Westminster, South Carolina, is nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills only 15 miles from Clemson, but for Brooklyn Garrett that distance once seemed insurmountable.

Brooklyn Garrett

Brooklyn Garrett of Westminster plans to attend law school, and continue her advocacy on behalf of first-generation college students.

In May, she graduates from Clemson University after completing a double major in women’s leadership and philosophy with an emphasis in law, liberty, and justice.

Last summer, Garrett landed a prized internship at the South Carolina Supreme Court.

And this summer, the Westminster native will compete in the Miss South Carolina pageant after winning first place at the Miss Upstate competition last February.

Being first is nothing new to Garrett.

After all, she is the first in her family to graduate from college.

Now that she has achieved that goal, one of the first things she wants to do is encourage other young people to become first-generation college students. She wants to help them find their own paths to a university education, and for some, their own paths to Clemson.

A change of direction

“I worried about going to Clemson straight out of high school because of costs,” Garrett said.

For a year she attended Erskine College, a private, Presbyterian school in South Carolina with fewer than 600 students. Garrett remains grateful for the generous scholarship she was offered there, but she had her heart set on reaching Clemson.

 Clemson aided her transition to the university in two important ways, Garrett said.

The FIRST program at Clemson University sponsored a summer course that helped prepare her for success in her coursework.

“The program allowed me to see that other first-generation students were at Clemson, too,” Garrett said. “I’m still connected with students from the summer preview program, and we have been able to use what we learned that week throughout our Clemson experience.”

And when Garrett struggled in a biology course, the Academic Success Center (ASC) empowered her to succeed.

The ASC serves all Clemson students, but it can be an especially valuable resource for students without four-year college degrees in their family history. The center offers free services such as workshops, tutoring and coaching.

“I went to tutoring courses, met with an academic coach and started studying smarter,” Garrett said. “The ASC made me more confident in my strengths and in my ability to succeed.”

The Academic Success Center also offered her paid employment. Since that time, she has worked as a teaching assistant and a peer success leader, helping other students reach their academic potential.

FIRST family

The FIRST program reports that 474 of the freshmen entering Clemson in 2017 — or 12.8 percent — identified themselves as first-generation college students. Among all undergraduates on campus, more than 2,300 are first-generation students.

Brooklyn Garrett

Garrett worked as an intern for the South Carolina Supreme Court in the summer of 2017.

Entering students must apply to become a member of the FIRST program, which currently serves 461 students. To participate, a student must meet with an assigned mentor every week and attend one FIRST event each month.

In return, students receive academic support and assistance with other aspects of their transition to university life. First-generation students who participate in the FIRST Program are more likely to return for a sophomore year than those who do not.

“Clemson is doing an amazing job in its FIRST program by assisting first-generation students,” Garrett said. “Universities definitely need more ‘first’ transition programs that are geared at getting students aware of the resources available to them.”

Because first-generation students often cannot afford to join Greek life, Garrett said they feel they miss opportunities for professional networking. “My first piece of advice is to help first-generation students build a network,” she said.

“Second, it is important that faculty realize most first-generation students have not had opportunities to travel the world,” Garrett said.

When faculty introduce personal travel experiences into global topics, Garrett said they might not realize it sometimes “cuts off and disconnects” first-generation students. But when professors introduce the idea of studying abroad and its intellectual benefits for all students, she said it gives first-generation students a feeling they, too, can participate.

Giving back

“Brooklyn’s dedication to helping first-generation students find their way academically and personally is a model for what it means to be part of the Clemson family,” said Diane Perpich, director of the women’s leadership program in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

Since her first semester at Clemson, Garrett has served as a CAAH Student Ambassador. Students in the program serve as a resource to potential students, assist with events in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities and have opportunities to network with professionals and donors.

Outside the University, Garrett volunteers at schools and events to promote higher education. “In middle schools, I get students thinking and talking about their post-graduation plans and why they value education,” Garrett said.

She encourages the young students to set five-year goals and think about careers. If they focus solely on athletics and entertainment, she tries to steer them toward thinking about how students can pursue both a “fame-motivated career” and a university degree.

Advocacy

College might start with a dream, but Garrett understands that a dream is not enough.

First-generation college students face hidden challenges, she said.

In high school, they miss out on important conversations about higher education. They often face financial hurdles and language barriers. They might lack access to Advanced Placement classes and preparation sessions for standardized tests. They are not always aware of when financial aid forms and college applications are due.

When they make it to campus, most first-generation students must balance work and classwork. Not surprisingly, they experience higher levels of anxiety.

Garrett wants to create a clearer path for potential first-generation college students.

Brooklyn Garrett

Garrett met with Molly Spearman, the South Carolina superintendent of education, to discuss challenges faced by first-generation college students.

To do so, she is enlisting the support of university leadership and state lawmakers. She has spoken with Clemson University President James P. Clements and Mark Cothran, associate vice president of governmental affairs. Garrett has made connections with state senators and met with Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and Molly Spearman, the South Carolina superintendent of education.

She is working on drafting a bill that would support South Carolina’s first-generation college students through existing laws such as the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” and by harnessing current educational resources and new initiatives. She hopes to reach students and their families before high school, when financial planning, academic advising and other assistance can have the most impact.

“It may take years to get legislation introduced,” Garrett said.

Until then, she will continue to research effective programs in other states and refine her proposals.

When Garrett competes in the Miss South Carolina pageant next month, her #BetheFirst campaign will promote academic resources for first-generation students “so they feel as ready for college as anyone else.”

With an extraordinary mix of personal determination and dedication to others, Brooklyn Garrett, Class of ’18, has succeeded at Clemson University.

Before attending law school, she plans to work for a year and continue her advocacy.

And now that Garrett is a “first,” we can’t wait to see what is next.