DAVIDSON, N.C. – Sophomore John David Merrill came to Davidson College from a public high-school in a high-poverty, inner-city neighborhood in Baltimore.
One of the few white kids in his predominantly African-American school, Merrill was not on pace to go to a top-tier college until inspired by a few key high-school teachers, he says.
But with scholarships from the city of Baltimore, financial help from his grandparents and a newfound confidence in his own abilities, he entered Davidson and now is president of his sophomore class.
“Davidson had trust in my ability to perform on this level academically,” he says, “even when I didn’t trust my own abilities.”
To give that same opportunity to other students, he recently organized the second-annual Dinner at Davidson, which raised $21,512 to provide a scholarship of $5,000 a year for four years to an incoming freshman.
That goal of making college more accessible is shared by Davidson, which in 2007 established The Davidson Trust, becoming the first liberal-arts college in the U.S. to replace loans with grants, thereby allowing students to graduate debt-free.
To date the trust, which will administer the new Student Government Association Davidson Trust Scholarship, has raised more than $57 million, and in the 2009-10 academic year provided support to 41 percent of the college’s 1,742 students.
“The trust enables us to graduate without debt,” says Merrill. “So it really does enable students to come here that otherwise wouldn’t be able to. And the socio-economic diversity our campus has is amazing.”
While the students appreciate the help, and realize it affects every aspect of campus life, Merrill believed students ought to be doing more to give back.
The idea for the Dinner at Davidson started with Jordan Stark, former head of the external affairs committee of the Student Government Association, who last year enlisted Merrill to help organize the inaugural event that raised $3,500.
As incoming head of the external affairs committee this year, Merrill was inspired, in part by his interaction with the college’s trustees, to raise the fundraising goal and try again.
“I had my preconceived notions about trustees being old, rich, white men,” he says. “But they are so progressive and always thinking about the students. Their schedules are busy, yet they take so much time out of the year to go on the road to raise money for the trust. I thought we students needed to do more.”
The goal of the dinner, in addition to raising money, is to connect the college with the local community, “to highlight students’ experience as made possible by the trust,” says Merrill.
Attendees at the event are people who live in the surrounding community, but aren’t big donors and have “a very loose affiliation, if any,” with the school.
To build excitement among students on campus the month before the event, Merrill launched the “Davidson Trusted Us” campaign to generate conversation, appreciation and awareness about the trust.
“Although we all appreciate it,” he says of the trust, “there isn’t the ongoing dialogue about the significance it plays and how it permeates social and academic life.”
About $1,500 came in through the sale of wristbands, imprinted with “Davidson Trusted Us,” that were handed out to students for a donation of $5 or more to the effort.
Merrill and his core group of 12 helpers also captured students on video talking about the importance of the trust and presented the finished product at the dinner.
And Merrill set up a station where students could sit down and hand-write thank-you letters to people who have donated to the trust.
As of the week before the event, more than 100 students had written letters.
“Those are the special moments,” says Merrill. “When I’m setting at the table, and a friend I had no idea received money says the trust gave her the opportunity she needed. That story can be applied to so many students.”
All told, the effort involved about 300 members of the Davidson community, with more than 50 students volunteering on the day of the dinner.
At Davidson, Merrill is designing his own major through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and hopes to focus on educational policy studies, drawing from different disciplines to look for solutions to the growing achievement gap in public schools.
After graduation, he plans to return to Baltimore to teach for a few years and ultimately influence public education on a larger scale.
Until then however, he’s working to make sure the Dinner at Davidson and the student body’s commitment to the trust continue.
Planning for next year’s dinner has begun, with a tentative date set for Feb 25, 2012.
“As long as I’m here, this will continue,” he says. “One of my goals is that the scholarship recipient will want to continue doing this. Sustainability is a huge thing for me.”