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Scholarship program proves money manager knows a good investment when he sees it

Shelby Davis
Photo by Greg Helgeson, Macalester College
Shelby Davis

Shelby Davis was late for dinner.

Davis was wandering with a friend through the United World College campus on a warm, clear evening in Montezuma, N.M. The year was 1998. Davis had been invited that night, as a possible donor, to check the place out, to get an impression of the UWC program, a series of high schools across the world that bring together kids from all countries and backgrounds.

The Wall Street money manager had been remarkably successful in the first two parts of his life’s mission: 30 years learning, 30 years earning. Now it was time to complete the third part — 30 years (if you’re lucky) returning.

Only he wasn’t sure where to start. He had kept his eyes open, looking for some sign, some vision as to where he should invest his wealth. International education hadn’t even crossed his mind until he had met the president of the Montezuma campus a while back.

The dinner bell rang in the distance. Davis and his friend walked toward the only lighted building nearby.

Must be the dining hall, they thought.

Investing in the future
Late last week, Davis stood before a full classroom of Davis Scholars at Macalester, smiling broadly. He had just announced a $13.5 million gift to the school, but at the moment he was more concerned with letting the students know how proud he was of them.

“I didn’t know you would be this good,” he told them. “Thank you for being so good. It’s just wonderful.”

More than 30 Davis Scholars will graduate from Macalester this year, more than from any other school in the United States. The school has 93 Davis Scholars, a number that’s only expected to rise after his gift, which doubles the amount of financial aid each scholar receives annually, from $10,000 to $20,000.

Those Macalester students are only a part of the larger success story.

After visiting UWC’s Montezuma campus that night 10 years ago, Davis initially agreed to pay for American students to study at UWC campuses across the world.

Then he visited those campuses and discovered hundreds of students from hundreds of countries, all bright, all energetic, all with boundless promise. So Davis dug deeper. He began providing scholarships — the Davis Scholars program — to UWC students enrolling at colleges and universities across the country.

To date, he’s invested more than $200 million in his Davis Scholars program, which makes him one of the largest donors in the country to international education. His money goes to some 85 colleges and universities, and has provided financial aid for over 1,500 graduates.

His latest announcement doubles the financial aid given to each and every student (provided the school enrolls at least five UWC students each year), and he now expects to invest around $40 million a year in the Davis Scholars program.

The thing is, Davis doesn’t think about it in money manager terms, like spending and investing. Here’s how he calculates it:

“I figured out, with the long-range calculations I do in my head, that over 30 to 40 years I would help educate about 50,000 students. That would cost me a billion dollars. But if each one of those students influences 10 or 20 people, well, that’s 500,000, a million people.”

He thinks in those terms — educating and influencing — all because of that single night in Montezuma, when he caught a glimpse, brief but startlingly clear, of the opportunities offered by a future led by educated students from around the world.
A vision of future peace
When Davis entered the lit building that night, he discovered two boys sitting together on the ledge of a swimming pool, waving their legs in the water as they talked rapidly back and forth. They stood to greet their visitor.

“Are you students?” Davis recalled asking them.

“Yes,” one of the boys said. He gave Davis his name. “I’m from Israel,” he said.

“I’m from Palestine,” the other boy said.

“We’re having a big conversation about the future of our countries,” the Israeli boy said. “We’re roommates here.”

“And we are friends,” the Palestinian boy said. “This could never happen in our countries.”

“And,” the Israeli boy said, “We are late for dinner.”

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