The Gift of a Lifetime

Susan Lee Vick

By Hailey Chatterton ‘20, ΦBK

On May 27, 2020, the UC Davis chapter of Phi Beta Kappa inducted some 80 students in its first-ever virtual ceremony. 

Induction to Phi Beta Kappa is an honor bestowed upon only the top 10 percent of arts and humanities students at the top 10 percent of universities in the United States. Back in 1776, the founders envisioned a secret society in which members would have the freedom to discuss any topic they wished. They believed that a new nation required new cultural and political institutions, and they were committed to intellectual fellowship shaped by the values of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor. These hallmarks of ΦBK are as critical today as they were then.

For Susan Lee Vick, induction to ΦBK was an especially proud moment. 

I share my story with the hope that it might inspire those facing similar challenges. Because my parents struggled with mental illness and addiction, by the age of twelve I was homeless and alone on the streets of San Francisco. Public libraries were my refuge at that time: safe, clean, bright spaces filled with books in which I could lose myself. Through one very long summer, I read more or less nonstop all day, every day.

Though plagued with schizophrenia, my mother was exceptionally gifted intellectually and artistically. Sadly, she died with her many worthy dreams and ambitions unfulfilled. I remember as a child hearing her say admiringly of a distant relation, "He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, you know." It means a great deal to me to know she would have been proud of my election to this most prestigious academic honor society. The accomplishment is, in no small measure, hers.

While I wasn’t able to attend middle school, that interval of intense reading nurtured my mind such that I managed to graduate high school on time. I found my way to community college and then to UC Davis, where I majored in English because I deeply love the language. 

Restless and ambitious, though, I exited Davis before my senior year to accept a position in financial services, then married and left work to raise my four children. 

When my youngest entered school, I returned to professional life to lead sales, marketing, and fund development operations at the local, regional, and national levels. Armed with the grit that helped me survive on the streets and the curiosity that fueled my education, I found professional success in sectors ranging from wealth management to institutional consultancy, fine art, luxury design, disability services, and conservation science.  

Returning to Davis to finish my BA was a birthday present to myself. What a gift it proved to be! My professors were expert and inspiring; my classmates — bright, diverse, enthusiastic, and ethical — left me with renewed hope for the future of our country. I remember one day in particular, six or so weeks into fall quarter, sitting in the back row of a lecture hall gathering the courage to make an announcement. In my professional life, I’ve addressed many boards of directors — but in that college classroom, I was nervous! 

When the professor dismissed us I rose and, heart pounding, called out, "Hey, everyone!" 

Eighty or so students stopped, turned, stared. I swallowed, continued. "Tomorrow's election day. This year is incredibly important, and your voice makes all the difference. So please, get out and vote!"  

I stood there, deer-in-the headlights, through a second or two of silence, until the room erupted into applause, cheers, and exhortations. "Hell, yeah!" "Do it!" "Go VOTE!"  

It was then that I first sensed the principles and power of the generation rising. And Phi Beta Kappans, the world needs your leadership now more than ever. 

Surviving the streets gave me courage to go after every dream, no matter how crazy or unlikely it may seem. Beyond my professional and family goals, this drive has led me to host a talk radio show, front a jazz orchestra, run a bunch of marathons, and trek across Spain and up to Base Camp Everest.

Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from UC Davis stands out as a capstone experience, one of the most joyful of my life. It is in ways redemptive, too.

Though plagued with schizophrenia, my mother was exceptionally gifted intellectually and artistically. Sadly, she died with her many worthy dreams and ambitions unfulfilled. I remember as a child hearing her say admiringly of a distant relation, "He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, you know." It means a great deal to me to know she would have been proud of my election to this most prestigious academic honor society. The accomplishment is, in no small measure, hers, by way of genetic gifts and the opportunities for growth that her illness put in my path.