Paying It Forward


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(l-r) Nancy and Gilmour Lake ’58, Valencia Thomas, Sarah Boyce ’07

(l-r) Nancy and Gilmour Lake ’58, Valencia Thomas, Sarah Boyce ’07

Paying it Forward

Nancy and Gilmour Lake ’58

Two of the men Gilmour Lake respects most in the world came to his office to talk about Davidson. At the time, John Kuykendall ’59 and E. Craig Wall Jr. ’59 were president of Davidson College and chair of the Board of Trustees, respectively. The outcome of this important meeting among friends was the creation of the Lake Scholars Program, a scholarship for Presbyterian ministers’ children, which has made a lasting impact on many Davidson students. Lake considers Wall, who passed away in 1997, the “the smartest businessman” who ever existed.

The Julian and Robert J. Lake Scholarship memorializes Gilmour’s father, Julian ’28, and brother, Robert ’66, both Presbyterian ministers.

“It’s a mission I really believe in,” says Gilmour, “and the real beauty is getting to know the students. What a blessing it has been to us.”

Looking through a comprehensive list of Lake Scholar alumni to date, the couple can relay something special about many of the graduates. This one had a beautiful wedding in Washington, D.C. This one went to Israel to be with her fiancé. These three invited us to their Phi Beta Kappa initiations. This one moved to Africa to be a medical missionary. The list goes on.

Every spring, the Lakes bring as many family members as are available to a special dinner on campus with the current Lake Scholars. This tradition just “gets in your system,” says Gilmour, and it is meaningful for all involved.

“Our generation was not nearly as sharp as these kids are now,” he says.

“Well, that’s an understatement,” agrees Nancy. “At their age, I was worried about what I was going to wear and who I was going to date on the weekend. These kids don’t worry about silly stuff like that.”

Sarah Boyce ’07
Lake Scholar Sarah Boyce ’07 gives “eternal credit” to Davidson professors Cynthia Lewis and Suzanne Churchill, who taught her how to write—a former clerk for two U.S. Supreme Court justices, Boyce is convinced that her ability to write is the primary reason for her success.

“People are always trying to crack the mystery of law school and how to do well on exams,” she says. “You can know all the material in the world, but if you can’t put the material on paper in a way the professor understands, you’re not going to succeed.”

After two years with Teach for America, Boyce decided on law school. Thus far, her law career has included a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer and a stint with the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. She currently practices law in Washington, D.C.

“Many of the issues I was involved with as a clerk confirmed that litigation can transform the world, and democracy, for the better,” says Boyce. “And that was one of the primary reasons I decided to leave the classroom for law school.”

Boyce comes from a Davidson family—her parents, grandparents, and many in her extended family call Davidson alma mater.

“I believe I would’ve gone to Davidson regardless of the circumstances, but the Lake Scholarship was a blessing financially, and even more so because it has led to this lasting relationship,” says Boyce. “When I got married, there was no question Gilmour and Nancy would be on the guest list.”

Valencia Thomas
Sarah Boyce made connections with KIPP Public Charter Schools as a teacher with Teach for America, and she now serves on their Ambassador Board, helping to identify fundraising opportunities and ways to expand the organization’s presence. She’s also involved with their mentoring program, which connected her with high school sophomore Valencia Thomas.

Thomas says KIPP DC has “all the typical high school stuff,” including cliques and gossip. But her relationship with Boyce has led her to approach these challenges in a less confrontational way. She has made Honor Roll the past few quarters and has become more focused on her academic work and what might lie ahead beyond high school.

“She’s like a second mom to me,” Thomas says, “and I don’t have the problems I used to have with anger and getting along with other people. She asks me how my tests go, and she comes to my basketball games. We talk non-stop, and it’s really comfortable.”

The close connection is surprising to Thomas, who lives in southeast D.C. and “didn’t trust white people” before getting to know Boyce. She worried that having a mentor would be “weird,” but as they learned more about one another, the concern subsided.

Thomas isn’t sure what her post-high school years will look like, but she has many interests related to the arts and sports, and she knows Boyce will be there to help guide her.

Footprints, Friendship and Forward Momentum

(l-r) Lorena Perez ’12, Isabel Ballester ’18 , Mitzi Short ’83

(l-r) Lorena Perez ’12, Isabel Ballester ’18 , Mitzi Short ’83

Mitzi Short ’83
When Mitzi Short ’83 thinks about the scholarship she established at Davidson, it reminds her of her grandmother, who would say it’s like “putting feet to your prayers.”

“It helps leave footprints,” says Mitzi, “and when I meet scholars and hear about all they’re doing, it truly is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Short’s connection to Davidson is broad and deep. A two-sport athlete as a student, she formed close relationships with professors and wound up living in the one of their basements. She even joined in on her professor-turned-landlord J.B. Stroud’s sabbatical, traveling to Scotland with Stroud’s daughter a couple of years after graduation.

Following a successful career with Pepsi, Short now works as an executive coach and consultant, and through 13 moves and a great deal of travel, she maintains a deep appreciation for Davidson.

“Davidson teaches students how to think and how to engage in civil discourse,” she says. “That’s not to say we didn’t have that coming in, but we had a chance to practice and grow in that regard. Certainly for me, I arrived confident, but Davidson helped me be confident and remain humble at the same time.”

Short appreciates that while Davidson is competitive, it’s a type of competition that is for the collective good, which is one of the many things she hopes remains the same for years to come.

“My hope is that Davidson will continue to be what it has always been—a place where leaders emerge and thrive and go on with the intention of making the world a better place, not only for themselves but for others,” she said.

Lorena Perez ’12
Every day, Residence Life Office staff member Lorena Perez ’12 learns about students’ lives and helps them process challenges, victories and life lessons.

As a student and Mitzi Short Scholar, it was in an art history class with Professor Larry Ligo where she first asked the question, “But why?”. That question now guides her daily conversations.

“I encourage students to work up from the “why” instead of working down from the “what” when they come to me with concerns or problems,” she says. “I’m helping students develop outside of the classroom, and we discuss everything from race, gender and faith, to the way in which we are walking through the world.”

During a recent POSSE retreat, Perez interacted with a student who was particularly reserved, and she identified with him and that struggle.

“On my best day, in some areas of my life, I am loudly and proudly ready to share, but in others, I’m not there,” she says. “I get what that student was feeling, and I chose to be in that experience with him and to honor that choice.”

Perez sees college as “a great learning lab, where students are questioning who they are and what purpose they are serving. They fail big. They move forward. I tell them that that conflict is like breathing do it fully, and make it fruitful. My job is not to tell students it’s going to be fine, because it isn’t always going to be.”

Perez has a clear vision for what her work must mean, and Davidson allows her to move that vision forward.

“Our world is an unjust place,” she says, “and we have a long way to go to justice. I ask myself all the time how I’m a part of social change, and I believe education is a way to get there.”

Isabel Ballester ’18
Isabel Ballester ’18 met Lorena Perez through a friend. They had coffee every Friday during Ballester’s first year on campus and forged a close friendship.

“Transitions are hard for me, so meeting someone I instantly could connect with was important,” says Ballester, a Malcolm O. Partin Scholarship recipient. “We are both women of color who are ‘white passing,’ and we were both raised by single mothers. To find someone who could relate to my pain was magical. I have never met anyone as honest and authentic as her.”

Ballester often comments to Perez that she appreciates the way she models certain behaviors.

“Lorena believes every person has value and experiences that should be honored,” says Ballester, “and she has an unapologetic and intentional way of sticking up for herself. I learn a lot from her, and even though I’m younger, I know she learns from me, too. Our friendship is not like one I’ve had with anyone else.”

Ballester decided on a move to North Carolina after narrowing her college choices to Temple and Davidson. Looking ahead, she’s interested in law school and focusing on civil rights law.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be anywhere else,” says Ballester. “I’ve grown, and I like who I am.”

(l-r) Jamie Vail ’07 and Peggy Vail, J.D. Merrill ’13, Max Janes

(l-r) Jamie Vail ’07 and Peggy Vail, J.D. Merrill ’13, Max Janes

Providing What’s Needed

Peggy Vail and Jamie Vail ’07
“I wish Jim were here to help me tell you all this,” says Peggy Vail of her late husband.

Davidson was and is a family affair for the Vails, and every personal relationship and fond memory has deep meaning. Jim’s step-father, Foster McGaw, was inspired by Peggy and Jim’s involvement on the college’s Parents Council—one son Jim graduated in 1976 and grandson Jamie graduated in 2007—and later by Jim’s position as a Trustee, to give the college something it needed. That thing turned out to be Vail Commons.

The family has given generously, first through the on-campus dining hall and then through the establishment of the McGaw and Vail Family Scholarships.

“Jim and I always tried to live simply so we were able to share our money,” says Peggy. “We were underway with our own kids’ educations, and it gave us pleasure to know we were supporting students who wouldn’t be able to come to college without a scholarship. We’ve gotten to know some of the scholars very well, and I just assume every one of them is as impressive as the last.”

Grandson Jamie is honored to carry on the tradition of giving back to alma mater.

“Our family mantra is ‘Growth through Service,’ and we believe you can’t get the most from people if you’re not giving back,” he says. “We believe in value-added service, and for me, that includes my relationship with the college, my fellow alumni and current and future students.”

As an alumnus, Jamie is amazed and touched by the strength of the Davidson network.

“Someone will contact me just because they know I’m a Davidson alumnus and ask me to join them for a cup of coffee,” says Vail, who works in internal strategy and business process operations at Groupon in Chicago. “We share a common bond and are always willing to help out with career advice or relocation guidance. After leaving Davidson itself, Davidson continues.”


J.D. Merrill ’13
McGaw Scholar J.D. Merrill ’13 takes to heart the Davidson mission of preparing students for lives of leadership and service, and he’s living it every day through his work with the Baltimore City Public Schools. He “found” Davidson because the admission counselor was available during the time of a high school science class he wasn’t disappointed to miss, but it turned out to be the perfect fit.

“The scholarship was wind in my sails at Davidson,” says Merrill, “and I was humbled by the generosity and others’ belief that I could make a difference.”

Merrill credits Davidson with giving him the opportunity to develop leadership skills—to grow as a situational leader who knows how to become “the missing part of a car,” to use his favorite analogy. If direction is lacking, become the steering wheel. If a conversation calls for reflection, become the rearview mirror. If a team needs to move forward, become the gas pedal. Davidson helped him realize that the leader isn’t always the loudest person in the room; it’s the person providing what’s needed.

And Baltimore needed Merrill. He grew up in the city and graduated from the public school system. He knew he would return to give back to the city that gave him so much.

Starting out as a teacher, and during his time in the classroom, Merrill led a library campaign that raised $2.2 million for his high school, City College. Today, he works in the Baltimore City Public Schools’ CEO’s office.

“Leaving the classroom to work in the district office was a gut-wrenching decision,” he says. “But the work is energizing in a different way—I call it a wonderful challenge. Two months in, we identified a $130 million budget gap for FY18. While facing the possibility of devastating cuts, our CEO led an important conversation about the extent to which we, as a society, are investing in our young people. An entire generation is at stake. The response has been remarkable. With heightened public awareness and increased public investment in our schools I believe we are on the threshold of doing really great things in Baltimore. It’s been an extraordinary experience.”

Max Janes
Max Janes is going places, and right now, Babson College and the University of Maryland are top prospects. His high school experience, including a close relationship with JD Merrill, has taught him that he can do anything.

Born in Vietnam and adopted as a baby, Janes has lived in Baltimore his entire life. When he arrived at City College as a freshman, the library had been shut down because of unsafe conditions. Enter Merrill, the man charged with leading the way to a new facility.

“I didn’t have Mr. Merrill as a teacher, so I was a little shy about going to meet him, but the library campaign was a torch burning bright at our school, and I wanted to be involved,” says the high school junior. “I become the student co-chair of the campaign, and we built a relationship that has helped me out in school and in life.”

Janes and Merrill have worked together on political campaigns, including training sessions in preparation for the Iowa Caucus and student-led trips to Philadelphia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Janes’ has learned that he can make a difference, in large and small ways.

“Mr. Merrill has really inspired me to take action,” says Janes. “I’m working on a project now related to safety at the bus stop near our school, where people have been getting mugged. My proposal is to raise funds to get a new, more visually-pleasing bus stop area that will have better lighting for students when they get out of late after-school activities. Mr. Merrill is the reason I know I can accomplish things like this. He encourages all students to do their best and achieve their goals.”


About Author

Danielle Strickland

Danielle Strickland concentrates on development-related stories, and she enjoys making connections with Davidson’s most engaged alumni and friends. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from James Madison University and a master’s in higher education leadership from the University of Arkansas. Thankfully, after seven years working as a Razorback, her red-heavy wardrobe allowed for a smooth transition to life as a Wildcat.

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