Davidson graduates include a ‘perfect candidate’ for class of 2014

When she was 7, Sara Leffingwell’s grandfather gave her a child-size Davidson College cheerleader uniform for Christmas.

Growing up in Charlotte, Press Millen had been a devoted Davidson fan. His father-in-law, C.W. Gilchrist, was a graduate, class of 1922. His son, Pat, graduated in the class of 1986.

All granddaughter Sara’s life, Millen led the family in urging that she, too, should go to Davidson.

That Christmas 15 years ago, he snapped a photo of Sara in her cheerleading outfit and sent a copy to then-Davidson President Bobby Vagt with a letter that his granddaughter would be a perfect candidate for the class of 2014.

Vagt wrote the girl back, telling her that if she worked hard, she’d have a good shot at a Davidson diploma.

Sunday, Leffingwell joined 455 other graduates who walked across a makeshift stage inside Belk Arena on campus to collect their diplomas. Leffingwell graduated cum laude with a biology degree.

Among the class of 2014 were four graduates with summa cum laude honors – the first Davidson class with that many summas. That means they finished with straight As, or a 4.0 grade point average out of a possible 4.

The four: James “Jamie” Durling of Chevy Chase, Md., honors in philosophy; Sarah Gustafson of Wilton, Conn., high honors in history; Genevieve Nielsen of Winnetka, Ill., honors in economics; and Justin Strickland of Springfield, Va., (a double major in biology and psychology), graduating with high honors in psychology.

Shortly before the school’s 177th commencement, Leffingwell said she’d spent her early life determined not to go to Davidson.

“Everyone in my family wanted me to go here, but I said, ‘no, that’s not going to happen,’ ” said Leffingwell, of Rockville, Md. “I didn’t necessarily see the fit.”

Said her mother, Betsy: “She was trying to be difficult. We thought she should apply and make Davidson her reach school.”

She did and sent a copy of Vagt’s letter with her application.

After Davidson accepted her, Vagt wrote again: “He told me why he loved Davidson and why I should become a part of the Davidson community.”

She arrived with her mother four years ago for freshman orientation. “On the second day, I turned to my mom and said, ‘You know, you all were right.’ I just felt an immediate bond.”

In two weeks, she’ll start as a clinical research assistant at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas, Texas. Ultimately, she wants to be a physician’s assistant.

Her family couldn’t be prouder to have another Wildcat in the fold.

“Sara’s done amazing work,” Betsy Leffingwell said. “Her graduation from Davidson means a lot to this family.”

In Vagt’s second letter, he promised Leffingwell something else: He’d be at her graduation.

Sunday, he was with two other former Davidson presidents, John Kuykendall and Tom Ross, now president of the UNC system.

After the commencement, Betsy Leffingwell snapped a photo of her daughter and Vagt.

It will become part of a graduation gift: a framed collage of the photo of young Sara in her cheerleading outfit, Vagt’s two letters, her acceptance letter and graduation program.

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