How a high school dropout with a learning disability rebounded to earn 5 graduate degrees

Sumner Davis
Dr. W. Sumner Davis ’18, ’15, ’11. Photo by Greta Rybus.

He was lying in a driveway at the age of 27 when his life changed. Dr. W. Sumner Davis ’18, ’15, ’11 didn’t learn to read or write until he was nearly 11 years old, and after years of being told he was intellectually slow, he left high school as a sophomore to take a job in construction. On the day that changed everything, he literally hit bottom—a roofing bracket collapsed under him, resulting in a 30-foot fall.

Davis broke his neck in two places, and full recovery took several years. During his rehabilitation, Davis was forced to accept that he could no longer work such a physically demanding job. It was then that he realized there was nowhere to go but up.

After the accident, Davis was placed on permanent disability and assigned a counselor. “I didn’t want to sit around watching TV. I wanted to do something meaningful and help people,” he says. When Davis mentioned an interest in vocational school, he was referred to a psychologist who told him he lacked the aptitude for higher education. His wife, Catherine, disagreed.

“She laughed and said I was one of the smartest people she knew and that I could do anything I wanted to do,” Davis says.

With that encouragement, Davis enrolled in a local community college, but he struggled to maintain a C average during his first term. “I was in the library one day and overheard two education majors talking about methods of learning,” he says. “I offered to buy them coffee, and our resulting conversation made me think that I might have a learning disability.”

A follow-up with a psychiatrist led to a diagnosis of a severe form of dyslexia, a learning disorder characterized by difficulty matching text with the sounds those letters and words make. After working with educational consultants and using adaptive education tactics, such as audio text and large print, the man who struggled to read as a child suddenly began to excel.

He pursued his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine Farmington at age 32, completing the program in 2 years. But he didn’t stop there. Davis earned four master’s degrees, numerous advanced certificates, and a PhD.

Davis discovered Walden when researching options for his third master’s degree. “After talking to current and former students, I liked what I heard,” Davis says. “I’m a big believer in learning how to think, but I don’t like being told what to think.”

He earned his Master of Public Health (MPH) in 2011 and re-enrolled that same year in the PhD in Public Health program, which he completed in 2015.

“Walden’s been a good fit. I have continued to come back because of the flexibility and the quality of the faculty.”

In addition to his MPH, PhD, and certificates in Clinical Research Administration and Project Management, Davis has most recently completed his Master of Healthcare Administration, which he uses as a health consultant. He works with groups and organizations to make sense of changing healthcare regulations and performs infection control assessments, health-related risk analyses, and data analyses for various organizations.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store when it comes to learning,” Davis says. “If something interests me, I want to learn more about it. I don’t think that desire will ever stop or that I’ll ever feel as though I’ve learned everything I can.”

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