What I’ve Learned: Kendra Davies ’16

How a high school dropout overcame addiction and self-doubt to become the Hamilton Holt School’s Outstanding Graduating Senior.

After Kendra Davies ’16 delivers the commencement speech as the Hamilton Holt School's Outstanding Graduating Senior, she will become the first in her family to earn a college diploma. (Photo by Scott Cook) After Kendra Davies ’16 delivers the commencement speech as the Hamilton Holt School's Outstanding Graduating Senior, she will become the first in her family to earn a college diploma. (Photo by Scott Cook)

For Kendra Davies ’16, rock bottom came one night in Kentucky. All alone after years of bad decisions, the 20-year-old had nowhere else to turn. Nobody left to manipulate.

That’s when her mother extended an olive branch. You can live with me on the Army base in Germany, she said, but you have to get your GED and go to college.

Well before dropping out of Winter Park High School as a senior, drug and alcohol addiction had made a mess of Davies’ life. She admits to being an “unkind and selfish person,” a headstrong rebel who squandered all sorts of opportunities—money, relationships, and education among them.

But those four years in Germany began a healing process that transformed Davies. She took two semesters with her mom at the University of Maryland in Wiesbaden, and together they traveled Europe. In 2005, when Verna Davies succumbed to lung cancer, her last wish was for her daughter to graduate college.

It’s been a long road the past 11 years, but that wish is about to become reality. On Saturday morning, Davies, who holds a 3.97 GPA, will deliver the commencement speech as the Hamilton Holt School’s Outstanding Graduating Senior. She will be the first in her family to earn a college diploma.

Davies, a 34-year-old mother of a 3-year-old son, is an organizational behavior major who holds an AA from Valencia College. While at Rollins, she has been active with Global Medical Brigades and the Leadership Ally Program. She also expanded the nonprofit she founded in 2011, Doing Good for No Good Reason, and was presented the Jefferson LEAD360 Award for Leadership and Community Service by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

For the past three years, Davies has owned and operated Stellar Life Coaching, working with individuals and corporations on topics such as effective communication and the science of happiness.

This week, we caught up with her to share a few things she’s learned along the way.

Davies (center) presents to local and state officials alongside Brian Cohan ’16 and Shiying Gu ’16 during Lisa Tillmann’s Incarceration and Inequality course. (Photo by Scott Cook) Davies (center) presents to local and state officials alongside Brian Cohan ’16 and Shiying Gu ’16 during Lisa Tillmann’s Incarceration and Inequality course. (Photo by Scott Cook)

The idea of “I’m not alone” has been really, really powerful to me. There’s always someone you can call, there’s always a resource. The whole recovery process brought into focus just how important other people are in my life. Learning how to believe in a power greater than myself has literally saved me on more than one occasion.

I’ve learned that my actions affect others. I used to think that if my actions affected you, that was your problem. What’s the old saying? “I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. So I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.” That was me.

The first half of my life, I thought so little of other people. But when my mom died, I learned what love does. I learned what it did for me, what it could do for other people.

The psychology of being a high school dropout and struggling with addiction at such a young age is such that I couldn’t allow myself to be fooled into thinking that I could ever be much. Going back to school, I found a sense of worth that was directly correlated to whatever effort I put in. Over and over again, I did things I never thought I could.

Outside of class, I’ve probably learned the most from being part of the Social Justice Training Institute. It changed the way I talk and interact with people. All of a sudden I recognized that, once again, there’s more to this life than just me and what I feel. There are other people’s experiences I can choose to see.

You don’t know you need education until you get education. A comedian friend of mine tells a lot of “smart jokes.” I never really understood the finer points of his routines until I came to Rollins. When’s the last time you had a conversation about Plato or how to use a comma? You just don’t know these things until you get here.

For someone who’s struggled to find what they’re good at, education has forced me to step up and say, “All right, is that the best you got or can you do better?” That transfers over to my love life, parenting, my job, all of it.

After my son was born, I had really bad postpartum depression. I couldn’t leave the house with him. I’ve never loved anything as much as that baby. But self-doubts were creeping back in. Parenthood forced me to see my connection with love and responsibility—all merged into this little tiny human. Going to therapy, I realized I’m not the only woman who struggles with this. When you’re in it, though, you’re just thinking, Oh my God, why am I having these thoughts? At first, motherhood did not come easily for me. But when it did, it was like freedom.

Being good at something feels really freaking good. But when things are going well, I always have to check my motives and my ego. I can’t fool myself by thinking it’s all about me. It’s all by the grace of God. Still, giving yourself permission to celebrate is really important. I’m so used to surviving all the bad stuff that when good things happen, I start to get worried.

I love psychology, and I believe in what it’s doing. I also believe I can be good at helping people.

As a life coach, I’m constantly reminded of two things: First, you have to meet people where they are. That’s the greatest challenge of anyone in this profession. You have to adjust, because some people are at the rock bottom phase and others are on cloud nine. Second, there’s a reoccurring theme about people not feeling smart enough, pretty enough, funny enough, or whatever. It’s a universal problem, but when people have the courage to share it with others, that’s when it gets incredible.

When it comes to Rollins students, I’ve seen my peers at Holt do things they’re really, really afraid of—and it takes a lot of courage to do those things when you factor in our age, circumstances, resources, lack of sleep, etc. The undergrads I’ve interacted with are hungry to learn. They’re not afraid of feedback or to say I don’t know. And I find that very refreshing, because when I was their age, I knew everything.

For all those “unconventional” people like me who might be thinking about returning to school: Just show up and play ball. If you do, you’re gonna make good grades because you’re gonna care too much not to.

The entirety of my college experience has relied on the kindness of others, and I am overcome with gratitude and empowered to succeed as a result.

I’m almost afraid to say it out loud, but my life is better than I ever thought it could be. It’s not perfect, but it’s so good. And that terrifies me, but life is so, so good.