Philadelphia Grandmother is Cheyney University's Valedictorian

Rhonda Davis’ road to a college degree is both inspirational and a testament to the power of self-improvement. The 60-year-old grandmother attended Cheyney University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship for three years and graduated at the top of her class.

On May 11, Davis graduated as the Class of 2019 valedictorian with dual degrees in fine arts and graphic design for Cheyney University’s 164th graduation, The Philadelphia Tribune reported. The Philadelphia native first fell in love with the university’s Delaware County campus in the 1970s, but life took her down a different path.

Davis attended Overbrook High School before getting her GED. She had four children and held various jobs, including residential adviser and daycare owner, before pursuing a college degree. She enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia in 2012 in the hopes of becoming a writer, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

She was finishing up her associate’s degree in 2016 when she was admitted to the country’s oldest historically Black university on a full scholarship to the honors program. After her husband decided to leave instead of support her, Davis moved into the dorms and became a mentor and friend to the younger students attending Cheyney.

“It gave me,” Davis told the Inquirer about her college experience, pausing, “me.” The aspiring artist and writer tutored fellow students, offered advice and encouragement, and served as a mother figure on campus. “She’s such an inspiration, not only to the students, but to all of us,” Elisabeth Burton, executive director for campus life and student affairs, told the Inquirer. “The students follow her around like Mother Goose.”

Cheyney University did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their latest valedictorian. In her graduation speech, Davis emphasized the importance of being the change you need in your life. “We change jobs five, six, and seven times during a lifetime. We change friends, we change channels,” she told her fellow graduates, according to The Philadelphia Tribune. “But if nothing changes, nothing changes.”

“You have to be the person who initiates that change,” she added. Davis is part of a growing percentage of older students enrolling at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students 35 and older accounted for approximately 16 percent of higher education enrollment in 2016. Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University, found that just 2.9 percent of students enrolled as undergraduates in fall 2015 were 50 years old and older, according to the Inquirer.

The number of “nontraditional” students at US universities and colleges grew following the Great Recession, USA Today reported. The recession affected less-educated employees, prompting many to head back to school for their college degrees. RTI International, a North Carolina think tank, found that nontraditional students are outnumbering traditional students who start as 18-year-old freshmen.

NCES projects that the number of students over the age of 25 who enroll in higher education will remain stable or rise in the next decade. Davis plans to move back to her Philadelphia home and continue her business hand-painting jewelry boxes. According to the Inquirer, she also wants to write and illustrate children’s books. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts online.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.