Liberation Through Focused Work

Alumni Outlook: Grads Weigh In

Pablo Zevallos ’16

In the midst of exceptionally challenging times, words attributed to the recently-canonized Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, come to mind: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” These words—at once demanding determination and serenity, ambition and humility—have helped me keep going, particularly when the inequities that progressive legal advocacy challenges just seem too daunting for my work to feel like it is of any consequence. These are also words that our broader Davidson community would do well to heed as we contemplate responding to the discovery of alleged neo-Nazis on campus.

What brings this thought to mind? In conversations with fellow alumni and on social media, I have heard repeated calls for Davidson to take ownership of not doing everything it could to support marginalized students on campus. To this end, I signed a letter to this effect disseminated by Evan Yi ’18 and Vita Dadoo ’18.

And yet, as I see and hear repeated calls for institutional accountability, the vigor of these calls tells me that what we are grasping for—indeed, what we seek—goes well beyond “accountability,” which can be a rather mellow and amorphous concept. Calls for “accountability” are really calls for equity.

First, then, for what calls for determination and ambition: while the College taking ownership for its shortcomings may be powerful for some, in the long run, advancing equitable policies and practices will be much more meaningful than apologies to the well-being of marginalized students. The horrifying discovery of alleged neo-Nazis at Davidson—even if outlets such as Yik Yak made clear the existence of aggressively bigoted views on campus—provides an occasion to re-invigorate advocacy by and for marginalized students. As I understand it, there is a group of students working on revamping the BSC’s Project ’87, and the rest of the Davidson community—particularly students who are members of marginalized groups—should follow their lead and advance similarly worthwhile efforts. For my part, I can offer suggestions for people in the shoes I once occupied at Davidson: a first-generation student of color.

To wit: in the cost of attendance section of students’ Bannerweb pages, which reflects the cost of attendance Davidson uses to calculate student financial aid, students will see three allowances—one for books and supplies, one for travel, and one for personal expenses. Between the 2012-13 and 2015-16 school years at Davidson, which is when I was at Davidson, those figures were frozen at  $1,000, $450, and $1,325, respectively. The national average for these figures in the 2018-19 academic year, calculated by the College Board for private, four-year, non-profit universities, is $1,240, $1,050, and $1,700, respectively.[1]Given inflation, the fact that the market for books is national, and the fact that Davidson’s student body is increasingly geographically diverse, ensuring that the Davidson cost of attendance accounts for the realistic costs of going to Davidson is essential. That way, students would get the need-based aid to which they are entitled, and fewer students would have to pursue school-year, off-campus jobs to make ends meet.

Davidson could pursue other policies to further bolster its students’ financial security, such as eliminating its expected contribution from students’ summer employment, aiding students with ancillary fees relating to instruction (such as lab, instruments, and the like), and more. The number of first generation students of color who cannot count on their loved ones to provide for them in college—and even the number of students who quietly will send some money home to their families to help them out—is greater than many may think.  Curbing financial instability would remove one of the great stressors at Davidson and would give students more financial flexibility to chart their own course at the College.

Now for what demands serenity and humility: even as we contemplate the ways in which Davidson can better serve marginalized students, we must remember that, for as much as we view Davidson as a bubble, the pool of people from which Davidson derives its student body—like every other American college and university—is, by and large, people who were raised in America for eighteen years. That means that the vast majority of incoming Davidson students have either benefitted from systemic inequities in this country or borne their brunt. Davidson cannot rectify our society’s myriad extant inequities on its own,[2]nor can it alone end bigotry, nor is it able to shield us from the harshness that may prevail in other parts of our lives.

And indeed, in my time at Davidson, I did see a real start, much of it spearheaded by visionary students and vaulted forward by supportive faculty and administrators. These changes include the establishment of the Africana Studies Department, the growth of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, the enhancement of the former Multicultural House, the establishment of the Multicultural Office, the development of the Lavender Lounge, updates to College sexual misconduct policies, the availability of internship stipends, the expansion of equity in hiring processes to other faculty and staff searches, and more. These initiatives are part of why I am proud to be a class ambassador, since I want to do my part to ensure Davidson has the resources to continue running these important programs.

Even so, there remains much work to be done—most especially to make sure marginalized students can tangibly feel as though they are on more equal footing with the rest of campus. Combating the broader inequities in our country—inequities that go well beyond what Davidson can address—is work that belongs to us alumni to take on in our respective sectors in our communities: in the legal profession, in government service, in the medical profession, at the pulpit, in our classrooms, in our businesses, or in the academy. It is only my wish that, as we begin to heal, we understand the global magnitude of the issues we are confronting, focus on where Davidson specifically must do better to support its student body, and support current students to see that these needs are met.

Pablo Zevallos ‘16 is a third-year student at Columbia Law School. He served as SGA president from 2015-16. These opinions are strictly his own.



[1]This comparison analogizes what Davidson terms “travel expenses” to what the College Board calls “transportation,” and what Davidson calls “personal expenses” to what the College Board calls “other expenses.”

[2]Though, as a matter of restorative justice, Davidson would do well to follow Georgetown’s lead and raise funds to fully subsidize the cost of attendance for descendants of any enslaved persons held by the College pending the findings of the Commission on Race and Slavery.


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