Actress Cassi Davis, 44, has appeared in movies, worked with top directors such as Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, and has had an amazing run as matriarch Ella Payne in “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” But every time she returned home for family reunions in Holly Springs, Mississippi, someone would ask, “Didn’t you graduate from Spelman College?” Davis would get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Davis left Holly Springs for the hustle and bustle of Atlanta after high school to attend the prestigious all-women historically Black college, but in her senior year, she abruptly dropped out. Recently, she began to think about the benefits of having a college degree. Even as a successful stage and small screen actress, Davis made the decision to return to Spelman. Now, 25 years after she first entered its hallowed halls, Davis will finally walk with hundreds of other graduates to accept her diploma this weekend. ESSENCE.com talked to her about her amazing journey, how she juggled her schoolwork with working on one of the highest-rated sitcoms on cable television, and why she wants other Black women to know, it’s never too late to enjoy your second chance.
ESSENCE.COM: Congratulations on your graduation. Why did you leave Spelman before graduating the first time?
CASSI DAVIS: I graduated from high school May 7, 1984, and left home to go to Spelman. I majored in music with a concentration in vocal performance but I didn’t want to be a classical singer. I thought this college experience would teach me how to be a gospel singer. When I got there, I was awakened to the real world. I was trying to get my music degree and really just wanted to sing about Jesus. So, it was just a rebellious thing for me. I didn’t want to do a senior recital without singing something spiritual. They told me I couldn’t, so I walked away. I was shy one-credit hour and completing my senior recital to graduate. I was angry and, at the time, I thought, I’m going to leave and one day you’re going to beg me to come back and give me an honorary degree. Then I got out there and established a relationship with the Lord and realized I was terribly out of order. I matured and God gave me a second chance to correct this.
ESSENCE.COM: You’re a successful, working actress. Why go back now?
DAVIS: First of all, I started to pay off my student loan even before I knew whether or not I was going back. Secondly, after establishing this relationship with the Lord, there were some things I just didn’t want left on my conscious. Coming from Mississippi, we were always taught if you start something, you finish it. Education really is necessary. I may be a part of a successful television show, but I still want to accomplish a lot more. This degree will open up so many more opportunities for me. Being a Black woman especially, people just talk to you and handle you differently. I haven’t even graduated yet and I’ve noticed a change already.
ESSENCE.COM: How much time did you have to allot to get this one-hour credit?
DAVIS: It took me from February 2008 to November to 2008 to prepare for my senior showcase. I called Spelman to ask what I needed to do to get my degree after being away for so long. They said that if I didn’t get my degree by December 2008, I would have lost all my credit hours. I was like, I’m getting this degree today! I contacted the music department and my only requirement was to do a senior showcase with a few other students.
ESSENCE.COM: Tyler Perry is notorious for his gift giving. Did he get you something for your graduation?
DAVIS: He’s very excited about me graduating. Back in September, he gave me a 1966 candy-apple red drop top Ford convertible mustang. I mentioned to him once that I wanted one. He told me to go to this antique store to pick up my gift. I didn’t know I was getting an antique car! It was a wonderful gift then, but it’s going to be even better now because I’m driving it to my graduation.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you want to tell other Black women who are struggling with the idea of going back to school?
DAVIS: There is nothing that will make you feel better about yourself. Although God is the push behind it all for me, my father was my force of encouragement. He passed away a few years ago, but would tell me when opportunity calls, you need to be ready. Look, you can make excuses from now until Jesus comes back. I hope my story encourages someone to go back. I don’t know which way the world is going, but if you have your degree, you will be ready.
Tune in to “House of Payne,” Wednesdays at 8 P.M. EST. on TBS.