As a student at inner-city Soldan High School in St. Louis, Jessica Davie didn’t have her sights set on attending a prestigious university.
But after a professor from Washington University in St. Louis spoke to one of her classes, she decided to apply not only here, but also to several other prominent colleges. Excellent grades and encouragement from a teacher-mentor won her acceptance letters at several universities, but, she “fell in love with Wash U.”
The experience caused her to think about other inner-city students and how they didn’t shoot high enough despite having the grades.
“I knew I wanted to go to college but I wasn’t aware of the type of prestigious schools I could get into because my school district was in a lot of turmoil and in danger of losing accreditation,” says Davie, who will graduate May 20 with a degree in educational studies with a minor in drama from the College of Arts & Sciences.
As a sophomore, Davie turned her own experience into a mentoring program called Learning to Live.
She and two juniors, LaTasha Kinnard and Danielle Anderson, lined up other WUSTL students to be mentors as well as teach reading, writing and math courses two Saturdays a month. They then recruited students by working with teachers at Kottmeyer Big Picture High School and then Davie’s alma mater, Soldan.
They didn’t target students who were excelling; they went for those with GPAs in the 2.4 to 2.7 range. Davie felt that working with these students would have the greatest impact on their lives because fewer resources were focused on them.
They began with 14 students, many of whom had poor attendance issues and below average grades. The results were rewarding.
“People tend to give our students a bad rap, but we’ve never had any problems with students in Learning to Live,” Davie says. “They wanted to do better. That’s why they kept coming.”
Being closer in age to the high school students, small classes and lots of one-on-one time with their college mentors made the difference, Davie believes.
“I had no idea how successful we would be,” she says. “Not only were they doing well with their math, reading and writing, but the mentor/mentee relationships were flourishing. Even after our mentees graduated, they kept up with their Wash U. mentors.”
Most were able to raise their GPA. The majority went to on college, and a handful went to higher-level institutions than they originally aspired to.
“I learned not to make assumptions about what students are or aren’t able to achieve. I can’t assume that students are just lazy or not paying attention,” says Davie, who gives great credit to her mother, St. Louis school district teacher Sandra Davie, and father, retired policeman Harold Davie for her upbringing.
“This program, on a small scale, showed me how simple plans and a lot of effort can yield real results and that you cannot let popular belief and political controversies color your thinking.”
Davie continues to work with Learning to Live, recruiting more mentors and protegees and trying to inspire inner-city kids to not only attend college, but also apply to more prestigious ones. She also urges them to break free of the often-chosen communications, education and business majors, and opt for science, math or technology degrees.
“I felt like while I was in high school if those type of role models had been present, it would have changed the post-graduation choices of my peers,” she says. “We were probably more capable than we thought of getting admitted to top universities and post-secondary education programs. It has a lot to do with the culture and what we’ve always done before.”
Davie, who has been aggressively pursuing an acting career with performances around the area and through an internship with the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater, is an inspiration, says African Studies Coordinator Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, PhD, assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
“I believe linking service to her academics is what has made Learning to Live prosper,” Toliver-Diallo says. “Jessica is gracious, humble and thoughtful in everything she does — she is heartwarming. She takes every opportunity she has and uses it to its fullest, but most importantly, she is extremely supportive of other students.
“She is a great role-model.”