‘Do you mind if I call you Dad?’: Davenport Reflects on Time at Gettysburg
By Gauri Mangala, Senior Editor
Dr. Darrien Davenport spent his last day as the Executive Director of the Office of Multicultural Engagement (OME) at Gettysburg College on Friday, July 26. He departed from the role to accept a job as Senior Director of Student Services at Penn State-Harrisburg.
In his absence, Director of Multicultural Planning and Outreach Monique Gore and Associate Director of OME and LGBTQ+ Life Shantanique Johnson will share some of the duties associated with the role, Dean of Students Julie Ramsey said.
Davenport came to Gettysburg in the fall of 2016 and was the first leader of the newly-formed office, which succeeded the Intercultural Resource Center. His three-year tenure was marked by forming close connections with students. Jordan Knox ’21 thinks of him as someone who gave her a familial sense of belonging on campus.
“He always took time to talk to me, check in, and give me love,” she said. “Few people carry such a presence like he does, making everyone he meets really feel like family. He became my uncle away from home, he is my family and I will miss him dearly.”
Anna Perry ’21 echoed Knox’s sentiments about Davenport.
“From the first day we met, Dr. D has made it clear that he is there to support me and to share joy with me,” they said. “He is one of the very few administrators I’ve met who genuinely showed up for trans issues when I asked him to. His resignation is hard because that kind of support is so rare and so necessary. But he showed a lot of students how we can begin to build a loving community, and I am seriously grateful for that.”
No plans on a search for a permanent successor have been announced at this time.
Below is the transcript of an exit interview Davenport did with The Gettysburgian. It has been edited lightly for clarity.
GM: Just to start, what are you going to be doing at Penn State?
DD: I am going to be the Senior Director of Student Services, so I will oversee all of the student affairs and student services functions for the Penn State-Harrisburg campus.
GM: What made you look at that position in the first place?
DD: I worked in diversity a lot when I was at York College of Pennsylvania. I was the Director of Multicultural Affairs which turned into Intercultural Student Life and Global Programming. After I got my doctorate I was promoted to Assistant Dean of Student Affairs. But during my time at York, I had the chance to be more of a generalist from a student affairs standpoint, which I love. I love learning about student engagement and student development through these different lenses. So I enjoy the specialist work of diversity, but I wanted, you know, I had the chance to broaden it there, and transitioning to Gettysburg – it was more of a specialist role featuring diversity, equity, and inclusion … [and] access. But I wanted to get back to more of a generalist role.
Also with that, you know, I have career goals, I’m looking to continue to grow. I’m looking to continue to get experiences that will help to move along my trajectory. These opportunities don’t often come up, they rarely come up 20 minutes from your house. So, I had to take a look at it, and it’s a different environment because I’ve not worked in this university structure. I’ve always worked for private liberal arts institutions. But when I saw the portfolio and everything it was going to cover from a student affairs standpoint and thinking about being able to go back and use some of the learning I had before as a generalist, it piqued my interest. So that’s the professional piece, you know, and also, personally, my kids are eleven and seven and it’d be nice to be closer to them with the different activities and things that they have going on, so that played a part as well. So, it was a combination of things.
GM: And now at Gettysburg, you’ve been here since the start of OME and you’ve helped build it up to where it is today. When you look back, what are the things that you are most proud of that we’ve done here?
DD: I’m the most proud of the opportunities, the programming, the access, and the support that we were able to provide students and will continue to provide students. Some of the things that we, you know — looking at transitioning the office from what was the Department of Intercultural Advancement and the IRC to what’s the OME – just really our offerings and how we’re able to engage students differently and maybe even in a little bit more of a robust way.
And trust me that’s not being critical because the foundation that was laid was a phenomenal one. But being able to take that and continue to grow it to give students more of what they were looking for as far as their Gettysburgian experience, I’m most proud of that: the students that we had a chance to engage. I am absolutely proud to have worked with the folks that I got a chance to work with during that time to help realize it. There’s no way shape or form that I could’ve did this by myself. You’re only as good as the people that you work with. So, during the last few years, I worked with some phenomenal individuals: faculty, staff, administration, students alike. And for me, I am most proud of that too. You can talk about community as much as you want but you really have to work at it, you have to actively do it and I feel like we did do that and will continue to do it even in my absence. But that’s also something, right? Being able to build a sense of community. Now are there still challenges, opportunities? Absolutely. But I feel like that was something that we also made an impact, we also helped to develop more of a sense of community here through this work.
GM: A lot of students here cited that you’ve almost become an uncle to them in a lot of ways. How did you go about forming such a strong connection with students on that level?
DD: You see them. And I don’t mean it in like the actual sense of sight, but I mean you see them in all of the beauty that they possess, their different identities. You see the power that they have as people. You take the chance to really understand who they are and the value that they bring as human beings to the space. And that, for me, was all it really was. And, you know, they’re students. But they are way more than ID numbers and they are way more than statistics and they way more than any of that stuff. They are people that want to accomplish something and they want to better their lives. You see them as that and that’s how you connect with them. Authentically. Authentically, you be transparent and you be supportive, and you be hard on them sometimes when they’re not doing the right things. But you see them as people who want to make their lives better. And that’s how you connect with them.
And sometimes their needs can mean committing or extending a little bit more of yourself. Sometimes that means being a little bit more open to who you are and some of the challenges that you have had even as a person in the professional sense or even back in your days as a student because they need to see that no matter how hard life is and no matter how hard their academic experience can be sometimes, they can do it. They can do it. And they just need to have somebody there to support their direction and give them some encouragement and to allow them access to things. And then just let them go off and flourish and do their thing. So, for me, that was the connection. And it’s not always what you do, it’s not always easy because people have to trust you, right? They have to get to know you. You have to take the time. You have to be consistent. You have to mean what you say and when you say you are going to do something you have to back it up, right? You can’t be flaky. And the more that you do that, people will see that you’re there for them and you’re there to help them navigate whatever this is going to be for them. You’re not there because it serves you as a professional. And for me that’s what it was, and hopefully students during my time here saw that. They saw that I wanted the best for them … I would tell them: “Just go out there, after you graduate and just kill it. Take over the world. Do as much as you can.” And I would always, you know, anybody that I helped I would say, “I never want anyone to write me in a book or paper or anything like that. But you’re going to come across somebody that is going to need the same kind of support and help. Just help them. That’s all.”
“End of my first semester and she was like, ‘Do you mind if I call you ‘Dad’?’ And I was like, ‘You have a dad.’ She was like, ‘Yeah, but you would be my Gettysburg dad.’
I felt I was making an impact. I felt like the purpose I was being there for was to support and provide what I needed to provide in the context of what I was doing.”
And you know, sometimes our world isn’t built like that. Our world isn’t built to see the humanity in one another. But I have a lot of belief and a lot of hope that there is a lot of good, and I just try to see the good in all of the folks that came across my path here and invest in them with no expectations of anything in return. So, that, for me, is what it is. And I appreciate that.
I remember being here and I had a student, Alexa Laboy, I’ll never forget. End of my first semester and she was like, “Do you mind if I call you ‘Dad’?” And I was like, “You have a dad.” She was like, “Yeah, but you would be my Gettysburg dad.”
And as simple as that interaction probably sounds it was one of the things that I – and she still to this day, you know, three and a half years later, calls me ‘Dad.’
But that, for me, was like – I felt I was making an impact. I felt like the purpose I was being there for was to support and provide what I needed to provide in the context of what I was doing. So yeah, that’s why. And I’m fortunate that people were willing to connect with me in that way.
GM: So, for whoever the next person in your role is — whether that be someone within Gettysburg or someone externally — what do you want them to know?
DD: I want them to know how wonderful these students are. I want them to know how important it is to be student-centered here. You know, you can be strategic but you have to balance that with being student-centered. And I’d also want them to know that we’re just really scratching the surface of this work here. There’s so much more that can be done. There are other opportunities for growth for students here through the lens that is the OME so hopefully they will come, whoever it is, whether it is someone on campus or someone externally, comes in with an open mind. You know, here’s what’s going on in the community, is innovative, and wants to continue to take this to a different level and help them to understand the power and relation – Gettysburg is very much a relational place. And there’s a lot of power in … being able to have powerful moments to have a great and holistic private liberal arts experience for students. So, to know that, that person can’t take an insular approach to this work. They can’t sit in their office for eight hours a day, just sit behind a [desk] — that’s not how this work is done.
They are going to need to continue to strengthen relationships that we form or create new relationships because it’s going to help the student experience. So, that’s what I want them to know. Have an open mind, and be supportive of these students. These are brilliant people. They do well in the classroom. But sometimes they just need to know that somebody’s going to be there for them. So I would want this person, regardless of who it is, to hopefully present themselves in a way that students know that they can count on them. That’s what I would want that person to know.
GM: Both from the perspective of OME but also the college as a whole, what work do you think still needs to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion?
Diversity’s inherent. We all have culture. It’s how we uplift that.
DD: I mean, I think we’re working through some of the issues of class and need and different things like that. We are expanding it to help people to … sometimes folks — if they don’t believe that they are a part of a certain identity — that they don’t fit into this environment that is diversity, so, continuing to grow and help people to self-identify who they are and to build off of that so that they understand their connectedness as it relates. I think what happens sometimes is that people sometimes they don’t believe that they fit into whatever box — that they are bereft of diversity or bereft of culture or whatever the case may be. Diversity’s inherent. We all have culture. It’s how we uplift that. So I think the work that continues — it’s continuing to pull it together and really build this sense of community. And I think some of that work has been done but I think that there is work that can continue to be done in there.
Diversity, equity, inclusion, those types of things — those aren’t buzzwords. Those aren’t things that you just kind of feather in, like they exist. Whether you speak them or not, they’ve existed for thousands of years. No civilization was great in this monolithic or homogenized – like just, no. I don’t care, like if you look at — now I’m getting on my pedestal here — but, if you look at any great civilization, they were great because of their diversity. Diversity is older than the United States, you know what I mean. So it’s getting people beyond seeing it’s a nuanced thing but seeing it as something that has always existed — they hopefully will figure out that their identity means that they are a part of it and they can contribute to it. So, I think that that’s the work that needs to continue to be done in that way. We’ve made some inroads, we’ve done some great things but, you know, and I don’t want to say like “most places” because we’re talking about here, but that’s where I think the opportunity exists. It’s just to continue to build that.
GM: I know that over the last school year, students and faculty alike were seeing a lot of issues come up, specifically talking about diversity. So, we saw Garthwait, we saw Get Acquainted Day, we saw Art & Art History students, we saw Student Senate.
GM: On that level, on the level of, it’s kind of seeming like — rather than being proactive — we are being reactive to a lot of things. What can we do, we have all these events right in front of us of things happening, what can we do to be more proactive about things like that?
DD: We need to listen earlier. Not saying when you get to the point — because people should absolutely have the right to protest. When we get to the point of protest, that means there are things that have been unresolved or things that people have not listened to to get to the point. Sometimes we dismiss the energy or the, not we — institutionally — but society can dismiss the energy that people put into getting to a point that they have to protest. That means that they are extremely frustrated, but, if we heard or listened to them better or earlier in the beginning, maybe we would have been able to work through that frustration earlier. Maybe it wouldn’t have bubbled up to the point of protest. You know what I mean? Like, usually when people are out and about and they are putting themselves out there in the forefront visually and saying “I am disappointed in X,” they’ve reached the level of frustration that maybe could’ve been dealt with better had we heard them earlier, had we listened to them earlier.
When people protest, this is not about new stuff but it is about whether or not we listened when we were supposed to listen. So I think that for us to be able to — and I’m just going to be honest — to continue to be a better community and to grow it’s making sure that we listen earlier and make sure that those conversations happen earlier. And that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to get along all the time, every moment. But at least being able to have mechanisms when we hear each other and we have an understanding, even when it’s in disagreement. But when we don’t even do that or those conversations don’t happen or people don’t feel like they are invited to the table to even converse, there’s frustration there. It’s being able to hear things earlier and listen earlier, to have discourse earlier. I think that’s really the way to do it. And it becomes less of us attempting to be proactive and it just becomes a part of the expectation of our culture. So we don’t have to worry about it being reactive because those conversations, that dialogue, those opportunities for discourse are happening earlier on.
GM: You speak often about how while you’re not an alum, and you’re not a parent of a student, you do feel truly like a Gettysburgian. So, what qualities of being a Gettysburgian do you think you are going to take with you past this job?
DD: Ooh, qualities. That’s good. I like that. For me, the importance of finding or helping people find some sense of connectedness. Interestingly enough, I think that people come here and they want to be connected to the place, they just find they got to try to find a way. And I will always take that. Having worked in environments where I didn’t always feel connected to them or maybe I felt like my work in that place was transactional, where I didn’t feel like I fully immersed myself in the mission of the institution or the values of the institution or the organization, for me, that’s what I’ll take with me — the importance of connectedness.
And I learned this as far as being connected with people. I had a supervisor that was just a phenomenal person. And it wasn’t about money or about anything that I did, I never wanted to disappoint her. She was so supportive of me. I remember getting into a car accident and parking my car and calling the insurance company and then borrowing my father’s car because I still needed to make it to work because I didn’t want to disappoint her because I had a connectedness to her as an individual because of just the type of person she was and the integrity she had and how great of a leader. So, I think when we talk about places and what I would take from that it is — there are so many great things that can build connectedness for people that will inform an experience. That’s what I want to take and be able to provide for people: that folks feel strongly about either an experience that they had or a place that they lived or resided or something that they participated – that this connectedness was there. That they take it with them for the rest of their lives. That they feel like that time was not wasted. That it was good time. So that’s what I’m — because I look at my time here through ups and downs. There was this connection that I had to this place. And I still have that connection, but it was built over time through people and experiences and different things like that. So, that’s what I’ll take with me – how important it is.
To drive an hour to work, you better be connected to a place. Or days where you’re showing up or you’re coming in on the weekends and you’re working and you do it because you’re connected. So I’ll take that. And it was interesting when I first started here and seeing how much people were the ‘blue and orange,’ you know, to their core. From a private, liberal arts standpoint it was the first time I actually really saw that. I was used to seeing it at like large universities just on the outside. But there was an immense amount of pride in this place. A great amount of pride in this place. For people who felt connected to it, just a great level of connectedness. And that’s what I’ll take with me, just the important of that. Especially with people that I will get a chance to work with, hopefully they’ll see their work and where they work beyond a paycheck. They’ll see it as purpose and they’ll see it as connection to what they’re trying to provide. That and just, the community. Communities have challenges, right? Communities have dysfunctions, but the importance of building a community in that and realizing that none of this work gets done alone. And I used to be someone — and folks that I used to work with will tell you — I was bad at delegation and stuff like that. I felt like if I did it, I had to do it alone. And here, not only could I not think that way, but I was glad that I couldn’t think that way because there are so many talented people that were doing and that are doing so much great work in the context of that community that the work got done and it got done well. You start to trust that the community is keeping up and providing what it needs to provide for the student experience. And that’s what I’ll take with me, is hopefully people understand their purpose and that they’re doing the right thing and they realize that we are here to create this environment for students. And just trusting that it happens. Not feeling like I have to be involved in everything, because I don’t and I couldn’t, physically. But it all got done in a great way. Long answer to your short question.
GM: To [new President] Bob [Iuliano], who is new to the role, and also to whoever ends up being — I’m assuming there will be a search committee for your new role — what would you like to urge them to look for in a candidate?
DD: Hmm, that’s great because I don’t even know what they saw in me when I first started here. People who apply will have the education and the experience and background and skills … I keep going back to it but, two things: number one, look for someone who is going to be authentic as it relates to this work. Really authentic and, you know, committed to it. And then look for someone who is going to be student-centered. You can’t do this role if you’re not student-centered. Hands down. I think that, for me, those are the things for me that they should look for in somebody that’s going to come in and take this role.
And look for someone who’s going to want to be innovative. And that should be implied you would think but look for someone who has a heart for innovation and can see the work differently. I think that’s what I would ask. I think that the biggest sin would be to bring someone in that would just want to sit there and mind the fence. And just say, “Okay status quo! I’ll just sit here for a few years and won’t change anything, we won’t grow anything.” That’d be the greatest sin. Having someone comes in that will be innovative that’s student-centered, that’s authentic, that’s passionate, that is communal, that is interested in bring relationships, understanding that you cannot do this work alone. If you don’t have people that are advocates of you, if you don’t have people that are stewards of your message, then forget about it. You cannot do this work alone. It is not easy. So that’s what I would want to pass on to them that I hope that they would look for. Somebody that was better than me. I would want them to find someone that was — because I feel like the students deserve to have this work continued on and elevated. I did everything I could in a short window of time. But, humbly, I would say, get somebody that could continue to elevate it because the students deserve that. And that’s what I would hope that they would look for too.
GM: Is there anything else that you want to say to the students or to anybody else that ends up reading this?
DD: I’m not that far away, but I will genuinely miss them. I love them. It’s crazy to think about the last three years and a lot of the stuff, just life stuff and professional stuff and transitioning here and growing here. I grew here a lot in three years, a whole lot. That’s a whole other conversation. But I want them to always know how much they impacted that. And when you came in here and I said how much you all gave me life, but that’s the truth. They were the reason why. I want them to know how much I appreciate them allowing me to just be a part of — or sharing just a little bit of their lives. I’m blessed. And I’m a better person because of it.