Adaptability is hanging out with your older cousins as an elementary schooler and them preventing you from passing the joint because “you’re different from us.”
Adaptability is being sent to a predominately-white school against your will while you lived in a neighborhood where there wasn’t a white student until eighth grade.
Adaptability is carrying the weight of a basketball team as the lone senior when your coach dies two weeks before the season starts.
Adaptability is volunteering in a hospital for children with special needs in a foreign country, feeling lost and overwhelmed.
Adaptability is cutting ties with the game you love in order to pay for tuition.
Adaptability is the word given to Jerrell Davis by his trainer, “Uncle Keith,” in the summer of 2009. As it turns out, Uncle Keith was spot on.
“He was prophetic in that,” Davis says, a senior sociology major. “Still to this day, adaptability is the word for me… I have the ability to adapt and change in the face of things that aren’t going the way I expect them to.”
Davis grew up in Rainier Valley, a neighborhood in south Seattle. It is a proud, cultured community, and for those who grow up in the valley, the neighborhood never leaves you — despite where you go in life.
For Davis, his life has been centered on family, faith and basketball. His parents, both college graduates, as well as his older sister, inspired him to achieve his dreams. His friends in the neighborhood served as his brothers. Amidst the gangs, violence and drugs, Davis’ potential stuck out.
“They wouldn’t let me [smoke and drink with them], and I would get mad at it, but now I recognize that as their way of trying to uplift me,” Davis says when thinking about his childhood. “They used to tell me, ‘You’re not like us.’ …My friends and family might not be doing right by the world’s eyes, but they are still my support group.”
In addition, his Christian faith has been a central theme in his life. He grew up going to church, but his faith was never forced upon him, and he made it his own.
When he made the difficult transition to a predominately white, private Catholic high school, he relied on his faith in order to persevere. Rather than attending Cleveland High School, the local public school, his parents felt O’Dea, a private Catholic school, would prepare him and challenge him.
When Davis was a freshman, the basketball team won the state championship, but he didn’t have much of a role in the success. Within a few years, the team was his. On a Friday afternoon leading up to the season, his coach, Phil Lumpkin, told Davis the team had potential to win state. One week later, Lumpkin died of pneumonia.
“I’ve been losing people all my life, so it wasn’t new, but it’s always different, and I think the circumstance that it hit me was in a completely different way,” Davis says. His team finished seventh at state and colleges took notice. Davis narrowed it down to Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University and ultimately chose SPU for financial reasons.
The plan was to redshirt his freshman basketball season then earn an athletic scholarship to cover the rest of tuition. At the end of the year, though, the money wasn’t available, and Davis faced a dilemma.
“I had to make the decision of playing for free, take out more loans and try to figure how I am going to finish paying, or stop playing and work,” Davis says. “So I made the decision to stop playing.”
That decision was one of many difficult trials his freshman year. In the first month, his cousin was shot. A few weeks later, a grandpa-like figure passed away.
“Through a wide range of difficult and painful experiences, Jerrell has listened to God and has seen that God’s leading is often in unexpected ways,” says Susan Lane, the director of Multi-Ethnic Programs.
Davis was able to adapt to the new situation — a community so distant from his own, one without basketball — and thrive. He became passionate about sociology and social enterprise, using his experience as a platform for educating others both in the classroom and outside of it.
“He is just a really great person,” says senior Zach Christensen, Davis’ roommate freshman year. “He is very supporting and aware.”
After a year of saving money and working three jobs, Davis was able to spend over two months on a study abroad trip to Guatemala.
“It was totally life changing,” Davis says. “The experiences I had totally changed my whole mindset on how I do service.”
On the first day, Davis was assigned to do volunteer work at a special needs hospital for children. He felt overwhelmed and under-prepared, unsure if he could ever last. Then he saw a crucifix of Jesus hanging on the cross, missing an arm and a leg.
“In that image of a disabled Jesus, God spoke to me: ‘This is where I want you,’” Davis says. “I stayed and went back every day. It came easy.”
Davis has a passion for studying gentrification, a term that describes a shift of an urban community toward wealthy residents with increased property values.
He has witnessed this firsthand in his own neighborhood, in which the poor residents are seemingly displaced, not helped. From a young age, Davis has been taught the importance of indigenous leaders — those who are born in the neighborhood stay in the neighborhood to help it — and that’s where his passion remains.
He also plans on returning to Guatemala, either in August or January, to continue to learn how to do service in communities different than his own. Be cautious when you ask him what’s next, though.
“It gets on my nerves when people ask me what I am doing next,” Davis says. “Yo, don’t discount everything I’ve just done. There is a way better question to ask after they’ve finished a long, hard journey. That’s like someone just finishing a marathon and you asking them, ‘When is the next marathon?’ Ask me about my experience, how I grew.”
In those answers, you’ll discover how Davis was able to adapt in each situation that came before him.
“I find that I am in a unique place because it seems like a time of anxiety, stress or fear, but I am not down with that,” Davis says. “I have too much faith in God and myself to have fear. There is no logic in fear. If you’re afraid for what is going to happen, why not be excited for what you don’t know?”