and non-Davis scholars alike — demanded curricular offerings that better reflected the profound change being felt in the classroom. We responded wholeheartedly to that calling and added more language immersion, comparative literature, and area studies, more time spent in the field working collaboratively, more project-based approaches to learning, more transdisciplinarity, more activism. As a result, our learning environment now better reflects the complexity and diversity of our world, and better reflects the college’s original mission to understand and serve humanity and the planet. The Davis Program has inspired COA to make the critical transition from a school with clutches of domestic students here and international students there to a truly globalized institution.

What’s more, in a school as small as ours, cultural heterogeneity is felt both inside and outside of the classroom. Yes, we benefit from students who really know the ins and outs of naan bread or who can mash up a New England contra dance with a little merengue or bon odori. More profoundly, though, the materialism and secularism that so pervade most New England college campuses have been challenged. Most significantly, in a campus environment where decisions are made collectively where, in most cases, students have the same voice as faculty, staff, and administrators, and where college governance is central to the learning experience, our newfound cultural heterogeneity has completely revitalized what is commonly referred to as “the cocurricular.”

Importantly, the heterogeneity and globalism aren’t confined to the COA campus. When the college was founded in the late 1960s, we sought to seed the world with human ecological thinkers and doers, but also to intellectually and economically revitalize our immediate community on Mount Desert Island (MDI). The presence of Davis Scholars and the emerging global dialog have also helped us fulfill that later, more local goal. Davis students are paired with families throughout the community, they serve as volunteers throughout the local school system, and some remain in the community as educators, artists, and entrepreneurs. MDI is a more interesting, more complete, and — I would argue — better place because of the Davis Program.

With nearly 20 percent of the COA student body composed of Davis Scholars, a global perspective requires all of us in the COAcommunity — faculty, students, staff, trustees, donors, alumni, and friends — and the local MDI community to become more comfortable working in and among a beautiful plurality.

Has there ever been a more important time to do so?

Late in the evening on Friday, November 13, 2015, I prepared and sent a sympathetic email to the COA community following the Paris bombings. The unfortunate reality is that I could send such an email just about every day. On November 12, I could have asked that we pull together for the victims of a bombing in Beirut. Almost every day since the 2009 Boko Haram uprising, Nigeria has been plagued with some form of violence. Racial unrest continues to tear apart our cities. Consumerism and our reliance on fossil fuels threaten the ecological integrity of the planet.

Looking forward to the next 15 years of the Davis Program, with these massive problems touching more people more of the time, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask, “What can we do to leverage global education and do a better job with the wicked problems of the world?”

The responsibility falls on us, the 91 colleges committed to the Davis model. We must build upon the generosity of Shelby Davis and find ways to maximize responses throughout our campuses. In short, and using Shelby’s words, we need to increase our own “skin in the game.”

On a practical level, I see at least three ways to begin doing just that.

First, we must find ways to collaborate more strategically across the 91 member institutions. The whole, in this case, could be much greater than the sum of its parts. The diversity of institutions among the group is staggering, but we are united by our wholehearted commitment to a globalized approach to education. We have not taken full advantage of this shared perspective.

Second, and more specifically, we must work together to reverse the pernicious trend toward using postgraduate income as a means for evaluating the efficacy of secondary-school education. Do we want our students to be able to repay debt, earn a living wage, and enjoy the individual and familial security higher education can bring? Of course we do. But placing undue emphasis on income as a metric of success undervalues the importance of careers in the arts, education, the environment, and — broadly speaking — those jobs, institutions, and individuals dedicated to serving humanity. Such dedication can certainly come from business, medicine, law, and other more high-income careers, but adherence to a simplistic and shallow measurement of educational success such as income threatens to undercut the institutions and individuals dedicated to making a difference in the world.

Third, we need to recognize, understand, and serve the global world right in our own backyards. International studies and “study abroad” programs are not likely to disappear anytime soon. But we’re more likely to be effective if we recognize the global nature of where we live and work, and increase applied learning opportunities in our most immediate environments. For us, that’s here in Maine. Many Somali families have made Central Maine their new home. Migrant labor from Mexico arrives to harvest blueberries and potatoes. Salvadoran drug gangs search to control the trade in glass eels destined for Asian restaurants and markets. Our brave new world is nothing if not complex, and the colleges and universities of the Davis Program are perfectly positioned to recognize, learn among, and serve with an eye toward improving this complexity.

It’s easy to be a pessimist in today’s world, and equally as easy to stick your head in the sand. But signs of hope and change are abundant, even in some of the most unusual places.

Anyone that’s spent time in the Maine autumn has likely heard of the Common Ground Fair. It’s an annual celebration dedicated to simple living, sustainable food production, craft, and community. This year I returned again to the fair and fell in love all over again. I was awed by and learned from the food, the stonemasonry, the post-and-beam workshop, and the apple diversity. But what made my heart really grow larger was seeing three Somali women and their children, dressed in stunning, flowing dirac. These participants embodied the change that we are seeing in our world, and the globalism we hope to bring to higher education and to our society as a whole.

Seeing an evolving Common Ground Fair, knowing there are 91 of the country’s best colleges committed to global education, and reflecting on the astounding generosity of people like Shelby Moore Cullom Davis — how can you not be excited to see what we might be able to make out of it all?