At 16, most girls are going to parties and school dances, playing sports and hanging out with friends – typical activities for high school teenagers. One fresh-faced ingénue from the south side of Chicago, however, was going off to college. And if her leaving home at 16 didn’t create enough anxiety for her parents, add in having to live in an off-campus apartment with someone she didn’t know, and well, it's recipe for wringing hands, high blood pressure and many sleepless nights.
But In 1979, Purdue alumna Celeste Davis (L '83) was not a typical 16-year old as is evident by her having graduated high school in just three years. She was ready for this next stage in her life. After visiting several universities, it was to Purdue University where she drawn. “I fell in love with the campus the minute I stepped foot there,” she recalls.
“I was a somewhat frail child so my mom was very protective and nervous about me leaving home.” In the end, her father, being a believer in a strong educational foundation, convinced her mother it was the right thing and they supported her decision.
“Having to live off-campus ended up being a good thing. I was not living on campus and was so young, I felt very isolated at first,” says Davis. But as it turned out a couple of students, living across the street from her apartment, took her under their wing. “They really looked out for me. I think that helped my parents as much as it did me,” she adds.
At home for Thanksgiving break her first semester, Davis became ill and needed emergency surgery. “I was out of class for quite some time and ended up missing my final exams,” she says. Having to take an incomplete in all of her classes, Davis had a lot of ground to make up when she returned for the spring semester.
Her academic advisor, Carol Pattee Randel, provided sound advice and guidance, and worked with Davis to cover ground lost while she was ill. “She never really let me know how far behind I’d gotten. I think she thought it would be overwhelming,” recalls Davis. “I went to summer school and took an extra class every semester.” Despite a rocky start, she was able to catch up and graduated on time with the rest of her class.
Leaving Purdue with a bachelor’s degree in journalism she went on to obtain her J.D. from Salmon P. Chase College of Law. Although her distinguished law career has taken her many places Davis’ ties to Purdue are ever-present.
Randel, who is still an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts, had the opportunity to reconnect with Davis when she was on campus for an alumni law panel in 2007. She states: “I have shared in the college experience of many students during my tenure at Purdue and it’s always rewarding to reconnect with former students, like Celeste. She has always been a woman of gentle tenacity!”
In her work and in her life, helping others is what Celeste Davis does. “Purdue has given me so much. I always wanted to find a way to give back. I just didn’t think I could ever endow a scholarship,” she states. When she was told about the Indiana Challenge Match, she realized it was not out of her reach. With firm conviction, Davis tells others, “It’s not as hard to do as you might think.”
When Davis was 12 her younger sister, Allison Lynn “Doty” Davis, passed away at the age of 10. Doty had been born with cerebral palsy and spent most of her very short life in a wheel chair.
Something happens when a parent loses a child. After Doty died there was just a sadness in the family. “A void was created in my parents’ lives and I wanted to do something to make them smile,” she says. And the Allison Lynn “Doty” Davis Memorial Scholarship was established.
An academic advisor who cared enough to make sure Davis was a success in 1979 was the catalyst for a scholarship that was established in 2012. “Carol is just one example of the caliber and quality of people that I met and interacted with while at Purdue. I found it to be a very supportive, nurturing environment where a kid could blossom into a young adult,” says Davis thoughtfully.
To this day, Davis’ deep love for Purdue continues. “I am still in love with Purdue University,” she states. “As soon as I exit I-65 onto State Road 43, I feel at peace. Purdue is a place where I still feel I can relax and just exhale.”
If home is where the heart is then I guess Purdue is, and always will be, Celeste Davis’ home. And we’re glad.
Editor’s note: Davis is regional manager for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights, Region V, in Chicago, IL. In that capacity Davis is the chief civil rights enforcement official for health and human services for six Midwestern states. She served on the College of Liberal Arts alumni board from 2006-12, and is now beginning her first term on the alumni advisory board for the Brian Lamb School of Communications. She is also a devoted volunteer at soup kitchens and to youth mentoring programs.