She stopped by the campus post office, looking for her old P.O. Box 5951, and was flooded with the memory of her dad saying, "This is the last letter I'll ever write to 5951," shortly before her graduation. Davis still has that letter, as well as a collection of letters that her mother wrote home a generation earlier while she was a student at Stanford.
"Her mother required her to write two letters home a week, or she told my mom tuition would be pulled," said Davis, who was struck by how much she could relate to her mom's college experiences through those letters.
"You know you have that moment when you realize you're not as different from your parents as you thought you were?" she said, laughing. "Just things about her walking around campus and being at the Big Game and wondering what to do with the rest of her life and all that ... I was like, 'Boy, a lot of this is kind of ringing true.'"
That walk prompted Davis to publish her newly released book "Letters Home from Stanford: 125 Years of Correspondence Collected from Students of Stanford University," a collection of handwritten and electronic correspondence of Stanford students spanning from the opening of the university through 2016. These firsthand accounts weave together historical events, campus life and the experience of leaving home for the first time.
Reading through so many generations of letter writers revealed to Davis some recurring themes, across time: Grades. Finances. Roommates. The Big Game against football rival the University of California, Berkeley. Missing home.
"It's just about being human and growing up and trying to define yourself and figure yourself out — 'Who am I in relation to my family, my parents, the world?'" she said.
The book prompted her to reflect on the tangible ways that communication has changed and the ways in which that change affects the way that students and parents process and communicate their experiences.
"Letters, by their very nature, invite reflection," Davis said. "Not all letters are reflective, but I think they invite reflection more than some other forms of correspondence."
Davis' favorite chapter in the book is "Snapshots from the Quad" — a sort of collage of students' experiences on the quad, across time. She said that she likes to imagine that she's standing in the middle of the quad watching Lucy graduate from the pioneer Class of 1892, and Hope celebrate the end of World War I, and Elaine throw snowballs during a rare snowstorm in 1962.
Finding these stories wasn't easy. Davis collaborated with University Archivist Daniel Hartwig, who had already started collecting letters through the Stanford Student Letters and Memoirs Collection to put together the book.
She collected letters from family, friends and friends of friends. She reached out to the Alumni Association, student centers, and alumni and current student lists. Assistant Archivist Josh Schneider set up a submission process by which current students and recent alums could submit emails and text messages — letter writing for the digital age. Davis and the university archivists hosted events at the Vi at Palo Alto retirement community in Palo Alto and set up a booth on campus during Reunion Homecoming weekend.
Through these efforts, Davis was able to add around 40 more sets of letters to the collection, a process that took about two years with the support of the archivists and interns from the English and history departments.
"Frankly, if I hadn't been working with the archivists and the four to five students, it probably would've taken me a year or two longer," she said.
The process of putting together the book was an editorial and curatorial feat — one that Davis found more challenging than she initially thought it would be.
Davis was careful to obtain permission from letter writers and their descendants and worked with a genealogist to fill in the gaps about those who wrote letters around the turn of the last century.
Though she didn't have to, she offered those who submitted letters the opportunity to look over the copy that was going in the book, changing names when families requested it and accommodating people's preferences.
"I hope this book evokes to many people, but perhaps to incoming freshman in particular, that they're part of a greater whole here," she said. "It's not just their dorm; it's not even their class. It's a whole community going on before them and after them," she said.
Davis will be signing books at 7 p.m., Friday, June 16, at Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto.
Editorial Assistant and Internship Coordinator Anna Medina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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