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Teaching global understanding

Donor pays fees for almost 700 foreign students

NORTHEAST HARBOR, MAINE -- For decades, as founder and manager of the flourishing Davis New York Venture Fund, Shelby Davis was guided by two signature strategies: Look for visionary leaders and invest for the long term.

Now 68, Davis is using the same approach to advance an ambitious, new philanthropic venture, one that is transforming student enrollments and the undergraduate experience on dozens of college campuses.

Convinced that he can alter the course of international relations by sending outstanding foreign students to study with Americans, the semiretired fund manager has quietly built one of the largest privately funded scholarship programs in the United States.

This fall, Davis's United World College Scholars Program will meet the full financial need of almost 700 college students from 100 countries, at 58 campuses from Maine to California.

Determined to change the nature of the American college experience, he has set no limit on his investment in the program; in an interview this month at his summer home in Maine, Davis said he expects his family's ongoing contribution to be $20 million to $25 million per year.

''Globalization is huge and increasing, and we're becoming a world with no borders," he said. ''People get the picture that to be an educated person you need to be a global citizen . . . but traditionally, higher education has been resistant to change."

Davis's drive began almost a decade ago with a chance meeting at a ski resort in New Mexico. There, he met Philip Geier, a onetime Fulbright Scholar who was then president of the United World College in Montezuma, N.M. As Geier described the school, Davis became intrigued. The United World Colleges -- there are 10 campuses around the world that are part of the movement that began in the 1960s -- bring together top students from around the globe for their last two years of high school.

Davis visited the high school in New Mexico soon after. While wandering the campus, the veteran investor met two boys -- one Israeli, one Palestinian -- who were roommates and, remarkably, friends. Davis, who had traveled the world with his wealthy parents as a child, had a revelation. ''This was not your typical boarding school," he said.

In 1998, with his wife, Gale, Davis set up a $45 million endowment, enough to provide annual merit scholarships for 100 American high school students to attend the international schools.

When he visited those students at their United World College campuses around the world, Davis heard the stories of their friends and classmates, born in dozens of countries, many with little hope of paying for college. He glimpsed another road to global understanding: Pay for these international students, whose education overseas had made them skilled ambassadors, to attend college with Americans in the United States.

The first 42 Davis Scholars enrolled in the fall of 2000, a year before the worst terrorist attacks in American history would train a spotlight on the need for global understanding. Davis began by offering scholarships at five colleges with ties to his family: Middlebury and Colby, from which his sons graduated; Princeton and Wellesley, his own and his parents' alma maters; and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, near the family's longtime Maine retreat.

Last year, convinced that his investment was paying off, Davis expanded the program to 47 more colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Williams, to which he will provide up to $10,000, based on need, for any United World College graduate who wins admission. Six more colleges will be invited to join the program this summer. A new headquarters for the growing Davis Scholars program opened this month at Middlebury; Geier, the former world college president, is the program's executive director.

The effects have been dramatic. At Colby, where total enrollment is 1,800, international enrollment jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent in five years. At College of the Atlantic, which has just 265 students, 17 percent come from other countries, up from a handful before the Davis scholarships. At Wellesley and Princeton, international enrollments have grown from 6 percent to 8 percent.

The influx of money earmarked for international applicants has addressed a longstanding problem on the campuses. Because students from overseas cannot receive federal financial aid and because colleges allocate the bulk of available institutional aid to Americans, most schools have been strictly limited in the number of needy foreign students they can afford to admit.

At Colby, where 140 international students now receive significant financial aid, only 30 to 35 received aid before the Davis gift, a spokesman said.

The scale of the philanthropy is ''off the charts," said Steve Katona, president of College of the Atlantic. ''And it's only just beginning. In some years, I believe we'll see spectacular results. My guess is that these kids are going to head the United Nations, the World Bank, the Red Cross."

Davis, whose youngest daughter starts college at Wellesley this fall, feels close to the students he helps. He buzzed with excitement last week over a fresh stack of letters from Davis Scholars, underlining key passages and reading aloud from one sent by a Chinese student at Colby.

''Admittedly . . . our political views are vastly different," the student wrote. ''My life has seen me rant against the evils of capitalism. However, I am also fully aware that my being here is a result of your commitment to philanthropy. . . . This has led to much personal conflict within myself, and I have begun to rethink my position on a lot of issues."

Davis credits his parents, legendary investor Shelby Cullom Davis and carpet fortune heiress Kathryn Wasserman Davis, with introducing him to global dialogue. Both studied international politics -- his father was ambassador to Switzerland in the 1970s -- and when Davis traveled with them as a boy, the experience went well beyond sightseeing tours.

''We would visit people in their homes and have meals with them, so we were getting firsthand impressions of the country," he said. ''I felt that person-to-person communication was essential to my education."

By all accounts, that kind of dialogue has fast become essential on the campuses aided by Davis. Allison Stanger, a political science professor at Middlebury, said the international presence in the classroom ''brings the issues to life for [American] students, because their views are immediately challenged. Americans have preconceived notions about how people think, and we forget that even when it's for the good, people don't like having power jammed down their throat."

Gabriel Reyes, a Colby student from Framingham who graduated in May, lived with roommates from Poland, India, and Kenya at college and said that his friendships with smart, capable people from places like Africa convinced him that global change is possible.

''Sometimes, with the African situation, people tend to think it's a lost cause," said Reyes, 21, who is headed to law school. ''Some of the brightest people I've met are from that continent, and given the chance, they can make a real difference. If I was in a position of power, that would affect my decisions."

In a room full of Davis Scholars at College of the Atlantic, many international students said that without outside help, they would have been forced to stay in their home countries, where access to higher education is limited. Some said the scholarships have allowed them to follow their interests -- art, sociology, economics -- instead of preparing for the well-paid careers in medicine and engineering that their parents would have insisted on at home.

''In my country, it's all about how much money you're going to make," said Ashlesha Khadse, 20, of India. ''Here, we think about such big questions -- 'Where is the world going, and what is my place?' " In her class discussions, Khadse said, the thrill is seeing ''human connections, no barriers." ''When everyone's discussing one thing," she said, ''it feels so good."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

Shelby Davis has set no limits on his investment.
Shelby Davis has set no limits on his investment. (Globe Photo / Michael C. York)
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