Meredith Davis didn’t anticipate a career in higher education. In fact, when she enrolled at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she barely saw herself graduating. That all changed during Davis’ first year when several staff and faculty members helped her realize her potential. Today, as Syracuse University’s associate vice president of student engagement, she embodies all that higher education makes possible.
“I am personally invested in student success,” says Davis, who brings more than 25 years of teaching and administrative experience to her role at the University. “That begins with integrating the curricular and the co-curricular, creating an environment that is personally and academically fulfilling for students.”
A physical expression of this approach may be found in the Hildegarde and J. Myer Schine Student Center, whose renovation Davis has helped oversee. When she arrived on campus last winter, the 35-year-old building was in the throes of a multimillion-dollar makeover.
By making students part of the renovation planning process, Davis and her colleagues in the Division of Enrollment and the Student Experience have been instrumental in fostering administrative accountability and transparency. Everything in the new facility—from design criteria to furniture and finishes to programming possibilities—has been vetted by students. Such intentionality, she says, evokes trust and a sense of community.
Robert Hradsky, vice president for the student experience, says the renovation reflects Davis’—and the University’s—embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Meredith understands who our students are, where they come from and how they experience the University. She has delivered on her promise of creating a student center that celebrates the essence of a world-class research institution.”
Sparking Positive Change
A first-generation student from Baltimore, Davis did not have a clear career path until her senior year of college. Her interest in academia led to a series of staff and faculty positions along the East Coast. She also pursued an M.A. in African American studies from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a Ph.D. in women’s and gender studies from Rutgers University.
Opportunity knocked in 2005, when Davis co-founded Rutgers’ Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities—the first of its kind in the New Jersey public university system. “The idea was to spark dialogue and create programs around social justice and equity education,” she recalls.
I am personally invested in student success. That begins with integrating the curricular and the co-curricular, creating an environment that is personally and academically fulfilling for students.—Meredith Davis
Building on that work, Davis joined Rhodes College in Memphis and held key positions in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Office of Inclusion and Involvement. In 2018, she was promoted to associate dean of students, divisional strategy, inclusion and involvement, where she oversaw staff onboarding, professional development, and diversity and inclusion efforts.
At Rhodes, Davis supervised the director of the Bonner Center for Service, home to multiple programs sharing a common commitment to civic engagement and community service. “It was great seeing students connect their studies to real-life organizations and situations—something for which Syracuse University is also known,” she says.
Today, Davis participates in 12-15 meetings a week about the Schine Center, which boasts an additional 8,600 square feet of student activity space. “Building community” may be a common refrain at such meetings, but Davis also uses them to expound on intersectionality. “Someone with varying identities should be able to go into Schine and see themselves in the physical space and in the people inhabiting that space,” she explains. “Intersectionality creates an experience that is personalized and holistic.”
Student Association President Justine Hastings ’21 applauds Davis’ student-centric ethos. “She’s taught me a lot about the role of communication in leadership, about being authentic and purposeful. It’s helped me navigate some delicate situations in office.”
Davis is especially proud of Schine’s new Intercultural Collective, home to the Office of Multicultural Affairs , the Disability Cultural Center and the LGBTQ Resource Center . All three units work in tandem with the Center for International Services on nearby Walnut Place.
“We need to remove barriers so that those fortunate enough to come here can learn in all kinds of ways,” says Davis, whose heroes include the late Mary McLeod Bethune, a prolific advocate for democratic education. “Our more than 300 student organizations attest to our commitment to access and opportunity.”
Like Davis, Hradsky believes the Schine renovation will bolster student recruitment and retention. “Students want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves, so places like Schine, the Barnes Center at The Arch and Hendricks Chapel are hubs for connection and opportunity,” he explains. “Meredith was the right choice for this position because she knows how to inspire people from different backgrounds and identities to work together in unison.”
Adds Hastings: “Meredith is bold, assertive and opinionated. She’s also very protective. I couldn’t ask for a better role model.”