When Rhonda E. Davis told her husband she was going to college, he asked: “Why do you want to do all that?”
“'Because it’s for me," she told him. "I want to complete my education.”
So he left her.
With her husband gone, the grandmother of 11 moved out of her Southwest Philadelphia home and into a dorm at Cheyney University, living alongside teens fresh out of high school. The tab was largely covered by her full scholarship to the honors program, an accolade Davis earned by excelling at Community College of Philadelphia, where she got her associate’s degree.
On Saturday, the 60-year-old budding artist and writer not only graduated from the nation’s oldest historically black college, but served as its valedictorian. Davis’ grade-point average? A near-perfect 3.97.
She leaves with two bachelor’s degrees, one in fine arts and one in graphic design. But she said she got much more from her college experience.
“It gave me,” she said, pausing, a misty twinkle in her eye, “me.”
Her Cheyney classes and administrators cheered Friday when Davis was called up at the senior brunch to accept the university’s highest academic honor. She cried as they draped the powder-blue valedictorian sash around her neck and university president Aaron A. Walton posed with her for a picture.
For the last three years, the nearly always smiling Davis has tutored other students, given them advice, encouraged them to go to class, and asked about their studies.
“She’s such an inspiration, not only to the students, but to all of us,” said Elisabeth Burton, executive director for campus life and student affairs. “The students follow her around like Mother Goose.”
Jaymi Phillips, 27, a graduating senior who donned her “Miss Cheyney” title sash and crown at the brunch, said it was Davis who suggested she pursue a double major. She’s getting her degree in psychology and sociology. Having Davis at the school, Phillips said, is “motivational.”
“It’s never too late to go back and finish what you started,” Phillips said.
Davis’ success is good for Cheyney, too. The school has been in a fight for its existence, struggling with low enrollment and financial strain.
“It might seem like we’re not doing a good job here, but we are,” said graduating senior Koffi Kengbo, 28. “So when you have somebody like [Davis], who is an older person and came here and completed her degree and is graduating with high honors, that can encourage other people to come to Cheyney, too.”
Students 35 and older made up about 16 percent of enrollment at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The percentage gets much smaller for those deeper into middle age. Only about 2.9 percent of students enrolled in undergraduate institutions in fall 2015 were 50 and over, according to government data analyzed by Robert Kelchen, a higher-education professor at Seton Hall University.
Davis’ achievement has been a long time coming.
She grew up the oldest of six children to a single mom who was frequently moving around the city in search of a better neighborhood. Davis was born when her mother was just 16, and Davis herself started working summer jobs as a teen to help the family. She attended Overbrook High and later got her GED.
College was not even a thought. Then she started having her own children, eventually four in all.
She worked as a residential adviser, helping people with physical and mental disabilities. She once ran a day care in her home but closed it in 2008 when enrollment fell.
A few years later, she fell into a deep depression. Her children had grown up, and her husband was working at SEPTA. “I was just stagnant,” she said.
Her mother suggested college. In 2012, Davis enrolled at CCP, hoping to become a writer. There, she met Ruth Rovner, a benevolent donor who not only provides financial assistance but befriends the students she helps. Rovner took her to plays and hooked her up with the Broad Street Review magazine, where Davis wrote reviews.
One day during community college, she stopped by a table where Cheyney representatives were talking to students. One asked Davis what she planned to do next. She said she hoped to start writing and illustrating children’s books.
“She said, ‘Why not a bachelor’s?' ” Davis recalled.
Indeed, why not? Davis thought. A week later, she got the offer for the free scholarship, covering tuition, fees, and room and board, roughly worth $16,000 annually.
“Everyone was excited about it but my husband,” Davis recalled.
She had planned on commuting to Cheyney’s campus in Delaware and Chester Counties. But with her husband, Otis Davis Jr., leaving, she thought she’d like to stay on campus. She asked the college if the scholarship covered housing. It mostly did. She had to pay $347 a semester for a single room suite at the dorm, called the Living Learning Center.
Her children and grandchildren threw her a “trunk party” where they gave her dorm supplies. It didn’t take long for students to begin looking up to her, their own parents no longer nearby. She often wore a T-shirt that says “Mama Bear” because that’s what she was to them. She showed them how to do research and get jobs. The late-night dorm parties? She skipped those.
“That’s the one thing I do not do,” she said.
She never minded the noise from her neighbors; it was their turn to be young.
She would just retreat into her room, which had its own bathroom, a tiny kitchenette and bedroom and her own artwork hung on the walls. She fell in love with painting at Cheyney.
Leaving won’t be easy. Her husband died nearly a year ago. She wishes he could see her now. That thought alone caused her to pull over while driving one day last week. She cussed him out, then sobbed.
You should be here, she thought.
They never lost touch or stopped loving each other, she said. She still wears her wedding ring.
Her children and grandchildren were there on Saturday when Cheyney held its commencement ceremony and Davis took center stage. Her 77-year-old mother, Trudy Sanders, watched a live stream of the event from her home in Virginia Beach.
“That girl has never failed to amaze me,” said Sanders.
Davis had a theme for her speech. “Nothing changes, if nothing changes,” shetold her fellow graduates. “You have to be the person who initiates that change.”
Davis plans to move back to her Philadelphia house, where her daughter lives. She already has started a business hand-painting jewelry boxes and she plans to write and illustrate children’s books. She’s already written one. She also plans to pursue an online master’s degree in fine arts.
Soon, she will take her dream trip solo, a cross-country train ride, with her watercolors, acrylics, and sketchbooks in tow.
“I’m just going to see the countryside," she said, “and paint.”