Many college students end up taking an extra semester or year to complete their degree. Today a former student at Swarthmore College is coming back 42 years later to get his diploma.
Kip Davis is excited but hoping not to draw too much attention.
“I don’t want to take away the spotlight from the incredible accomplishment those young people have done, I know how hard that is to do, I couldn’t do it the first time around,” he said.
Davis didn’t get his degree four decades ago because he didn’t finish his thesis. At first, he thought he would wrap it up in a few months and said so while giving a speech as senior class president of the class of 1975.
“I said in my speech that I hoped to complete my thesis by the end of July, of summer of ’75, and, that didn’t happen. I went into quite an emotional tailspin,” he said
Davis returned home that summer to New Haven, Connecticut where his father was a professor at Yale. He spent long days at the undergraduate library trying to complete his sociology and anthropology thesis about social change at Howard University. He didn’t make progress despite all those hours among the stacks, having lost interest in the thesis topic.
Then he had a chance to go study theater in Europe. Once he returned, he spent a career in the theater, acting and teaching on the West Coast and New York. Generally, he didn’t find lacking his degree was a problem, but it did prevent him from enrolling in a master’s program.
From time to time he would think of finishing the thesis and graduating but life was busy.
However, the seeds of returning to Swarthmore as a student were sown gradually. Davis helped organize reunions for the Class of ’75. And he was one of the early leaders of the Swarthmore Black Alumni Network.
Through both of those roles, he started talking to students and young alumni, mentoring them. One day while counseling students, worried about not having enough job experience, he found himself telling them not to worry and urging them to emphasize their own original thinking as they wrote their thesis. “And I found myself thinking it’s hypocritical to counsel these young people this way when I hadn’t finished my own,” Davis said.
So, during the summer of 2016, Davis contacted the college about finishing his thesis. He realized he no longer had his notes from four decades ago and still wasn’t that interested in the topic. Instead, he began researching an entirely new one, about Oak Bluffs, a town on the island of Martha’s Vineyard with a long history of African-American residents. Over the fall and winter, he conducted research trips and wrote the thesis this year.
Davis said his participation in Swarthmore’s “Lifelong Learning” courses for alumni also fed his desire to complete his degree. The college offers them in select cities, taught by current or retired professors.
“You get to read stuff over an 8-week period, you get to discuss it, you don’t have to write a paper, you don’t have to get a grade, you get to just do it for yourself,” Davis said. “I became quite enamored with those courses and took a whole bunch of them.”
When Davis walks across the stage to get his diploma today, he’ll officially become a member of the class of 2017. He’s intent on doing so quietly, but his children have other ideas.
“My 22-year-old son is apparently out attempting to find an air horn, he wants to embarrass me no end,” he said.