Clemson creates college-going culture with Emerging Scholars
College admissions — and hopes — are on the rise in some of South Carolina’s poorest counties because of Clemson University’s Emerging Scholars program.
With tears, hugs, selfies, and promises to stay in touch, it looks like any other graduation.
But this one is different. Twenty-eight rising high school seniors celebrate the completion of the Emerging Scholars program at Clemson University that’s lifting graduation rates and creating a college-going culture in some of South Carolina’s poorest communities.
Says Jasmine Smoak, now back at Estill High School and awaiting college acceptance letters, “I’ve become someone who I never thought I would be.”
It’s a comment that Amber Lange, director of the program begun by former Navy captain and educator Byron Wiley in 2002, hears often about the targeted outreach to high school students in Allendale, Bamberg, and Hampton counties. The Emerging Scholars program is part of Clemson’s Office of Access and Equity.
The program features a college boot camp at Clemson each summer with college-level art, English, math, public speaking, science, SAT preparation, and other courses. Also included: college visits, leadership training, and other follow-up events near their Lowcountry communities.
Emerging Scholars helps students focus on the future beyond the shuttered windows, aging buildings, and scarce jobs they see around them.
“From the first day they get off the bus to when they walk across the stage and get their certificates as Emerging Scholars grads, we talk about college, because high school graduation isn’t the end goal,” Amber says. “We know graduating from high school is not all our students can achieve, and the results speak for themselves.
“We believe in them, and we know Wells Fargo believes in them because of the more than $500,000 the bank has provided to give them this opportunity as our corporate sponsor, and as part of its overall community support,” she adds. “As a result, they achieved great things and will continue to soar.”
Of the 348 Emerging Scholars grads to date, 1oo percent have graduated from high school versus the 73.5 percent average across their five high schools. And 90 percent have gone on to colleges across South Carolina or military training programs from towns where the percentage of young adults with college degrees is less than 10 percent.
Mychal Johnson is the latest Emerging Scholars grad. The Bamberg-Ehrhart High School student already has plans for the graphic communications degree he earned this summer at Clemson.
“When I was a freshman, I didn’t care that much about school but all that changed through Emerging Scholars,” Mychal says. “My mom is a single parent and times weren’t always easy growing up in this community so I want to get a high-paying job so I can help support her and my sister.”
Runelle Weeks, a guidance counselor at Mychal’s high school, is one of those on the lookout for Emerging Scholars candidates.
“The program has made a name for itself and changed lives over and over,” Runelle says. “Now parents call me wanting their kids to go. In an area with so much poverty and so many limited opportunities for activities away from school, Emerging Scholars has addressed both and been a win-win for us.
“It’s given our students something to look forward to.”
Cynthia Deaton is among the Emerging Scholars program faculty at Clemson. This summer, the associate professor of science education equipped students with iPads and had a movie day premier of their films about solutions to pollution complete with popcorn, treats, and awards.
“Emerging Scholars is a fabulous program that I clear my schedule to be a part of each year,” Cynthia says. “These students are so excited about learning and taking advantage of opportunities and experiences they might not have in their schools.
“But even more than that, what thrills me is to hear them talk about their goals and dreams and to see them build friendships over their three years here as they work together. They really do support each other, and have become a community which is a part of college life.
“I know they will cheer each other on, and be there for each other wherever their talents take them.”