By Tiffany Whitfield and Jefferson Huddle

Levi Davis graduated from Old Dominion University in May of 2023 with a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics. However, Davis is not your average four-year student. He persevered through personal challenges and setbacks to earn his degree in 14 years.

After graduating from high school in 2008, Davis started his college career at Averett University in Danville, Virginia. “My main reason for going there was to play basketball and hopefully transfer out of there to a Division One school,” said Davis. After one semester, Davis was unhappy. “It just didn't work out, and I wanted to transfer.”

He applied in the spring of 2009 and by the fall of 2009 he officially transferred to at ODU. “It was a big transition from a very small school to a school such as ODU,” said Davis. “When I came in, I was already determined that I was undecided for my major.” Uncertain if ODU was going to work out, he went in with an open mind and at the very least was going to give the university a try.

After his first year, he debated whether to major in engineering or mathematics. Unsure of his choice, Davis went and spoke to one of the engineering advisors and was advised to take calculus first. “The advisor told me, ‘if you’re thinking about doing math, wait until you finish with calculus, and then come back and we can decide from there.’” Davis was all in on that plan. “I finished calculus with an ‘A’, and that’s how I knew I was going to make mathematics my major,” said Davis. 

By his sophomore year, Davis was fully into the swing of college life as a Monarch. He even held a part-time job alongside his academics. Unfortunately, after his mother had surgery on her foot, things started to snowball out of control. “The surgery basically put her out, and she wasn’t really making as much money,” said Davis. He had already been working a few hours a week at a part-time job off campus, and he worked as a math tutor in the Science Tutoring Centers (STC) formerly known as the Math and Science Resource Center. “I wanted to help out my mom and by this time she was bed-ridden, and she needed intense physical therapy,” said Davis. His 15 hours a week turned into 40 hours a week. “Now, I’m working full-time because I had to be the man and help my mom, so I was completely distracted, and the distraction took a toll on me.” Coming from a single parent household, he did all he could to support his mother.

He courageously started the next semester while he had a full-time job and caring for his mother, but medical bills began to stack up along with more devastating news. “My mom said, ‘you know the house is in foreclosure, and you know we both have to move now’,” said Davis. His mom moved in with a relative. “I ended up moving in with my father,” said Daivs. “All of this was happening in the middle of my junior semester, and I was more worried about my mom than my own well-being.” She assured him that everything was going to be fine. He packed up everything and put their belongings in storage. “This was all another big distraction for me, having to leave my home and my mother was definitely a big toll,” said Davis. He failed his courses that semester. “I wasn’t able to recover from that one,” said Davis. “Because I bombed all my classes, I got a letter from ODU, stating because I didn’t pass any classes, that I had to repay a portion of the financial aid that was given to me which totaled $1,800.” He couldn’t afford to pay back the partial financial aid, and that meant he wasn’t able to register for classes or attend ODU for what would have been his senior year. “This was the start of my eight-year hiatus from ODU,” said Davis.

Davis left ODU in 2014 at which time he was working at Home Depot. He had other financial obligations that he had to take care of, and he could not pay the $1,800 back to the university. “One year turned to two years, and two years turned into five years,” said Davis. 

After he left Home Depot, he became a postal worker and delivered the mail for four years. “One of my routes as a mailman was ODU,” said Davis. “I had to deliver to 40th street, 41st, 45th street, and I would also deliver to the quad, Dominion House and student housing.” When he was on campus delivering the mail, he always stopped by to say “hello” to Andrea Stephen, manager of the STC and his former supervisor. “I always kept in touch with her, and I told her I’m going to come back and finish what I started,” said Davis.

He was able to make good on one obligation while he was a postal worker. “I paid my debt back to ODU,” said Davis.

After the postal service, in 2020, he joined the Merchant Marine for two years. “One of the first places I went to was San Diego California, and I went there for training, and I fell in love with this city,” said Davis. Guam as the first place he went and afterwards he went to Japan and worked in several cities there followed by time in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, South Korea, Hawaii again, Guam and Washington state.

“During my third deployment, it was special because we were stationed in Norfolk for most of my deployment from March to June in 2022,” said Davis. “I was able to come back to ODU and get everything situated,” said Davis. Also, on lunch breaks he visited Stephen at the STC. Ultimately, he had a plan to return to ODU in the fall of 2022. However, he had to leave his Merchant Marine deployment in July 2022. “Before I left, I registered for classes that were to begin in August, and I knew I had to be back by Friday August 29 to start my classes,” said Davis. Once he was back at sea, the first place he went to was Spain, and in August he went to the United Kingdom and visited Scotland and London. “The clock is ticking and it’s August 22, and I knew I had to get off the boat by Wednesday to be on a flight heading back to Norfolk,” said Davis. In his line of work, he couldn’t leave until his relief showed up. “The ship was leaving on Friday to go out to sea for two weeks, but my relief came on that Wednesday, and I was able to leave on Friday to fly back to the United States,” said Davis. “I started back at ODU in fall 2022,” said Davis.

Initially he took 12 credits. “I told myself I’m going to get this degree,” said Davis. Because he was still affiliated with the Merchant Marines, he was scheduled to go to the Middle East in November 202, so he resigned because he was so close to finishing his senior year at ODU.

The first person he went to see again was Andrea Stephen, and she gave him a math tutoring position at the STC. “I look at her like a mother, and I call her my ‘momma on campus’, and she gave me so much encouragement over eight years away from ODU,” said Daivs. “It’s not enough thank you’s I can say to her.”

Also, he picked up a second math tutoring job with TRIO Student Support Services. He became active in the Mathematics/Statistics club on campus. “To Ms. Passion I was a tutor before my hiatus and thankfully she welcomed me back to TRIO with open arms, and I can’t thank them both enough,” said Davis.

He was laser focused on finishing what he started this time around. “It felt empty, and it felt like a thorn in my side to not finish what I started, and I value my degree,” said Davis. “It’s something I worked for, and I wanted to finish even after the eight-year hiatus.” He earned his degree in May 2023.

Just before graduation, Davis networked and applied for positions. “I made this list of places I wanted to live after graduation, and San Diego was number one on my list,” said Davis. On April 1, at ODU’s Admitted Students Day he worked a tabling event as part of the STC. While there, it was a gentleman with his family and his daughter was planning to attend ODU in fall of 2023. “I’m speaking to the father, and he asked me what my major is, and I told him I’m an applied math major,” said Davis. The gentleman said he was looking for applied math majors to work with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the National Geodetic Survey, and he happened to be the Deputy Director. The research is geared towards climate and atmosphere and in alignment with NOAA. They met days later on Zoom and discussed potential opportunities to get financial aid to help pay for graduate school.

“That lit the flame in me to start applying to graduate schools,” said Davis. He applied to San Diego State University (SDSU) for graduate school, and NOAA is heavily connected to SDSU. They were the only school with a late deadline to apply. He got his acceptance letter to SDSU the week of finals at ODU. After taking a gap year, Davis plans to attend SDSU in the fall of 2024.