By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Bennett Davis Jr. is a big man with a big heart.
The 6-foot-9 former college basketball player and coach serves as the director of community standards and student conduct at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
It’s an intimidating title, which involves enforcing the UNK Student Code of Conduct to ensure Lopers have a positive and safe experience during their time on campus. But Davis wants students to see him more as a mentor than a disciplinarian.
“My job is all about student interactions,” he said. “I want to help as many people as I can.”
The door to his office inside the Nebraskan Student Union is always open, according to Davis, who welcomes the opportunity to meet with students or parents.
If someone is struggling with their mental health, Davis is there to listen and refer them to other on-campus resources. When a student isn’t performing well in class, he’s quick to offer advice and directions to the Learning Commons. If an athlete needs someone with a similar background to talk to, come on in.
“One thing I want to do is bring a sense of belonging to all the students,” Davis said. “I want every student to feel like they belong here. Honestly, I want all the students here to love themselves and understand that it’s OK to be vulnerable at times.”
HE’S BEEN THERE
When he meets with students, Davis speaks from experience.
The 27-year-old grew up in Raymond, Mississippi, a small community just west of Jackson.
“Jackson shaped a lot of things about me. It was a tough area – a lot of gun violence, a lot of drugs. Just a crazy area in general,” he said. “I remember my parents always telling me, ‘If you want to make it out and you want to succeed, you need to hang around like-minded individuals.’ That’s something I always think about.”
After graduating from Central Hinds Academy, Davis played basketball for one season at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He knows what it’s like to feel out of place, which is why he transferred to Jones County Junior College back in Mississippi.
Davis received his associate degree from Jones College before joining the men’s basketball team at Mississippi Valley State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation. He remained at Mississippi Valley State as a graduate assistant, completing a master’s degree in sports administration while assisting then-head coach Andre Payne and participating in a mentorship program that allowed him to positively impact the lives of student-athletes.
“I think it’s a blessing to be in a role where I can change someone’s trajectory for the better, because I had somebody do that for me,” said Davis, who took this commitment one step further when he left Mississippi Valley State in May 2019.
He spent the next 14 months working as a unit manager in the juvenile justice system in Nashville, Tennessee.
“That was a very trying time in my life,” he said. “I was dealing with kids as young as 10 who were robbing people, doing drive-bys and killing people, and they didn’t think anything of it.”
That didn’t stop him from developing impactful relationships.
“I remember when I left, there was a kid who just started crying. I asked him why he was crying and he was like, ‘You’re the first male figure who actually cared about me. I actually felt like you wanted me to do better,’” Davis said. “That’s something that stuck with me. We don’t realize, even in a short amount of time, how much we can impact youths’ lives.”
Davis was an assistant women’s basketball coach and housing, student engagement and student conduct director at Colby Community College in Kansas before joining UNK in April 2022.
“I’m a very spiritual person. I let God kind of dictate certain things. I did a lot of praying and I just got told this is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “I only want to be somewhere I can help – somewhere I’m needed.”
In addition to his role as director of community standards and student conduct, Davis serves as an adviser for the Black Student Association and he’s involved with events and activities through the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. Just two months after arriving on campus, he was the keynote speaker for the Juneteenth celebration.
He’s also a member of Leadership UNK and he teaches a Chancellor’s Leadership Class every Tuesday and Thursday. In that course, Davis uses his own experiences and lessons from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” to show students how to become the best version of themselves.
“I’m trying to prepare our young students for the future and help them become better leaders,” he said. “When we get older, this is the generation that’s going to be in those important positions, so we need to instill in them those good habits and good values. We want these students to be able to make the right decisions.”