As a land-grant institution, Clemson University was committed from its inception to serve South Carolina’s rural communities by providing small farmers with practical knowledge and research. That mission has evolved and expanded over the years as Clemson has grown and the dynamics of South Carolina have changed.

Among Clemson’s ongoing initiatives is increasing the number of South Carolina students who attend and graduate from college, in part by providing those in underserved communities the guidance and tools needed to pursue higher education. The goal is to turn those students into citizens who will return to their communities to motivate and inspire more young people to follow the same path.

The words "Emerging Scholars" lie above and below a graduation cap and open bookNow, the seeds planted by programs like Emerging Scholars, which was founded in 2002, are starting to grow roots. Since its inception, the program has been consistently steering high school students from South Carolina’s Interstate 95 Corridor — a chain of predominantly poor, rural counties running from the North Carolina border down through South Carolina to its southern tip at the Georgia border — into attending college.

The Emerging Scholars Program aims to establish a college-going culture among selected program participants through academic enrichment, developing leadership skills and increasing college preparedness. Rising high school sophomores in the program attend a weeklong session on the Clemson campus during the summer where they take reading, writing and math classes and participate in team-building exercises. The next summer, it’s a two-week session, and the following summer there’s a three-week session before their last year of high school.

By the time participants finish the third session, they’re familiar with the academic and social ins and outs of higher education. The goal is not to lead students to Clemson, but to any place of higher education. The results have been impressive: 100 percent of the Emerging Scholars students (more than 700) have graduated from high school, with 90 percent going on to attend college or join the military the next year.

For three sets of brothers — the Figueroas, the Polites and the Orrs — who all made the Emerging Scholars journey and wound up enrolled at Clemson together, the program helped the University become a vital part of life for entire families that never would have envisioned being Tigers a few short years ago.

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Two Hispanic-American brothers, each wearing glasses and backward baseball caps, pose with their arms around each other in Brackett Hall

Jonathan and Josue Figueroa in Brackett Hall on campus.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Twins Jonathan and Josue Figueroa joined the Emerging Scholars Program as rising high school sophomores in Estill. Their parents immigrated to the tiny former railroad town (population 2,025) from Mexico to put the American Dream within the grasp of their children. When Jonathan and Josue were first accepted to Clemson, it was a dream come true for the whole family.

“Our older sister, Anna, went through Emerging Scholars and came to Clemson before us, so she led the way,” said Jonathan, who is studying mechanical engineering. “I never really thought about going to college until then.”

Josue — who graduated in May with a degree in computer information systems and is headed to University of Michigan for graduate school — said that participating in Emerging Scholars helped an entire generation of Figueroas realize that a path to higher education was possible. In addition to the two brothers and their sister, there is also a cousin, Vanessa Gonzales, who is a Clemson junior.

Two young boys, maybe four or five years old, smile at the camera.

Jonathan and Josue Figueroa as boys.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

“Emerging Scholars really opened the door for us,” Josue said. “As the children of immigrants, it was the first time any of us ever thought about going to college. My parents didn’t have any idea what Clemson was before we got in. We’re all first-generation college students, and our family is already going to have quite a legacy here.”

Both brothers describe being in that first generation as an exhilarating adventure. Estill is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone, so attending their first summer session on Clemson’s 17,000-acre campus was an eye-opener.

Jonathan smiled as he looked back on it; “I was nervous because it was my first time away from my parents. It definitely made an impression on me.”

It only took meeting the other like-minded people in his cohort to become comfortable at Clemson, Jonathan said. By the time he finished his third summer session, his life goals had changed.

“I just fell in love with the idea of going to college.”

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Jerome and Justin Polite on campus.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Jerome and Justin Polite also arrived at Clemson through the Emerging Scholars Program. The brothers are from Allendale, a small farming town on the Savannah River with a population of around 3,200. Younger brother, Justin, a freshman studying management, said having the built-in support of Emerging Scholars staff and fellow scholars made the transition to college much smoother than it otherwise would have been.

“It’s a family feel. Any time I have a problem I know I have my friends or the people in the program to help me out,” Justin said. “So far it’s been a great experience. It makes you feel at home, because you’re with people who relate to you.”

Jerome, a sophomore also studying management, said it was football that first attracted him to Clemson. He’s always been a Clemson fan. Growing up, he didn’t know if it would be possible to attend his dream school until — like the Figueroas — an older relative paved the way.

Three boys pose together in purple and white baseball uniforms

A young Jalyn, Jerome and Justin Polite
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

“My aunt was in the Emerging Scholars program, and she told me how fun it is,” Jerome said. “It’s a great support system. Every time I come to the office, they ask how you’re doing and make sure you’re staying on the right track. It’s an extended family away from home, and that helps a lot with the transition to college life.”

Jerome and Justin also have a younger brother in Emerging Scholars. Jalyn is a junior in high school, and they hope to become a trio of Tigers once he graduates. Add their cousin Destine Johnson, who is a Clemson freshman, and that would make four members of the newest generation of their family to attend Clemson.

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Clarence and Keshawn Orr on campus.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

For Clarence and Keshawn Orr, of Bamberg, South Carolina (population 3,453), the Emerging Scholars Program steered them in a direction neither could have ever anticipated. Prior to joining the program, the possibility of attending Clemson had never been on their radar.

Clarence, a sophomore studying sociology, initially had his sights set on Coastal Carolina.

“When I first heard of Clemson, I didn’t think too much about it,” he said. “But when I was in high school my freshman year, my English teacher recommended me for Emerging Scholars. I guess she saw how good I was doing in school. All of a sudden, I was meeting people who had the same interests and experience that I did. That made me want to come to Clemson.”

Clarence is also one of the first Emerging Scholars to come to Clemson through the Bridge to Clemson program.

Two young boys in jeans and collared shirts pose in front of a mottled background

Clarence and Keshawn Orr as boys
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

Keshawn, a criminal justice major, had some reservations about attending Clemson, but he says coming in with a group of fellow Emerging Scholars made all the difference.

“I had that social group I could hang out with,” he said. “You always have that group of people that you can relate to. I can honestly say that the Emerging Scholars program has made my journey from high school to college ten times easier than what I imagined it would be. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play college football. I had offers. But being in the program for three summers made me want to come here. I feel like if I had done it on my own — applying to schools, taking the ACT and whatever — I might not have got here.”

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The intertwining of diverse families into the fabric of Clemson was one of the primary goals when Emerging Scholars was created, said Amber Lange, executive director of the Office of College Preparation and Outreach at Clemson, who oversees the Emerging Scholars Program.

“From the beginning, when Captain Byron Wiley created Emerging Scholars, the goal was to create a college-going culture, and you can’t do that if you aren’t working with families,” said Lange. “Over the past 17 years, we have worked with dozens of brothers, sisters and cousins. The older students seem to pass along the importance of Emerging Scholars, and the younger students come in excited with knowledge of the work they have to do. We have even had parents go back to school with the information they gain from us and their child. Having so much family involvement is just one of the things that makes Emerging Scholars so successful.”

And those who have benefited from the Emerging Scholars Program hope to serve as a testament to other young students who might not envision going to college as a possibility for their future.

“I would tell a young high school kid living in a town like Estill that doesn’t think college is an option, ‘Have faith in yourself,’” Jonathan said. “Have faith in your work ethic. Understand that it may be difficult — if it was easy, everyone would do it. I still have moments when I don’t feel like I deserve to be here, that I’m not smart enough to be here. But I know that all the work that I’ve done makes an impact on all the others that come after me. I want to lead by example and help set that standard for others to come.”