Building a Better World: “Why I Give” by Shelby M.C. Davis ’58

Shelby M.C. Davis '58 and his wife, Gale, founded the Davis United World College Scholars Program in 2000 at Princeton and four other pilot institutions. The program now awards scholarships to students who graduate from a United World College school and then attend one of 76 designated U.S. colleges or universities. To date, 223 Davis UWC Scholars have attended Princeton. Davis, who served as a Princeton trustee from 2006 to 2010, returns to the campus almost every year to meet with the students he is helping.

In the 1990s I had become a major supporter of the United World Colleges (UWCs)—a dozen campuses around the globe full of 16- to 19-year-old promising future leaders from 150 countries. As we entered the 21st century, I wondered how my philanthropy might build on that. My parents had been engaged internationalists, and this had left a meaningful mark on me. I also saw that American higher education would be well served by taking a more strategic view of the world as we entered the 21st century.

Phil Geier, then president of UWC-USA, and I worked together to design a pilot scholarship program that began in 2000 with 42 UWC graduates entering Princeton, Wellesley, Colby, Middlebury, and College of the Atlantic—all schools important to the Davis family. Our timing was especially good—many schools were beginning to focus on global strategies, and Princeton had just decided to offer need-blind admission to international students. In retrospect, it seems that moment was a tipping point in the internationalization of American higher education. 

We received great feedback, so I decided to devote the bulk of my philanthropy to growing the Davis UWC Scholars Program. Currently, we have about 2,500 scholars on 90 American campuses; cumulatively, there have been 5,000. It is both thrilling and rewarding to realize that the program Phil and I created contributes to the potential of so many promising students from all over the world while bringing so many nationalities to Princeton and other American campuses. 


Shelby Davis greets some of Princeton's United World College scholars.

‘Not Gifts, But Investments’

I have returned to campus nearly every year to meet with these scholars, and I am blown away each time by their energy, intelligence, passion, and potential. To a one, they are so grateful to be at Princeton, and so eager to get out in the world and make a difference. They are growing intellectually and personally. Every one is a strong individual, seemingly more mature than their years, and eager to carry on the UWC mission of making the world a better place through whatever professional career they pursue. They also seem to be a critical element in transforming the Princeton campus into a global community.

I had such a great experience at Princeton, and I remain grateful for all that it did to give shape to my life. And now I see what a special place Princeton is for the scholars I support, and for so many others from around the U.S. and around the world. 

I regard my support for these students not as gifts but investments. I am investing in promising students from all over the world, with the hope of realizing major long-term returns in the form of a better, safer, and more peaceful world. More immediately, I hope my philanthropy will have made Princeton and many other American campuses better places for all their students to expand their global knowledge, improve their cross-cultural skills, and befriend a network of future leaders from all walks of life in all parts of the world. I invest in Princeton and the Davis UWC Scholars Program in the belief that they are mutually beneficial, the sum far greater than the parts. Through education comes the greatest hope of realizing the fullest human potential.

The Davis family has a long tradition of giving to Princeton. Davis's father, Shelby Cullom Davis '30, established the Davis Center for Historical Studies in 1968. In 2007 his mother, Kathryn Wasserman Davis, funded the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis '30 International Center, which provides instruction, discussion, and cultural activities for international students and scholars. 

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