Students in this year's graduating Class of 2013 at Davidson College come from 38 states and 14 other countries. At the same time, it's also not uncommon for the college to graduate seniors from much closer to home. But this year's graduates include an individual who represents an unusual geographic milestone. Kaneisha L. Gaston '13 will be the first African American graduate ever who calls the Town of Davidson "home."
Well, second home anyway! Gaston grew up in Charlotte. She attended David Cox Elementary School, Trinity Episcopal middle school and North Mecklenburg High.
But she is also deeply attached to Davidson's African American community through her grandmother, great-grandmother and other relations. She spent countless hours in Davidson homes, and gives her kin in town credit for instilling in her the love and importance of learning that led her to enroll at Davidson.
In honor of the distinction, town officials are proclaiming May 19 as "Kaneisha Gaston Day." Gaston will receive her diploma along with the rest of her classmates on Sunday morning. Then friends, family and supporters will gather at 5 p.m. at Davidson Presbyterian Church for a celebratory service in her honor. At the conclusion of the service, those in attendance will stroll three blocks to the Village Green, where college President Carol Quillen and Town of Davidson Mayor John Woods will introduce and speak about Gaston to the crowd gathered there for the 6 p.m. Concert on the Green.
"I'm still in disbelief about having a day in my honor," said Gaston. "I'm just very thankful. It's not that I'm the first African American town person who could have gotten into the college, but the timing was right for me, and others provided the means so that I could pursue higher education."
Over multiple generations, members of Gaston's family worked at the college in service positions. Gaston noted, "My grandmother was a beloved cook at fraternity houses for many years, and I still have a lot of cousins, aunts and uncles working at the college.
In an interview her freshman year Gaston said, "So many family members have worked at the college, it was about time one of us enrolled there as a student!"
As she grew up, Gaston participated in three educational outreach programs sponsored by the college - Leaps & Bounds, Freedom Schools, and July Experience. She applied early decision for admission to Davidson and was accepted. She explained, "I had considered a few other colleges, but I like Davidson because I'm a family person and realized I didn't have to go anywhere but my back yard to get a good education and stay close to my family."
Gaston was an outstanding leader in many arenas during her undergraduate career at Davidson. She held a Bonner Community Service Scholarship that involved tutoring local children in an Ada Jenkins Center after-school enrichment program. In addition she was a mentor for the STRIDE orientation program for students of color, served as a hall counselor for first-year students and was president of both the Black Student Coalition and the Upsilon Mu chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Gaston graduates as an English major with an academic concentration in ethnic studies. In the fall, she will teach in Charlotte schools through the New Teacher's Project (TEACH Charlotte), and looks forward to becoming a high school English teacher. "Education has always been important to my family," she said. "That's why I've come as far as I have, and I hope to pass it on."
She has already had an impact in that direction. Gaston worked for two recent summers as an instructor with the Freedom Schools program. In addition, her two younger sisters are following her educational path, one as a Johnson C. Smith University student and one as a student in a nurse training program.
"I'm flattered that Kaneisha Gaston Day is happening," she says. "The way I see it, the day is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the generations of relatives and community members who helped make my graduation possible."
The idea for Kaneisha Gaston Day originated with Davidson native Rev. Brenda Tapia, who grew up in town with Gaston's relatives. Rev. Tapia said, "The town still has a lot of racial divides, but we're working on closing them. Acknowledging occasions such as Kaneisha's graduation can help bring the black and the white communities of Davidson together. Kaneisha has done a great job. And though she may be the first black community member to graduate from Davidson, I'm sure she won't be the last. She's helping the town take a big step in the right direction."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
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Gaston displays an award she received at the college's recent "Celebration of Service" banquet.