Clemson University Creates Inclusive Community for Underrepresented, High-Achieving Students

Clemson University in South Carolina may be well-known for its championship sports teams, but its success as an academic institution extends far beyond athletics. Clemson’s acceptance rate is 51 percent and its first-year retention rate, at 93 percent, surpasses the national average by 15 percentage points.

[Above: Faculty, graduate students, and Senior Associate Director for Hispanic Outreach Julio Hernandez (center), attend Clemson University’s inaugural Hispanic and Latinx Voices in Academia conference on Oct. 13, 2018.]

Perhaps most impressive about this university, however, is its commitment to uplifting students and communities sometimes relegated to the sidelines of higher education. Through extensive programming, campus-wide support, and the dedication of Clemson’s faculty and staff, the university has become a place of opportunity for marginalized populations and a role model for other institutions.

Highlighted below are just a few of the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts that make it a welcoming place for students looking for a college where they can feel included.

Clemson Career Workshop
One of the longest-running diversity programs is the Clemson Career Workshop, a weeklong summer experience for high school seniors. Originating in the late 1970s, the workshop was designed to increase the number of incoming African American students who wanted to pursue an engineering degree. Its purpose has since broadened to introduce underrepresented individuals from all backgrounds to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

High school students conduct hands-on experiments in a university lab during the 2018 Clemson Career Workshop.
High school students conduct hands-on experiments in a university lab during the 2018 Clemson Career Workshop.

“We have a lot of alumni across the country who attribute their coming to Clemson to this program,” says Cherese Fine, PhD, program coordinator for the university’s Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education, which operates the workshop.

The program accepts 50 high school students annually to spend a week living on campus, attending introductory courses, and learning how to prepare for the rigors of college.

“We look for students who are first-generation or socioeconomically disadvantaged, but we don’t deny applicants who don’t fit those categories,” Fine says, adding that the program also accepts out-of-state students. “We mainly look for those who are high-achieving and who have a greater chance of being accepted here.” 

While Clemson defines itself as a “science- and engineering-oriented” institution, according to its website, the career workshop also introduces majors outside the STEM fields. Introductory classes in the social sciences, marketing, communications, and business are just a few of the options offered. In keeping with the program’s diversity-oriented mission, the workshop strives to attract soon-to-be college freshmen interested in a variety of disciplines and encourages exploring multiple future careers, Fine says.

Fine’s goal is to ensure the rising high school seniors accepted into the Clemson Career Workshop are prepared for the college application and enrollment process and equipped with the tools necessary to succeed as postsecondary students. 

The workshop’s impact is also evident in how many of the attendees end up enrolling at Clemson. Out of the 100 students who attended in 2017 and 2018, 38 now proudly call themselves Clemson Tigers, Fine says.

Hispanic and Latino Outreach
As the Hispanic and Latino populations in the United States continue to grow, equity-minded institutions like Clemson are working to promote cultural inclusion and educational opportunities for these often-marginalized communities. In spring 2017, Clemson hired Julio Hernandez to guide these efforts as the college’s inaugural associate director for Hispanic outreach. His role includes recruiting and supporting Hispanic students in underserved high schools, building community connections, and increasing the number of Hispanic faculty and staff.

Having a staff member dedicated solely to Hispanic outreach has been successful. Over the past two years, the number of Latino students applying to Clemson rose 108 percent, while the number of Latinos applying for open jobs at Clemson increased by 50 percent, according to Hernandez.

“The more [Hispanic] professors and employees we have on campus, the more places we have where Hispanic students can make connections with someone who may understand where they’re coming from,” says Hernandez, adding that many of these students are first-generation college attendees. “When you’re faced with something you’ve never had to do before, like creating a résumé, it’s encouraging to have someone to turn to in the career services office who looks like you or may share your background.”

Men of Color Summit
One of Hernandez’s biggest goals is to increase enrollment and success for Hispanic male students. As co-chair of Clemson’s annual Men of Color Summit, he helps organize and lead a conference of more than 2,000 attendees — including educators, business leaders, and high school and college students from across the country — all dedicated to promoting bright futures for young African American and Hispanic men. Both groups have the lowest high school and college graduation rates of any other demographic and in many ways “can relate to one another through shared experiences,” Hernandez says.

“The Men of Color Summit breaks down [these similarities] and shows these young men that they can dream big,” he says, “but in order to do that, they need champions and people to advocate for them, which is why we invite educators, community leaders, parents, and more. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Lee A. Gill, JD, chief diversity officer for the university, proposed the idea of hosting the summit when he started at Clemson in 2016. Having helped organize a similar event in his previous position with University of Akron in Ohio, Gill says the university leadership and the surrounding community of Greenville, S.C., gave the idea immediate approval. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the city realized that the summit “sends a powerful message by our community standing up for young men of color,” he says.

Sponsors for the summit include the city of Greenville and large corporate partners such as BMW, Boeing, and Michelin Tire. These organizations want a more diverse workforce, Gill says, and they realize achieving that goal requires closing achievement gaps for this underserved population.

The third annual Men of Color Summit will take place in April 2019. Gill says the university is looking forward to the program’s continuing success in bringing thought leaders from across the country to give presentations and lead workshops on best practices for supporting young men of color and to inspire the young men in attendance by serving as role models.

Clemson’s Multicultural Center promotes LGBTQ pride and allyship during a campus outreach event.
Clemson’s Multicultural Center promotes LGBTQ pride and allyship during a campus outreach event.

LGBTQ Programs
As with many of its diversity and inclusion focus areas, Clemson’s efforts to support and celebrate its LGBTQ population are robust. Located in the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, the university’s LGBTQ Programs division offers advocacy and educational opportunities, social programs and services, and a full calendar of campus events designed to celebrate and support this community.

The decision to house its LGBTQ office in the campus’ Multicultural Center — rather than in a separate center — was inspired by the university’s intersectional approach to diversity and identity. “We know that our students don’t just bring one identity to the table,” says Kendra Stewart-Tillman, PhD, director of the center. “If you’re an LGBTQ student of color, you shouldn’t have to choose whether to find support at a multicultural center or at a LGBTQ center. Here, we serve all students and all identities.”

The university trains students and employees to advocate for and support the LGBTQ community. While Clemson has offered safe zone ally training for more than 15 years, the recent hiring of a full-time employee to oversee LGBTQ programs has enabled the center to host multiple training sessions for any student, faculty, or staff member who wishes to become an LGBTQ ally.

Whether students are looking for a safe space, faculty who reflect their identities, or help in their future careers, those attending Clemson can be sure the university will offer them a welcoming and inclusive campus community for people from all backgrounds.

For more information about Clemson’s diversity programs, visit clemson.edu/inclusion.

Mariah Bohanan is the associate editor of DiversityIS. Clemson University is a 2018 INSIGHT Into Diversity Diversity Champion.