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As Congress debates the shape of a new Homeland Security Administration and amid widespread concern about the numbers and intentions of foreign students coming to the United States, financier Shelby M.C. Davis is spending millions of dollars to put hundreds of foreign students through some of America’s top colleges, Colby College in Maine among them.

The scholarship program Davis developed is thought to be the largest private philanthropic effort to finance the education of international students in the U.S. Two years ago, Davis offered to cover the financial need of any graduate of the international pre-university program called United World College (UWC) who earns admission to Colby, Wellesley, Middlebury, Princeton or College of the Atlantic. His Davis-UWC scholarship program will cost him more than $7 million this year, and the retired investment manager doesn?t flinch at an anticipated price tag of $12-million per year indefinitely.

Largely as a result of Davis’s philanthropy, Colby and the other schools have seen a surge of highly qualified foreign students enrolling. Colby has enrolled 69 Davis-UWC Scholars since the program was announced in spring of 2000, which amounts to one third of the 210 Davis-UWC Scholars at the five eligible institutions.

Recent international developments only strengthened Davis’s commitment.

But for having moved a September 11 corporate meeting from the 94th floor of Two World Trade Center to Chicago, Davis’s sons, his business partner of 40 years and his board of directors would have perished when the second plane hit the towers. But instead of pulling back on his international philanthropy in reaction to the events, he upped the ante, giving $10 million more to the UWC. “I was so grateful, of course, that we’d been spared,” he said. “But I also felt that we had a special responsibility to do more, in programs like this one, to educate young Americans about global realities while exposing international students to U.S. college life.”

Colby President William D. Adams says the program is fulfilling that mission. “The presence of international students enriches the learning experience of our domestic students, sometimes in profound ways,” Adams said. While he shares legitimate concerns about threats to domestic security, Adams underscores the value of the diversity as well as the fresh perspectives the students bring to the social and intellectual life at the college. “Students from different countries and different cultures engaging one another in deep and constructive ways is more important now than ever. This type of national cross-cultural dialogue should be an essential part of anyone’s modern college education.”

Adams points to programs initiated by Davis-UWC scholars on the Waterville, Maine, campus as indications of their influence. For instance, the students started United World @ Colby, a group that sponsors discussions, including one last year on how the U.S. is perceived in countries where some of the students grew up.

Thanks mostly to the Davis-UWC scholarships, Colby will see the number of non-resident foreign students increase by one third, from 84 to 112, this year, and the incoming class will be 12-percent international including permanent-resident aliens and dual citizens. That’s a three-fold increase in the last decade. “The Davis-UWC program gives a substantive boost to our broader efforts to expand the diversity of the student body,” Adams said.

Colby faculty members are enthusiastic about the influx of international scholars, who are often among the top students in their classes. “I’ve had students in my courses from the Balkans whose siblings, at the time we were talking about U.S. involvement, were engaged in the battle against U.S.-led NATO forces,” said G. Calvin Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Distinguished Professor of Government. “Imagine what that brings to a discussion about the intervention in Serbia and Bosnia.”

The scholarships to the five U.S. colleges are significant because international students are not eligible for most financial aid programs open to U.S. residents. Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director of the Association of International Educators in Washington, D.C., praised the Davis-UWC initiative. “It’s extremely important that the United States be open to international students, especially when increased global understanding is needed as never before,” he said. “We certainly applaud the foresight of donors who recognize this important need and step up to provide these resources.”

UWC, founded in 1962, now enrolls 2,000 students from 140 countries, regardless of their ability to pay for the two-year college-preparatory program. In 1998 Davis donated $45-million to establish 100 merit-based scholarships for American students to attend the UWC and to repair facilities at the UWC campus in New Mexico, and last year he added $10 million more.

The Davis-UWC scholarships to the five U.S. institutions of higher learning were a logical next step, since many of the bright and ambitious UWC graduates couldn’t afford to further their educations. “When I visited their campuses around the world I’d meet these impressive students from Bulgaria or China who were succeeding in advanced placement college preparatory studies conducted in English,” Davis said. “I could see that they had fire in the belly and an enormous drive to succeed. I figured that if these students could succeed under those circumstances, they were worth backing. But if your father earns $30 a month, how is he going to fund $30,000 a year in college tuition?”

“It?s obvious to me,” Davis said, “that we need to work together to overcome the ignorance and fear that breeds hatred. That’s what motivates me to support this program.”

Press kit materials as PDFs:

Key Questions and Answers about the Davis-United World college Scholars program with William D. Adams, Shelby M.C. Davis, and Philip Geier

Feature Story Bringing the World Home: Students from Albania to Zimbabwe Make Their Mark on an American Campus